One of the most eye-catching features of shunga is the exaggerated size of the male genitalia. The simple portrayal of nude bodies had little intrinsic erotic force, and so in shunga the sex organs are imbued with extra power through their exaggerated size.
Impossibly Large Penis
Less often acknowledged is the enlargement of the female genitalia: the man in shunga wields an impossibly large penis, but he meets his match in his female partner*.
With the genitalia serving as the enlarged focus of many shunga designs, they are given a tremendous amount of visual detail. The shape, textures, folds and pubic hair of both penis and vulva, as well as the fluids emerging, are all carefully depicted.
Private Sexual Life
In the majority of designs the sex organs are of roughly equal size as the figures’ heads, and serve as a balance in terms of their position within the picture. It has been argued that the equal visual weight given to the heads and genitalia implies the inseparability within each individual of the public life as a member of society and the private sexual life.
This compositional imperative to present the genitalia and faces equally results in artificial contortions of the body, which are another common feature of shunga. The woman’s legs are often placed at impossible angles given the position of her hips, and sometimes abbreviations are made in the proportions of torso and limbs for the sake of visual simplicity.
The exaggeration and fictionality of shunga was acknowledged at the time, however, A contemporary humorous verse can be translated, ‘The foolish couple copy shunga and pull a muscle.’
* The focus of shunga both visually and thematically, is the genitals, and so these are depicted larger than life. However, it is not only the penis that becomes a huge organ, the vagina is also comparably engorged. Here, an older married woman straddles her lover energetically, dislodging her coiffure.
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Source: ‘Shunga, Erotic art in Japan‘ by Rosina Buckland