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Utagawa Kunisada's Complete Masterpiece 'Azuma Genji'

The consummate ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was fascinated by The Tale of Genji and treated the subject in many of his designs, series and books. There are three erotic book series inspired by the Genji theme (‘The Three Genji‘) known from Kunisada’s hand, and (Kachō yojō) Azuma Genji (Deep Feelings of Birds and Flowers, Genji of the East), issued in 1837, is the second one.

Catch the Light

The particular strength of Azuma Genji, in comparison to the other titles, is the sensuous beauty and technical finesse of the block-carving and printing. The dazzling scope of colors is apparent at first sight, and when we examine the books at various angles to catch the light in different ways we become aware of its exceptional range of technical adornment.

Three-dimensionality

The gold, silver and mica sparkles brightly, and there is substantial use of the kimedashi technique (embossing with a concave block) and karazuri (blind printing/ gauffrage), whereby un-inked blocks are used to create textures and a sense of three-dimensionality in the paper.

Shomenzuri

Finally, the technique of shomenzuri (polishing) is also evident, in which a printed area of color has its paper surface rubbed smooth and shiny. In fact, all of the many special techniques used to embellish ukiyo-e prints are mobilized to the maximum in this work.

genji of the east

Fig.1.  ‘Image of introductory text‘ (c.1837) from the series ‘(Kachō yojō) Azuma Genji (Deep Feelings of Birds and Flowers, Genji of the East)‘ by Utagawa Kunisada

Extravagantly

It was the semi-underground status of shunga books that ironically permitted such extravagantly luxurious editions, which would have banned under normal restrictive regulations.

Utagawa Kunisada: Okubi-e (close-up portrait) of a geisha holding on to a takamakura (geisha pillow)

Fig.2. ‘Okubi-e (close-up portrait) of a geisha holding on to a takamakura (geisha pillow)

Pinnacle of Ecstasy

Azuma Genji contains among others the beautiful love scene, with the two naked bodies, the man on top of the woman caught in the pinnacle of her ecstasy (Fig.8), or the image of a man trying to seduce a young reluctant geisha probably called to entertain him with the koto in the background (Fig.11), or a couple lying on the floor in intimacy (Fig.14).

Monk and Nurse

One of the most famous scenes is the ironic love affair between a wet nurse and an old monk who is paying a visit to her house (Fig.21). The nurse, entwined with him at the climactic moment, is grabbing his nose, while the monk is trying to pull her hand away and continue making love. The last of the three books, published in 1851, was entitled ‘An Illustrated Account of Coupled Genji (Sho-utsushi Aioi Genji).’

Utagawa Kunisada: Courtiers and cats

Fig.3. ‘Courtiers and cats

Mounting Cat

With the cherry blossom in full bloom, a male cat claims the leading role by mounting the crouching female (Fig.3). A male and female courtier observe the cats outside and inside the reed blinds, and also become inspired to spring romance.

Tragic Consequences

One can just see the prince’s hand slipping into the red robe of the isolated princess. This is a direct reworking of chapter thirty-four, ‘Spring Shoots, part one (Wakana jo)‘ of the original Tale of Genji, in which the courtier Kashiwagi catches an unexpected glimpse of the Third Princess when her cat runs out onto the veranda of the palace and falls hopelessly in love – with tragic consequences.

Utagawa Kunisada: Mature geisha jerking off a young adolescent male

Fig.4. ‘Mature geisha jerking off a young adolescent male

Utagawa Kunisada: High-class courtesan penetrated doggy-style

Fig.5. ‘High-class courtesan penetrated doggy-style

Utagawa Kunisada: A nude couple is caught when the door of their darkened room is opened

Fig.6. ‘A nude couple is caught when the door of their darkened room is opened

Utagawa Kunisada: Older monk performs cunnilingus on a female courtier

Fig.7. ‘Older monk performs cunnilingus on a female courtier (probably a parody on priest Dōkyō and Empress Kōken)

Utagawa Kunisada: Passionate encounter from Azuma Genji

Fig.8. ‘Passionate encounter

Utagawa Kunisada: Fingering including insert with a close-up of the insides of the vulva)

Fig.9. ‘Fingering including insert with a close-up of the insides of the vagina)

Utagawa Kunisada: Close-up portrait of a shy beauty

Fig.10. ‘Close-up portrait of a shy beauty

Utagawa Kunisada: Reluctant geisha

Fig.11. ‘Reluctant geisha‘ (Available in our gallery)

Utagawa Kunisada: An oiran and client try to hide their intimate actions from the toddler in the foreground

Fig.12. ‘An oiran and client try to hide their intimate actions from the toddler in the foreground

Utagawa Kunisada: Ecstatic couple

Fig.13. ‘Ecstatic couple

Utagawa Kunisada: A male kissing his lover while caressing her private parts

Fig.14. ‘A male kissing his lover while caressing her private parts

Utagawa Kunisada: Close-up of a penis stroking the vulva

Fig.15. ‘Close-up of a penis stroking the vulva

Utagawa Kunisada: Okubi-e of a geisha with black teeth (ohaguro) biting a tissue

Fig.16. ‘Okubi-e of a geisha with black teeth (ohaguro) biting a tissue

Utagawa Kunisada: A male lover cleaning his penis after intercourse

Fig.17. ‘A male lover cleaning his penis after intercourse‘  (Available in our gallery)

Utagawa Kunisada: An obtrusive wealthy client tries to stick his tongue in to the mouth of the reluctant geisha while penetrating her vagina with almost his entire hand

Fig.18. ‘An obtrusive wealthy client tries to stick his tongue in to the mouth of the reluctant geisha while penetrating her vagina with almost his entire hand‘    (Available in our gallery)

Utagawa Kunisada: Prince Genji and one of his numerous sexual conquests

Fig.19. ‘Blissful intimate couple in a tight embrace. The male lover is most probably Prince Genji and one of his numerous sexual conquests

Utagawa Kunisada: Masturbating geisha

Fig.20. ‘Masturbating geisha‘ (Available in our gallery)

Utagawa Kunisada: Monk and wet-nurse

Fig.21. ‘Monk and wet-nurse‘ (Available in our gallery)

Utagawa Kunisada: Intercourse close-up including insert of interior of vagina

Fig.22. ‘Intercourse close-up including insert of the interior of the vagina

Fig.23. ‘Closing credits…text…’   (c.1837) from the series ‘(Kachō yojō) Azuma Genji (Deep Feelings of Birds and Flowers, Genji of the East)‘ by Utagawa Kunisada by Utagawa Kunisada

Click HERE for more exciting content on Utagawa Kunisada…!!

Sources: ‘Shunga, Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art‘ issued by the British Museum
Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories by Utamaro, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi…..‘ by Gian Carlo Calza

We would appreciate it if you could let us know what you think of the article in the comment box below…!!

About the author
JB

By

JB

on 3 February 2020

Very nice! My only suggestion would be to change "insides of the vulva" to "vagina" as there is no such thing as the inside of the vulva, the vulva being the external part and the vagina the internal part of the female sexual organ. Same as with "inside" of the vagina. This said, as usual, thumbs up for yet another delightful addition to the Shunga Gallery!

Marijn

By

Marijn

on 3 February 2020

Thanks a lot for your remarks JB, and ypu are absolutely right. I have changed it. Funny enough, I wrote an earlier article on the interior of the vagina...!! Anyway, I am pleased you enjoy our content!

Darya

By

Darya

on 4 February 2020

Stunning! My favorite work. Excellent colors. Waiting for your post about seven virtues depicted in shunga :)

Marijn

By

Marijn

on 4 February 2020

Thanks for your comments and alertness Darya. The postponed article on the seven virtues (in succession to the seven deadly sins) will be issued later this month. Sorry for the delay!

Darya

By

Darya

on 29 February 2020

By the way, Prince Genji's look in ukiyo-e prints is absolutely stunning! I love the designs by Yoshitoshi and by Kuniyoshi

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