Fun with ukiyo-e: significant details

Suzuki Harunobu c. 1765 (later printing), Kotsuzumi o utsu wakashū. Print in LOC.

More shocking than it may at first appear. (Click for larger.)

In pursuit of a very desultory attempt to put together a post on furisode and its gender/status implications in pre-Meiji Japan (don’t hold your breath), I came across this lovely little item which amused me greatly (for reasons that will become apparent), and so I threw together a quick commentary on some points that might not be obvious to the modern observer.

Above: a woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765, now in the Library of Congress. (Note this is a later printing and possibly a re-carving of the original block, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in the color scheme. The LOC’s scan of the print is a little muddy so I’ve adjusted the color balance and brightness as well. The Met has slightly different, more sloppily printed version that might be pulled from a different block.)

At the barest surface level, the print shows an elegantly dressed young person playing a drum in an equally elegant setting. The player’s delicate features, narrow face, and graceful pose correspond to period conventions of elegantly androgynous beauty. Behind the player is an (elegant) alcove with a vase of flowers and a hanging wall-scroll, still a standard feature of traditional Japanese interior design. The scroll features an image of Hotei, one of the seven lucky gods, with his iconic sack.

Detail of print, showing wall scroll of Hotei

God of you’ll never guess what.

The top layer of the player’s chic and luxurious outfit is a brown jacket with a stylized pattern of birds and gusts of wind (or at least that’s what I think those forked things are, don’t quote me…); it is worn over three layers of kimono (grey with green stripes, red, and grey again) and an under-kimono with a fashionable red collar. (Three-layer kimono is currently regarded as very formal, but at the time it was merely very expensive.) The jacket and the three kimono are all of furisode cut, with exaggeratedly long sleeves; each layer is cut a little narrower at the center front and the inside of the sleeve to allow the inner layers to show. (The innermost kimono has a subtle stripe pattern; the scan isn’t clear enough to tell definitively but I suspect that the pattern was created not on the printing block itself but by embossing the paper afterwards, a decorative touch found on some prints.)

If you are aware of modern kimono etiquette, you would probably identify the subject as a young unmarried woman, which is currently the only class of person entitled to wear furisode. If you are hip to traditional Japanese hairstyles, however, you would be able to spot that this is actually a wakashū, a boy who is no longer a young child but is not yet an adult man. Therefore, as furisode are currently gendered female, you might conclude that this is a portrait of a crossdresser, possibly a kabuki female-role specialist.

But historically, furisode were not categorized as women’s clothing; they were categorized as children’s clothing. Furisode could be worn from infancy, but boys had to give them up at the coming-of-age ceremony, girls at marriage. This young man is entitled to wear furisode on account of his non-adult status, not because of genderbending. Besides being suitable for his age, furisode also allows him to advertise his family’s money and status: furisode was (and is) a form of conspicuous consumption, as the extra length of sleeve was not only completely impractical but also added considerably to the cost of the garment. Three-layer furisode is just rubbing it in.

So what we have so far is a portrait of an attractive and wealthy youth who is perhaps just a bit overdressed for hanging around the house practicing his music lessons. But there are actually other things going on here. Sexy, sexy things.

Under the rules of shudō, the traditional Japanese formulation of male-male erotic relationships, the receptive partner was expected to be within the wakashū age category; once a boy formally became a man he was no longer eligible as an object of desire. Furisode, as incompatible with adult status, emphasizes the player’s boy-hood, and thus his suitability as a potential lover. (Ladies also appreciated pretty young things, but I’m classifying this one as a shudō print because of the elements described below.)

Just to make sure you don’t miss the point, our rich young hottie is surrounded by visual double-entendres. The drum is a sexual innuendo. The lovely flowers in the alcove are chrysanthemums, a long-established reference to anal sex. And the god Hotei’s traditional beneficence to children had by this point become jokingly associated with a taste for beautiful youths.

Detail of print, showing chrysanthemums


So what this print is, in point of fact, is a pinup. This is the 18th century gay Japanese version of Betty Grable’s ass.

Betty Grable WWII pinup

200 years, 5000 miles, same idea.

Like Shakespeare, ukiyo-e is so much more fun when you can spot all the dirty jokes.


One Comment on “Fun with ukiyo-e: significant details”

  1. […] in pre-Meiji art, because clothing for sub-adults was not as strongly gendered as it is now (as I have discussed before), and the standard of fashionable beauty called for a sleekly elegant appearance in young people of […]

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