Shunga into Manga

Taken from my article published by magazine

Last week, thanks to Japan Centre, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture at the British Museum: Shunga into Manga.  The lecture was quite short, and seemed to be over in an instant, but was packed full with many different themes and topics on the subject of shunga.

Now if you didn’t already know, the British Museum is running a special exhibition called “Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art”. It’s been on since October 3rd 2013, but you still have time to catch it until January 5th 2014. It’s only £7 (or free to members) and features several unique prints and erotic paintings from 1600-1900. A lot of these pieces of art have been said to have inspired Rodin, Picasso, and even photographers today, but also manga and anime.

You may be asking yourself what type of manga and anime has it had an influence on? Perhaps, not the likes of Attack on Titan or Steins Gate, but other manga and anime most definitely have. Just like novels have different genres such as sci-fi, rom-com,  or crime, so does manga: Shounen, Shoujo, Yaoi, Boys Love (BL), Ladycomi, ero manga and so forth. The lecture focused on yaoi and BL primarily discussing the similarities and differences in style, consumption, and production between shunga and manga today.

Shunga is often translated as erotic or pornographic woodblock prints. But it was a lot more than just “porn”.  As a sub genre of ukiyo-e which endeavoured to depict everyday life in Edo, sex in shunga was also just a part of everyday life. Samurai would carry these prints around as a lucky charm against death, sons and daughters of wealthy families would have them presented as gifts for their own sexual education, and even brides would receive them as a sort of heads up to what awaited them on their wedding night.  The prints featured sexual relations between different social classes, female-male relationships, male-male relationships etc. And what’s even more interesting was that it was enjoyed and consumed by everyone, regardless of gender or social class. You could purchase prints which were displayed in book shops quite openly,  or have commercial book lenders deliver them to your home personally (which were apparently often for the women in the house). As we can see there was a big difference in attitude towards sex. And as one of the lecturers, Paul Gravett, expert on how the Japanese erotic art of shunga connects with modern manga, mentioned, it would appear that is only over time that Japanese society “inherited western moral hangups and concerns of erotic portrayal”. So for example, whereas in shunga genitalia was often exaggerated and celebrated, in today’s yaoi they’re often whited out or not shown at all. For the same reason that shunga was actually a taboo topic in Japan for nearly a century.

In terms of production, shunga was often produced by male artists for both male a female consumers. But as another lecturer, Anna Nobuko, Birbeck University and writer, pointed out, there is now a big difference in portrayal, production and consummation. First of all, I believe the biggest difference comes from all the different genres that exist today. Although, shunga may have depicted different types of relationships and had different stylistic approaches, they were made for everyone to enjoy. The kind of eromanga we see today targets specific audiences. For example, male eromanga which objectifies women’s bodies by drawing highly eroticised bishoujo (beautiful young girls). These are targeted towards a male audience.  On the other hand, genres like lady-comi target teenage to middle age or older women (sometimes even married) with the subject of love and affairs. Then you have BL, which is often made by women and consumed by women. Again BL focuses on love and relationships. This tells us that female ero tends to focus more on actual relationships, as opposed to male ero which just objectifies bodies. However, you also have yaoi, which is more hard core than BL. And like its name suggest: yamanashi, ochinashi, iminashi (no climax, no conclusions, no meaning), yaoi is explicitly sexual but has no deep meaning.  Shunga was more than just sex. But despite these differences, you can also make connections between shunga and manga, in terms of style for example. Like the sort of decadent grotesque imagery of tentacles pleasuring a woman. I’m not saying all eromanga has this, but some certainly do.


How it is consumed and distributed has also become an area of comparison. Mostly because of technological advancements, but  also in big part because of how sex is perceived. People are more private, and more embarrassed to admit they read eromanga. So of course there had to be a more private way of getting material to the audience, such as mobile phones. Of course there is also the internet. Conversely, you also began to see the formation of communities, and these communities get together in events such as the Yaoi Con in San Francisco. I really doubt they did this in the Edo period (^ ^;)

So has much really changed, or have things only slightly shifted to adapt to today’s society? Has manga kept some of the great stylistic graphics that shunga offered or moved away from it completely? But then again some things from the Edo period remain the same…

Image source
Image source

And if you’re interested in the exhibitions the British Museums offers, there are quite few in relation to Japan:

The Way of Tea – Fri 8th Nov, Fri 22nd Nov, & Fri 6th Dec, 14:00 & 15:00 (Free, but limited seating)

An introduction to Japanese Woodblock printing – Sat 16 Nov, 10:30-17:00 (£35/£30 for members)

Japanese erotic art in the modern era – Fri 29 Nov 13:30 (Free, booking essential)

Manga comic workshop – Sun 29 Dec 11:00 & 14:00 (Free, booking essential)

Of course feel free to visit the British Museum website for more information ^ ^


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