How the Ukiyo-e Master Utamaro Sets Us on the Wrong Foot
Marijn Kruijff
1 min

How the Ukiyo-e Master Utamaro Sets Us on the Wrong Foot

1 min

A man sucks at his lover’s nipple. They are making love in a seated position in an ordinary room in a townsman’s house. At first sight, when we observe their simple cotton bathrobes they wear, it seems an uninhibited scene of sexual intercourse between husband and wife after a bath.

Yet, the dialogue tells us a whole different story:

Crooked Heart

(Woman): Mr Kyū, your wife’s so lucky. She gets to feast all the time like this on your tasty, top-class thing and she can ask for all kinds of special favors just the way she wants – what lucky star was she born under, I wonder? I’m so envious. As you know, my husband has an ugly face and a crooked heart. What’s more, his vital piece of equipment is short and spindly. Really, you know, I can barely keep the lid on how much I hate him.

(Man): Calm down now. I’ll make you my wife instead of her, all in good time, so please be careful your pussy doesn’t get sullied.

(Woman): Ah, that’s so good!

(Man): It’s good for me too!

ukiyoe utamaro - adulterous lovers from Negai no itoguchi

Adulterous lovers (1799) from the series ‘Negai no itoguchi (The Prelude to Desire aka Unravelling the Threads of Desire)‘ by Kitagawa Utamaro (Photo source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)


So the woman has a husband and the man has a wife, and the print actually shows the covert rendezvous between an unfaithful couple. The bold and open way in which they talk to one another is really fascinating.


It is just like listening to a traditional rakugo storyteller performing a cheeky comic story of life in the downtown neighborhoods of ancient Edo. The muted coloration of the print is offset by the orange obi sash and the bowl planted with sweet rush.

ukiyoe utamaro - adulterous lovers from Negai no itoguchi - Meiji interpretation

Meiji painting inspired by Utamaro’s design (c.1900, artist unknown)

Click HERE to check out another striking design from Utamaro’s Negai no itoguchi series….!!

Source: ‘Shunga, Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art‘ issued by the British Museum