A pale blue scarf displayed at the recent Homme Plissé Issey Miyake presentation certainly gave a new definition to eating out as a well-to-do Japanese lady of the Edo period was being fully assaulted by a giant and very handsy octopus. No doubt had the chef failed to properly fillet the cephalopod.
Throughout this Spring Series (as seen on these Vogue dancers filmed by Charles Negre and directed by Pascal Montfort), this oft-malingered yet essential swathe of Japanese art plays peekaboo on the still radically modern wares of one of Japan’s most famous designers.
Shunga, literally picture of spring, were borne out of Ukiyo-e and depicted often exaggerated and sometimes humorous graphic scenes of a sexual nature, with a no-holds-barred approach that saw anything from onanism and orgies, to voyeurism, sapphic delights and squid-based bestiality play out in the delicate color palette of its parent genre. Considered by and large as obscene, the genre was even banned in 1722 and until recently this centuries-old erotic art was kept under wrap, couched in layers of taboo. And you know how it is when something is banned: it achieves mythical level more surely than any amount of success. Needless to say, they were wildly popular in the Edo era and beyond with wealthy patrons commissioning their favorite artists. Even the revered Hokusai produced imagery that got a rise out of viewers.
An oddity in the face of Japan’s seemingly endless supply of adult entertainment? Not quite: much of that erotica is artfully censored, or made for a flourishing export market. Ever since shunga made their reappearance in polite society via a slew of museum exhibitions, not least the one held at the British Museum in 2013, interest in the genre has risen steadily even if it is still displayed behind curtains.
Having naughty images tucked in the folds of your clothing is nothing new – here’s to you, raunchy novelty ties – but the fact that it is Issey Miyake, a living legend in Japan, gives it a credibility that few others could have given shunga. In choosing those unabashed depictions of men, women and octopi enjoying themselves (and each other) without restraint for this menswear capsule, Miyake questions the very definition of morality and the fine line that separates art, erotica and pornography. More than contribute to disseminating the work curled into the titular pleats, this collection opens a wider question: what is art, if not things that confront, question and redefine our perception?