This spectacularly colored album is the rare impression Asano Shugo and Timothy Clark illustrate in their landmark catalogue, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro. The set is the third and last of the artist's three erotic masterworks along with Negai no ito-guchi (1799) and Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow; 1788), the latter sold in these Rooms on 22 September 2005, lot 24, a record for the genre.
Many levels of play are at work. David Pollack has been kind to break down the meaning of Komachi-biki, a popular Edo expression for "making love to a beautiful woman." Komachi stands for Ono no Komachi, legendary ninth-century beauty and the only female of Japan's Six Immortal Poets (Rokkasen). "Pulling/tugging Komachi" (Komachi-biki) evolved into a favorite in ukiyo-e treatments of the Six Immortal Poets, including imagery of Ariwara no Narihira, another celebrated lover, pulling Komachi to him while the other four doze in their seats.
Komachi-biki derives from the similarly sounding Komatsu-biki, a New Year's ritual at the Heian court of Komachi's time that involved the "pulling up" (hiki) of young pines (komatsu). Courtiers perfomed this exercise on the first Day of the Rat (ne no hi) of the new lunar year. Ne (rat) puns on ne (sleep) in the sense of "to go to bed with someone." From komatsu we get to Komachi, a generic term for a great beauty and notorious lover. "Pulling Komachi" means to pull a famous beauty and lover to one, with the connotation of embracing, making love to her.
The twelve prints of the present series are from the second edition with new title given in the revised preface. No complete set of the first printing is known, and it is unclear what is the order of the plates that Utamaro intended. The sequence here is the standard one given in Hayashi Yoshikazu and Richard Lane, Ehon Komachi-biki, vol. 2 of Ukiyo-e shunga meihin shusei (Collected masterpieces of Ukiyo-e erotica) (Tokyo: Kawade shobo shinsha, 1996). There are, however, illustrations that have elements which associate them with a season. In plate six, the lovers have rolled out from under the padded cover of a brazier in winter. Plates 8 and 12 show couples beside a screen painted with budding plum, a symbol of early spring as well as the potency of the older male: a gnarled tree trunk still bears fruit. The lovers of plate 4 have dispensed with their cooling fan; the couple in 10 lie in front of a screen decorated with autumnal imagery of chrysanthemums and brushwood fence. Since the album was unveiled at the New Year of 1802 it may be that the twelve plates were intended in a monthly progression.
Captions to go under the individual illustrations:
1. Lovers on bed mat in summer. The panel in the background is patterned with rippling water, a frequent sexual metaphor.
2. Lovers by stationary screen. The dialogue includes the geisha's mention of the display of treasures at the temple Ekoin in Tokyo that began in the sixth month of 1801.
3. Lovers by low screen in summer. The woman's wet hair is tied up with a ribbon and her towel is flung over the riverscape on the screen.
4. Lovers kiss beside a rolled blind in summer. The dialogue names several popular men-about-town.
5. Yoshiwara courtesan and her secret lover. The conversation mentions the name change of the kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro at the end of 1801, further supporting the release date of the album to New Year, 1802.
6. Courtesan and young lover emerge from brazier cover in winter; she keeps him warm with her innerrobe.
7. In a winter scene, a prostitute of the Fukagawa brothel district lets her client pivot her by her foot.
8. A married woman with shaved eyebrows and wet hair enjoys her lover by a plum screen.
9. A lady-in-waiting at a samurai household has a secret assignation with her lover at a secluded teahouse.
10. A young couple before a screen of chrysanthemums and fence. She protests, "I'm so embarrassed to have you see me like this! Don't look!"
11. A trainee courtesan is flippant with her older lover, "Thanks to master Utamaro, I'm getting more and more famous for this sort of business."
12. Overcome by watching the woman comb her long hair, a man distracts her. The bird in the plum screen is a mature magpie.