Carol Gnojewski &
Davis Bromwell, editors,
Decadence: 300 Years
of Japanese Fetish Art

(Fantagraphics, 2004)

Here's a real mixed bag of Japanese erotic and violent art that you may find, as I did, endlessly fascinating. Though the art -- prints, paintings, tattoos, photographs and comics -- spans three centuries, the emphasis is on woodblock prints of the Edo period. Shunga, or erotica, is what we're dealing with here, and much of it is quite graphic. Indeed, it was intended to arouse, and might even today be considered to be of "prurient interest," showing arousal and penetration and more. The succinct but comprehensive introduction explains that during the late Edo period violence became mingled with erotica, making for some shocking images.

A great many of them are on display here in full color and carefully annotated. The first section deals with the world of courtesans, depicting the then current ideal of beautiful women in various erotic poses. This is followed by a section in which courtesans and lovers engage in sexual coupling in graphic detail, and often with oversized genitalia of both male and female. In some the genitals take on the form of human faces, while the faces appear as genitals. There are brief sections on orgy and bestiality (the most memorable and explicit of which depicts an octopus ravishing a woman), and then we enter the large section on "Supernatural," which includes many violent images, such as the conjuration of a giant skeleton and the slaughter of a trussed-up naked woman. The most disturbing, however, may be the two-page spread of an 1885 print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, depicting a scene from the play Kurozuka in which the hag of Adachigahara has strung up a semi-naked pregnant woman prior to drawing her blood, a print that was banned by the government.

As exploitative as this collection may sound, it has a serious purpose, which is to not only offer an historical overview of these representations of the Yoshiwara, Japan's notorious prostitution and entertainment district of the Edo period, but also to show the sources behind much of the manga and anime that make up the current popular culture of Japan. Well bound and beautifully reproduced, this slim volume will fit in nicely with your collection of books on Eastern art and is bound to make unsuspecting browsers lift an eyebrow or three.

by Chet Williamson
12 August 2006

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