Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2000
Timon Screech Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700–1820 (1861890303)

The study of ukiyo-e, pictures of Edo Japan’s “floating world” of pleasure and popular entertainment, has a long and very robust history in Europe and the United States owing to the enthusiastic formation of great print collections that began in the late nineteenth century. The continued passionate involvement of collectors has made ukiyo-e studies a stronghold of print connoisseurship and narrow factual research. Within the academic community, developing a tradition of broader contextual interpretation has taken longer, but the process has accelerated over the last two decades. Professor Screech’s study of erotic images and sexuality in the Edo period adds to the momentum by expanding and complicating our understanding of sexuality in ukiyo-e and the culture to which it belongs. The author’s arguments cut across the grain of the floating world’s own utopian representations of its sexuality, which have all too frequently gone unchallenged in scholarship. For that reason, despite some serious flaws, the book deserves to be widely read.

The text consists of a series of loosely linked chapters. Chapter one focuses on the function of erotic images, asserting that they served primarily as aids to masturbation. The textual and pictorial evidence provided sufficiently supports this stance and convincingly debunks alternative explanations. In bluntly referring to the erotic prints as “pornography” here and elsewhere, the author implicitly attacks the hypocrisy of treating such images in the past differently from modern ones, or at least in doing so without careful justification.

Chapter two appropriately attends to the erotic images of the Edo period as products of specific times and places. It reaches from general matters—urbanization, demography, literacy, and technology—to specific ones-patterns of laxity and repression in government oversight and their affect on the prints. The case of the “repressers” receives a fairer hearing here than is usual in ukiyo-e scholarship. Sound evidence suggests that the vast majority of ordinary people, as well as government leaders, were deeply concerned about the corrupting effects of the floating world’s libidinous economy, as well they might be.

Chapter three looks at representations of the body and constructions of gender and sexuality, especially in contrast to Western examples. It offers sophisticated explanations for the relative importance of clothing in Japanese erotic prints and the frequently disjointed representation of the body. It also resists modern insistence on firm identities such as “heterosexual” and “homosexual” and relies instead on the historical evidence, which suggests that the key functional and ideological distinction was between the adult male as penetrator and women, girls, and boys as the penetrated. Chapter four provides information on the sexual meanings of various botanical and other symbols that abound in ukiyo-e. It will serve as a very useful reference for students, teachers, and collectors.

Chapter five addresses “scopic regimes,” the various ways in which looking and seeing were constructed into the pictures as active elements. It analyzes the ways in which viewers within pictures problematize the position of the external viewer, who relates to both the internal viewer and the one engaged in sex. It takes into account such common figures in erotic paintings and prints as those depicted within paintings on the walls and sliding doors of interior settings, those that take miniature form, and those using Western optical devices.

Chapter six considers representations of sex that occurs outside the traditional confines of the urban floating world and the implications of their increasing numbers starting in the early nineteenth century. These include encounters that take place simply out of doors, in foreign countries, among historical characters, on the roads between Edo and especially Osaka and Kyoto, and in Japan between foreigners or between Japanese and foreigners.

Some weaknesses in the text appear when it overreaches its evidence in an excess of revisionist enthusiasm. For example, a significant section of the first chapter attempts to erase the boundary between shunga (prints showing graphic sexual activity) and bijinga (prints of beautiful people, generally fully clothed and not engaged in overt sexual acts). The author offers representions of the onanistic use of bijinga to help support this line of interpretation, and one can certainly agree that the erotic charge of such pictures had much to do with their popularity. However, he goes on to say on page twenty-one, “It must be conceded that all ‘beautiful person’ pictures could have been used for auto-erotic purposes.” The conditional phrase here allows the author to imply much more than his evidence supports. He could not legitimately make the direct and necessary claim that bijinga served auto-erotic purposes anywhere nearly as frequently and as consistently as shunga. His evidence is both limited and derived largely from texts and images that are themselves eroticizing (as even the author acknowledges). In such a situation, why pay no attention to the obvious visual differences between shunga and bijinga? Surely, they count for something.

Inattention to visual difference all too often characterizes the work of cultural studies practitioners who deal with pictures. The above example seems more of a lapse for Professor Screech, whom I would place instead among the serious students of visual culture: those who pay close attention to the “how,” as well as the “what,” of visual representations in cultural studies. For example, he makes a daring attempt to link changes in the representation of bodies in erotic prints—from disjointed segments linked in mutual pleasure to unified and adversarial wholes with the penetrator dominant—to an emerging sense of Edo hegemony in Japan. He further links this to the emergence of landscape and travel, in which Edoites symbolically penetrated and took possession of the countryside, as primary themes of floating world literature and pictures around the 1830s. The book’s necessarily limited and focused selection of visual evidence cannot fully validate such a broad cultural reading, but it certainly encourages the reader to take it seriously as a stimulus to further thought and research.

The most ambitious analyses of individual works come in Chapter five, with its focus on looking and watching. The results are uneven. For example, the author offers an odd reading of a print by Okamura Masanobu, in which a couple are having sex in a room whose sliding-door paintings in one corner are visible in the background. On one set of doors, a poet looks back over his shoulder and off to Mt. Fuji in the distance, which is depicted on the adjacent set. A partially open door breaks the painting’s continuity. The author claims that the gaze of the poet “will tumble into the room” and “can only take him to Fuji across the bodies of the prone couple.” However, the copulating figures are depicted in the foreground of the print, completely removed from the poet’s gaze even by the loose standards of Japanese pictorial traditions. If gazes can be said to “tumble” at all, this one does so out the open door and into the next room, causing the viewer to wonder what is going on there. The author does a much better job of discussing internal and external gazes in a print by Sugimura Jihei beginning on the same page.

As is often the case in ukiyo-e studies, the text runs into problems when it engages art before the Edo period. Particularly striking are statements regarding portraiture’s lack of importance in northeast Asia, such as, “the portrait genre was nothing like as central to any of the northeast Asian traditions as it is in the West” (21) and “portraiture was not widely practiced in North-east Asia” (282). Such comments will strike anyone knowledgeable on the subject as absurdities. Portraiture, especially for memorial functions, thrived in China, Korea, and Japan. One cannot even argue that they were not “real” portraits because of a lack of individualization. For example, near the end of the twelfth century, portraits called nise-e surprised Japanese viewers of the time with their likeness, and Japanese documents from the fifteenth century studied by this reviewer constantly bring up the question of resemblance. A perusal of extant northeast Asian portraits alone provides ample evidence of their number and extent of individualization.

The weaknesses of the main text are easily forgivable considering the contribution it makes to our understanding of ukiyo-e and Edo sexuality. The inadequacy of the footnotes and the omission of an index are not. A number of statements about historical circumstances must be taken on faith, since no sources are cited. Without an index, even the writing of this review demanded some tedious thumbing to locate items that had gained new importance after further reading and reflection. It is deplorable that indexes have become the author’s option at some university presses, and not taking the trouble to produce them suggests either laziness or intellectual arrogance about the importance of one’s arguments. I would urge Professor Screech and others to remember that their best points will pass into common acceptance. A scholarly book then continues to serve the academic community, especially students, primarily as a reference resource. For that, it requires adequate footnotes and an index.

Quitman E. Phillips
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison