Shunga are literally "images of spring." That is the time of recreation and procreation, the time that inspires man and woman to couple, as if anyone needed an excuse. Shunga appeared prominently in the works of Hokusai, Utamaro, and many other revered woodcut artists. This lovely book summarizes that honored tradition.
It starts with the early shunga of Settei (1710-1780) and Jihei (active 1680), and works up to the dawn of the 20th century (1899). The presentation, sequenced by time, creates an order that the originators could never have seen. The less important order has to do with drawing and coloring.
Colors, since the 1700s could well have faded. Even the best-preserved prints may have retreated into shades of orange and black, if those were the stablest dyes. Some, like p.29, simply omit color altogether, with no loss. Later prints, from the 1820s and on, show rich blues and greens. Some historians attribute these colors, at least some times, to imports of synthetic dyes. Other prints from the era use mica for a glistening effect, or use "blind" impressions of un-inked blocks to create depth. A print fan may only regret the loss of information regarding technical issues of image creation.
The rest of us, however, take the greatest pleasure in the egagement of the sexes, epitomized in a sumo fight of man vs. woman (p.57). Most of the prints show basic couplings of man and woman, complicated only by their improbable angles and their exaggerated organs. Others show man and woman at play with each other's genitals (p. 135, 156), or sometimes a woman at play by herself (p.112, 127, 139, 164, etc). At least one (p.56) displays man engaged with man, showing very different social gender even for the same physical sex. Some pictures demand three- or more-way couplings (p.31, 46-7), others suggest that tied partners sometimes enhanced an ecounter (p.76-7, 137). Still others, like Hokusai's octopus (p.115), invoke a uniquely Japanese mythology, leaving an image that a Western eye can only see in very strange ways. Others (p.118) express a humor that works wherever men and women exist together.
As the years advanced, I found the images sucessively more enticing because of the increasing nvolvement of the female characters. Early on, up to the mid-1700s, the woman was entirely passive, a receptacle (however grand) for the male advance (however grand). Koryusai and Shigemasa display women with needs and interests of their own. Toyokuni and Hokusai promote women to center stage, with fondlings, genital kisses, and other activities that focus wholly on the ladies' fulfillment, sometimes at their own hands (p.112, 127, 168).
This is a lovely book. I admit, I have given short shrift to its text, even though I found it interesting and informative in those few places I stopped to read. This book is about its pictures, carefully organized and captioned, and in historical order.
It is beautiful. I truly hope that you can see it for the cultural sample that it is, and also for the expression of physical happiness that it is.