Arts and Culture
The vast majority of seventeenth-century visual production in Japan was authored by men. Accordingly, this period’s depictions of women of pleasure tend towards stereotypy and passivity. However, some images and narratives feature painted feminine portraits that interact with their male viewers through various forms of animation. In general, the viewing of the portrait was a prelude or postlude to an encounter with a woman of pleasure, but also an encounter with the portraits’ own presence. This juxtaposition set up ontological collusion between physical appearance and its representation, between the animate and the inanimate.
This effect was achieved in terms of spatial embeddedness: the portrait was placed in the innermost space of an everyday home but depicted a flirting pose on the streets of the pleasure quarter. This affected a bi-vectorial spatial transformation: everyday space was translated into the pleasure quarters, and concomitantly the pleasure quarters emanated out from the portrait into everyday space. A central role was played by the alcove (jp. tokonoma) in which the portrait was hung, and which functioned as a nested frame defined by social interaction.
However, some narratives of interaction with painted portraits include vengeful feminine ghosts or otherwise harmful physical effects on the male subject, thereby presenting an active feminine image that could subvert male fantasies. I argue that the agency of these feminine images was intertwined with the special status of the alcove within the architectural space of late seventeenth century Japan.