My painting “The Peony Lantern” (Botan Doro) depicts the ghost of Otsuyu in an erotic midnight embrace with her living lover Shinzaburo.
The Peony Lantern (Botan Doro) is one of my erotic Shunga paintings for October, which centers around the classic ghost stories of Japan. Turning them into erotic works of art is at the same time both easy and difficult. Easy because I often equate the erotic with romantic love (of which the melancholy kind often appears in ghost stories) and hard because that very same romanticism and melancholy prevents me from creating overly explicit tableaus. Death is no laughing matter and the driving force behind intimacy between the departed and the living comes out best when it derives its strength from a longing for remaining, for closeness or the idea that love is what often makes us feel alive. It is perhaps love that makes us in a strange and unexpected way immortal?
The story of “Botan Doro” (the Peony Lantern) is one of my favorite ghost stories. It is terrifying yet sensitive and sweet. The hopelessness of impossible romance and how this is overcome defiance of laws of the universe and finally the consequences for having yourselves assumed the position of gods. The two lovers ultimately pays a costly price for their transgressions but at the same time there is something so very human about their longing for each other.
Here is a brief summary of the Kabuki play based on the story;
“A young student named Shinzaburo falls in love with a beautiful woman named Otsuyu, the daughter of his father’s best friend. They meet secretly, and promise to be married. But Saburo falls ill, and is unable to see Otsuyu for a long time.
Later, when Saburo recovers and goes to see his love, he is told that Otsuyu has died. He prays for her spirit during the Obon festival, and is surprised to hear the approaching footsteps of two women. When he sees them, they look remarkably like Otsuyu and her maid. It is revealed that her aunt, who opposed the marriage, spread the rumor that Otsuyu had died and told Otsuyu in turn that Saburo had died.
The two lovers, reunited, begin their relationship again in secret. Each night Otsuyu, accompanied by her maid who carries a peony lantern, spends the night with Saburo.
This continues blissfully until one night a servant peeks through a hole in the wall in Saburo’s bedroom, and sees him having sex with a decaying skeleton, while another skeleton sits in the doorway holding a peony lantern. He reports this to the local Buddhist priest, who locates the graves of Otsuyu and her maid. Taking Saburo there, he convinces him of the truth, and agrees to help Saburo guard his house against the spirits. The priest places ofuda around the house, and prays the nenbutsu every night.
The plan works, and Otsuyu and her maid are unable to enter, although they come every night and call out their love to Saburo. Pining for his sweetheart, Saburo’s health begins to deteriorate. Saburo’s servants, afraid that he will die from heartbreak leaving them without work, remove the ofuda from the house. Otsuyu enters, and again has sex with Saburo.
In the morning, the servants find Saburo dead, his body entwined with Otsuyu’s skeleton. His face is radiant and blissful.”
For a more in depth overview of the “Botan Doro” you can go deeper here
And here is little something from the actual Kabuki playÖ
I wrote about ghosts and Shunga before in “Seduction” Shunga, ghosts and desperation , Having wet dreams and The Erotic Ghost – danger, desire and seduction.
Shunga and the supernatural. In my painting “Musei” (Jap. wet dreams) a female ghost performs oral sex on a female member of the living. I was striving for both terrifying as well as romantic lust when creating this piece.
Most Shunga depicts male-female sexual acts but there are plenty of detours taken from this norm when you study this genre. There are of course male-male sex (nanshoku) as well as the female-female dito. Edo period Japan was in many ways liberated from the idiotic moral shackles surrounding human sexuality. These ideas usually weighs down societies influenced by monotheistic religions and their subsequent cultures. Sex was not a part of immoral behavior but rather a part of life. Not that the people of Edo copulated in every street corner but conditions dictated restricted space for housing and the small houses was usually constructed out of wood and paper. It was practically impossible for people to have sex without being heard or glimpsed now and then.
In the Japanese erotic art of the Edo period there was room for the supernatural, comedy, political satire and sometimes even violence in various forms. The woodblock prints and paintings spoke a secret language spelled out clearly for the initiated but remained veiled for the individual or institution that did not have access to the various keys for deciphering the images.
So what was on my mind when creating this painting?
I feel that our human selves can do without the labeling we inherit with our mother’s milk. The idea of normalcy is an idea laced with a poison to divide and suffocate us. Nowhere is this more painfully obvious the when it comes to two major ideas that have plagued us for centuries now – the idea of ¨race¨and the idea of ‘sex’. When something is considered ¨normal it automatically labels everything else as ‘abnormal’ and in our minds this phenomena becomes strange, weird, dangerous. Like who you experience sexual pleasures with for example. Penis and vagina go together we are taught since childhood. In a way this is correct. if you are referring to making babies only. Because that is all there is to that. If you extend that idea of *biological normalcy* into the realm of sexual pleasure and arousal you are bound to go blind into the darkness.
Musei (Wet Dreams)
In this painting two females are having sex, yes, but I have no real desire to label them as lesbian or not. This will be up to the viewer, who I’m afraid will often jump to the learned or inherited conclusion. Does the fact that one is apparently dead and transformed/remained as a ghost confuse things? I hope so. Also the inherited idea and fear of what we call ghosts (which I do not believe to exist even though I have met one. Another story we can discuss at another time) is most likely as far from the complex truth of things as we can possibly get. That is a gnawing certainty that I base on my experiences in life so far.
Furthermore, we can not really assume that the ghostly apparition is really of female gender, can we? Oh, the true reality is not so easily put into your small boxes, is it? In fact, the shimmering bluish shape tasting and caressing the other woman could be a man. Even if I set out to paint a female ghost making love to living woman I am no longer sure of what I created.
One thing that I am certain of is that this is a scene of deep intimacy and beauty. Something that surpasses our small ¨ideas¨of reality. for it is within the realm of love and intimacy that reality abides. Not decorating the religious and morally sanctimonious altars of the ones that choose fear and promotes hate in order to cloak their weaknesses.
For further reading on another ghostly erotic painting I created please go here and for understanding a bit more where my art comes from please go here.
The Shunga print “Seduction” is one of my earlier prints. Creating the mood and space took much longer than I expected. Proof that every art work lives its own life.
Sometimes the human heart clings desperatly to the idea of closeness and intimacy. “Seduction” depicts this desperation and longing for love dressing it in the imaginary fabrics of a classical ghost story. The ghost of Japanese myth and folklore holds a special place in my artistic and romantic heart as the stories are often melancholic and breaths the air of strong human emotions. This particular scene is not based on a traditional Japanese ghost story but rather a figment of my own imagination.
In the abandoned old buddhist temple a young man has sought shelter for the night and fallen asleep on the worn and moldy tatami mats. Outside the darkened wooden walls, the night is black and velvety. Only the cikadas dare to make a sound. his tattooed body suggests that he is not of Samurai class but rather a ruffians or gambler. Perhaps an Otokodate traveling from one town to the next, exhausting hospitality through boasting and bullying, hustling and cheating.
She is trapped between heaven and hell, tethered to the temple grounds where her body was buried improperly and in haste after her shameful suicide. Her lover, who had sworn himself to her even in the death of their desperate suicide pact, had not followed her into the shadows. Afraid and trembling he had watched her slowly bleed to death from her self inflicted cuts across the her wrists, and the fled the scene, leaving her alone among the trees behind the old temple. Perhaps he cried for some time, but most likely he was strangely relieved that he was still alive. Perhaps her face passing into the dimness of silent death would haunt him momentarily during the remainder of his life but the memory of their young love would fade and wither until becoming just a faint whisper.
She had laid in the shadow of the cedars, bamboos and pines for little more than five days until she was found, all the while the family and friends searching for her would pass her by very close but never seem to divert their eyes in her direction. Sometimes the randomness of existence plays tricks on us like that. Finally some children exploring the shady wooded area behind the temple had found her and she had been buried to the scent of incense and sound of sobbing.
Now her ghost desperately crawls on top of the sleeping man, holding him so close, so very close…. straddling him and lowering her hips over his hard cock. She cannot remember desire, only this fear of being alone again. Her long disheveled hair floats around the dark room, slithering like snakes, every part of her ethereal being clinging on for a dear life she does not posess any longer. She is confused and lonely and afraid. She will never leave him. He will never wake up again and never leave her. The cikadas are to busy serenading to pay any attention to the two figures ghostly embrace and after her body was found behind the temple last spring not even the curious children come here to roam and explore. Summer, autumn and winter will pass and perhaps no one will ever come looking for him.
And she will never be alone again.
For more information on Shunga and other erotic things please see my links