河童の川流れ。– “a drowned kappa” (or, “even experts make mistakes.”)
Within the pantheon of Japanese monsters, one of my particular favourites has to be the kappa.
Most likely invented in order to scare children away from watery areas, kappa are said to be stout child-sized creatures that lurk around lakes and rivers, commonly depicted as green, and often with a beak. And oh yes, they eat people. An interesting physiological feature of the kappa (and one which could someday be the key to your survival) is the water-filled saucer-like depression on top of its head. If the depression is somehow emptied, the kappa is powerless. Now, being Japanese, the quickest way to defeat the kappa is to bow to it, a gesture it cannot help but return, and there you go – wipeout. It might not be the most glamorous of finishing moves, but in a cost-benefit analysis, it has to score pretty high. The more ambitious among you might then attempt to refill the saucer with different water, in theory rendering the kappa your servant – although the evidence for this appears to be circumstantial.
My interest in shunga has led me to some strange places, and an occasionally cited example to illustrate the more extreme end of the spectrum of Edo period pornography is a woodblock illustration of the underwater rape of a female abalone diver by two kappa, watched in horror by her companion. The print is one illustration in a selection of twelve produced as a book by the legendary artist-publisher duo of Kitagawa Utamaro and Tsutaya Jūzaburō in 1788.
The book is entitled 歌枕 or, “Poem Pillow”, a phrase which usually refers to a significant location made famous through literature, where one might compose a poem in response to those verses from ages past – is here more usually translated as “Poem of the Pillow”, to indicate the sexual connotations of this particular incarnation. Although the copy in the British Museum collection has been remounted as a set of twelve individual prints, originally this work stood as a single whole.
Why am I interested in this print? For the same reason that it was enjoyed by contemporary viewers and for the same reason that you are more likely to expand this image than any of the others that you find amongst these pages – because it’s weird and a bit disgusting. [As you may have already guessed, studying art history is a way to disguise my own interests with the thinnest veneer of respectability.] But I have other reasons too. Partly due to the predilection of earlier collectors to separate and mount illustrations individually, bizarre prints such as these are nowadays subject to be considered in isolation, often with only a passing reference made to the larger work as a means to cite the title. This is a shame for it draws unbalanced attention to the extreme ends of the scale, neglecting the fact that this is but one example among many in a book that contains other representations of sex, almost all between lovers and spouses, although there is also a scene of rape. In other words, it is interesting precisely because it offers up a view of many kinds of sexual interaction; a sexual miscellany for consideration and comparison by the contemporary viewer and also for us. For example, the book also includes the somewhat grotesque depiction of a foreign couple; the artist’s lack of intimate knowledge of the subject offering us a perspectival nightmare of exotic clothing and excessive facial hair, the male partner some kind of forerunner to Tom Jones with his hat kept firmly on. Perhaps the act between foreigners was as alien and hard to imagine as that between monster and human, and as such a source of equal interest and wonderment.
A far cry from this pre-modern curiosity, in recent years there has been a sterilization of the kappa image. Most modern Japanese are familiar with the general character of ‘kappa-chan’ (the -chan suffix usually, as here, serves an infantilizing function). That is, far from the sinister figure of old, kappas have become cute, lovable plushies, with rounded bodies and sleepy eyes, ready to be hung as charms on mobile phones or ball-point pens. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with this in and of itself, but it was still a relief to see the young print artist Fukuda Hiroko’s kappa, all toe curling darkness and dripping menace that he is. My first purchased work of art, was like all my best ideas, a complete accident. I hadn’t intended to buy anything at the CWAJ print show, I was there as a volunteer in my capacity as the recipient of their 2009 IUC scholarship. But I saw it and fell in love with it – the rest, as they say, is credit card history. Of course, my real motivation was not personal satisfaction but pure altruistic benevolence. For one overflowing with social consciousness such as myself, the best use of my scholarship money was to recycle it through the print show and thereby sponsor next year’s student. I’m like a charity.
That’s my story anyway.
I like this print a lot. Technically, the processes of etching and aquatint achieve an incredible level of detail, and reading Fukuda’s own words only made me enjoy the print more. Like myself, she has a taste for the monstrous, and I look forward to what she produces in the future. Only 23 years old at the time of its execution, she describes how for her, the kappa is a changed thing, caught in some way between being a man and a monster; a dark and forgotten creature lost forever in his own reflections and musings. As we have seen, the status of the kappa itself is ambiguous, and has changed with the ages. But this was a different story altogether about how a kappa might come to be, and the terrible loneliness of the image surely stems from how plausible it seems as an explanation. All the language she uses in her personal account is of liminal conditions and indeterminate states of being, reflecting the ambiguous nature of her creation; the kappa’s world oozes and drips, slimes and leaches. Does he remember being a man? Is knowledge of his own monstrosity worse than forgetting? These are the questions that we can ask as we study him, his posture, his expression, the sense of being he projects – but ultimately, how we feel about the darkness within ourselves will determine our answers.