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