Opening Nov. 20 is the museum’s third and final exhibition focusing on the genre of Japanese erotic art. The first exhibition, Arts of the Bedchamber, opened in 2012, discussed the development of shunga (early modern erotic art) in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The second exhibition, Tongue in Cheek, looked at shunga in the 19th century. Now with Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art, co-curators Shawn Eichman and Stephen Salel have created an exhibition that reveals how Japanese artists revolutionized the genre amidst the country’s rapid westernization and in the aftermath of the Pacific War. The show further explores how modern and contemporary Japanese art relates to the sexual culture of pre-modern and early modern Japan. Bondage, lesbian love, schoolgirl yearnings—these are all things covered in work by contemporary Japanese artists in Japan and Hawai‘i.

Included in Modern Love is Tokyo-based artist Tsubaki Anna, who is known for her contemporary, rock ‘n’ roll take on traditional ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. Think Love & Rockets meets Kitagawa Utamaro. Modern Love co-curator Stephen Salel interviewed the gracious, eloquent artist—she talks about her work, bondage, Playboy bunnies, and the boundaries of erotica.

It’s a rare pleasure to meet a contemporary artist like yourself who is interested in the culture and lifestyle of early modern Japan. Sadly, it seems that many people of our generation have little interest in it. Could you tell us how you became interested in ukiyo-e, shunga, and Edo-period culture in general? 

江戸時代の文化とその美術に関心を持っていらっしゃるツバキ先生のような現代作家の方と出会えて、大変嬉しく思っております。残念ながら、私 たちの世代では、その関心を持っている人が非常に少ないと思います。浮世絵、春画、全体的な江戸時代の文化に関心を持たれたきっかけを教えてください。

Tsubaki Anna: Likewise, I truly appreciate you inviting an artist such as myself to participate in this exhibition. My interest in the culture of the Edo period sprouted when I first encountered works of shunga at my high-school library. (These were censored reproductions in which the genitalia were obscured.) Then later, when I was about 18 or 19 years old and living in the United States, I became able to view Japanese culture from a more objective viewpoint, and from that time, my interest in it has continuously grown.

こちらこそ私のようなものに展示の機会を与えていただき本当に感謝しております。  江戸文化は高校の図書館で初めて春画を見た時に触れたのが最初です  (秘所はボカシが入ってました) さらに18~19歳の時にアメリカに住んだことで日本の文化を客観的に見ることが出来たところから徐々に少しずつ、、、、関心を深めてきました。

Some people find erotic artwork, including shunga works from the Edo period, to be lewd, while others find it to have great artistic and art historical importance. Still others feel that, while erotic art is interesting, some images, such as depictions of bestiality or scenes involving children, are offensive. Are there areas within the genre of shunga that you find to be problematic?

世の中で、江戸時代の春画も含めて、エロ ティック・ アートを全て下品だと思い込む人もいれば、その一方でエロティック・アートに高い芸術性を感じる人もいます。さらにはエロティック・アートは面 白いと感じてはいても、獣性とか子供が登場する春画に不快感を表し、否定する人もいます。先生にとって春画というジャンルの中で、苦手な主題など はありますか。

I have some difficulty dealing with scatological imagery. I just can’t help but imagine the terrible smell! But I don’t know if there are actually any artists who produce work such as that as a form of erotic art. You sometimes find photographers who focus on that subject.

If someone publishes a book or stages a performance that has strong sexual content and that offends people, I don’t think that the producer can hide behind the excuse that it’s a work of fine art. Imagery that we typically think of as pornography has a place and purpose in our society. But at the same time, I don’t think that such imagery should automatically be considered fine art. Ultimately, the artistic importance of the image is up to the viewer.

スカトロは苦手です。臭いを想像すると萎えます。が、春画として描いている人がいるかは、わかりません。 写真において、です。

エロはエロ、でもアートだからといって何でも許される(出版物の販売  場所等)わけでもないし 下品であっても芸術性が高いと感じてもどっちでもいいと思います。 受け手の感受性の問題ですし、エロをエロとしか見えないというのも正しいですし、 =アート、でもないです。

How do you differentiate your depictions of bondage from those by Araki Nobuyoshi? Are you interested in critiquing his work? Do you find images of women in bondage to be cruel or sexy? Is it difficult to differentiate those two emotional reactions?

ご自分の緊縛画像を荒木経惟作の緊縛画像と、どのように比較なさいますか。荒木を批判するつもりはございますか。縛られた女性の画像とは残虐 ですか、それともセクシーと捉えますか。その二つの印象を区別するのは難い事だと感じられますか。 

I find Araki’s work to be truly erotic. He obviously likes women. I don’t have such strong interest in women myself, but I think that my psyche is divided more or less equally into male and female, and the images that I produce arise from the masculine side of my personality and the way in which it views femininity. I don’t think there’s the slightest bit of cruelty in me…, but again, I suppose that this depends largely upon the viewer, his or her personal experiences, and his or her thoughts on the subject of sexuality.

アラーキー氏のは本当にエロいなぁと思います。女性が好きなのでしょう。 翻って私はそんなに女は好きじゃないですが自分の中に女性性と男性性が割と対等にあって、その中の女性性を見る男性性、という感じで描いています。 私には残虐性は皆無と思います、、、が、これも見る側の経験値やエロに対する考えに左右されると思います。

What sort of experience do you have with bondage as an art form? Have you met a bakushi (bondage practitioner) before? Do you have any interest in studying the art of bondage?

芸術として捉えられる緊縛について、 どのくらいのご経験をお持ちですか。縛師と実際に会われたことはございますか、またご自分で緊縛を勉強するというような、ご興味は、お持ちですか。

I’ve been to such events as bondage performances. A while ago, I organized an event in which I exhibited my artwork and the guests sampled different kinds of sake. A famous bakushi kindly attended the event. When I see bondage performances, I don’t think to myself, “Wow, how sexy!” On the contrary, I’m usually just impressed by how professional they are. I’m a compulsive student of any subject, and I tend to dive head-first into various pastimes and areas of research. I’m the kind of person who excels at a subject the more I learn about it, but I’ve learned from experience that such interests ultimately ends up distracting me from my production of art, so I need to resist the temptation of learning the practice of bondage.

縛師のライブなどには行きました。有名な縛師の方が私の酒とコラボした個展に来てくださいました。  エロいなぁというよりむしろ「職人だなぁ」「いい仕事してるなぁ」と  いう感動がほとんどでした。  勉強は大好きで、いろんな趣味や分野に首を突っ込んでまいりました。どれも飲み込みが早く やればやるほど上達が早い方ですが、それが絵を描くことの妨げになると何度も経験しましたので 勉強する気はありません。縛りも観念的に捉えてます。

Tsubaki Anna (b. 1970). 'Rabbit on the Moon' (Tsuki Usagi). Japan, 2007. Digital print. Collection of the artist

Tsubaki Anna (b. 1970). ‘Get – Rabbit on the Moon’ (Getto). Japan, 2007. Digital print. Collection of the artist

Rabbit on the Moon, in which you parody the Asian legend of the rabbit who lives on the moon and pounds rice cakes, is hilarious. Many Americans think of Hugh Hefner, Playboy and Playboy Bunnies when they see a woman dressed in such a rabbit costume. Was this your intention? Do you have any feelings about mainstream erotica such as Playboy?

月に住む兎が餅をついているというアジアの伝説を元にした先生の「月兎」を見ると、いつも自然と微笑みがこぼれます。多くのアメリカ人はそのウサギのコスプレをヒュー・ヘフナー、「プレイボーイ」と「プ レイボーイ・バニー」を思い浮かべます。先生にもその意図は、おありでしょうか。「プレイボーイ」 などの一般社会を対象としたエロチカについて強い意見(積極的でも批判的でも)をお持ちですか。

I’m honored! Yes, I was thinking about Playboy. I don’t know if it has any connection with the Playboy magazine that’s published in your country, but I’ve often published my artwork in the Japanese version of Playboy magazine. I definitely see it as a form of erotica intended for the general public. It’s something that plays an important role in our society and helps readers to blow off steam. During the Edo period, commoners lived in row houses, so even when they were children, it probably wasn’t particularly unusual for them to overhear the neighbors having sex. For this reason, I think, they were pretty tolerant about the topic of sexuality. It was also perfectly natural for farmers to worship phalluses and other erotic icons in their hope of ensuring bountiful harvests. When our exposure to sex was cut out of our daily life, not only did this not make our society more healthy, on the contrary, sex has become a taboo subject, and sexual crimes have become all the more common. I think we have a terrible problem on our hands.

光栄です!! プレイボーイは意識しています。 本国のプレイボーイと関係あるか知らないのですが日本のプレイボーイ誌には数回春画を提供しました。  大衆に向けてのエロはありだと思います。 ガス抜きの役目は大いに果たし  てると思います。  また、江戸時代、民衆は長屋に住んでたので多分近所の閨房の声や音は  子供の頃から普通に聞いてたんじゃないでしょうか。 なので性に対して大らかだったし 五穀豊穣による性器崇拝も当たり前でしたし エロを社会から切り離すとむしろ犯罪は増えるしタブー視するし、で良くないと思います。

Tsubaki Anna (b. 1970). 'The Court in the Springtime"'  (Haru no Arashi), Japan, 2012 Digital print. Collection of the artist

Tsubaki Anna (b. 1970). ‘The Court in the Springtime”‘ (Haru no Arashi), Japan, 2012 Digital print. Collection of the artist

The Court in the Springtime brings to mind notable movie scenes—such as the scene in Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon in which Mifune Tōshirō kneels in bondage before the police. The tattoo on the shoulder of the man in the foreground further reminds me of 1970s yakuza (gangster) films. Was there a particular film that inspired you to produce this work? Do you think that the current popularity of bondage images can be traced back to films such as these?

「春の嵐」を拝見した瞬間、映画のワンシーンを色々と思い出しました。例えば、その女性の見かけは、三船敏郎主演の「羅生門」での縛られた シーンに似ているとか、手前の男性の肩に描いてある入れ墨では、1970年代のやくざ映画を思い出しました。この 作品を描くにあたって特別な映画や思い入れが何かおありですか。現代の緊縛画像の人気は昔の映画から生まれたと思われますか。 

I enjoy yakuza films, but I don’t have huge respect for them. I have a tattoo myself, and I really like the design work of Japanese tattoos. There was a samurai drama on television called Tōyama no Kin san. [Translator’s note: This drama was based on the historical character Tōyama Kinshirō (1793-1855), a city magistrate in the capital of Edo.] The protagonist was portrayed as a saintly character, but I always thought that he secretly harbored the desire to arrest one of the courtesans or other women he encountered in his daily life, tie her up, drag her into court, interrogate her, and in various other ways exert his will and authority over her.

I don’t know if this current interest in bondage is linked to films of the past. I would cite the work of Itō Seiu (1882-1961) as a more influential precedent. In addition, it goes back to the whole concept in the Shintō belief system of musubu (literally, “tying knots”) and musubi (literally, “bundle”) as the origin of everything. But I don’t think that those terms were meant to convey the superficial act of tying knots. I think they meant something far more sexual in nature. All things are born out of the act of bondage. That’s the connection that I see.

やくざ映画は好きですが礼賛はしません。 自分も刺青を入れてます。 日本の刺青の意匠は本当に好きです。  「遠山の金さん」という時代劇のTVシリーズがありました。 彼は聖人君主的に描かれてますが気に入った市井にいる女郎や娘を自分の意志と権力でひっぱってくるくらいのこともこっそりやってて欲しい  なという願望を描きました。  昔の映画からかどうかは私にはわかりません。 それより伊藤春雨の画の方が刺激的です。  また、日本、というか古来から神道において「結ぶ」「結び」がすべての始まりです。 結ぶとはtieとかknotという表層的な意味ではなく =sexに近いのかなと思います。結ぶことによって万物が生まれる、それに通底するんじゃないかなと思うのですよね。

Many Americans are critical of the photographs of Araki, interpreting the images they depict as a form of sexual abuse.

多くのアメリカ人が荒木の 写真を見て、女性に対する性虐待の表現だ、と簡単に批判してしまいます。  

I didn’t realize that, so I’m rather shocked. In regards to the criticism [towards Araki’s photographs], I hope that when people look at these images of bondage produced by me, a female artist, they will reconsider their initial impressions [of Araki’s artwork].

このことは知りませんでしたので驚きです。 批判に対しては女の私が描いた縛りの画が「そういうことではない」というメッセージの代わりになり得れば幸いです。