Pictures from Hell
Ito Seiyu (1882-1961) has been pushing the envelope of kinbaku and torture imagery long before the “Golden Age” of SM magazines, getting some of his better work censored and banned by the authorities, earning him the label of “pervert”.
To help you better appreciate this series, first read the following notes on the kanji characters heading each picture and text:
Wood (木, ki), Fire (火, hi), Earth (土, tsuchi), Metal (金, kin), and Water (水, mizu) are the “five elements” called Wu Xing (五行) in Chinese. The concepts of Wu Xing can be found anywhere from acupuncture to feng shui (geomancy) to martial arts, and even apply to tea ceremony.
Sun (日, hi) and Moon (月, tsuki) plus the five Wu Xing elements also correspond to the days of the week.
There goes hardly a description of beauty that doesn’t include the combination of the three kanji characters for Snow (雪, yuki), Moon (月, tsuki), and Flower (花, hana). This combination even has its own name: setsu getsu ka (雪月花). Pls note that setsu is another reading for yuki (雪), getsu is another reading for tsuki (月), and ka is another reading for hana (花).
Now, let’s cut to the chase and enjoy the first installment.
Every village has its own laws. If strangers are caught stealing food, they will be exposed for three days at the village’s outskirts. Famished orphans sometimes wander into a village and take food without thinking. If they are caught, villagers will take the law into their own hands and render harsh punishment. It is the ultimate misery.
Before the war in Shimabara*, many Christians were persecuted. Lord Matsukura Shigenaga was a sexual pervert. He captured women, committed atrocious torture, and then threw them into the snake valley at the corner of Mount Unzen.
The crescent moon shines on dead bodies, where poisonous snakes slither and wolves feast on human flesh. What is a real inferno, if this picture doesn’t show it?
*Referring to Shimabara no ran (the Shimabara Rebellion), which was a major uprising in southwestern Japan in the 17th century.
During the Sengoku period*, humanity was entirely lost. Fathers, sons, and brothers were killing each other. All beautiful women left in fallen castles were subjected to gruesome torture. Those who have the power, use it to rule; while those who have lost the war are left with nothing. At the war of the Meiji Restoration, many women inside the Aizu castle killed themselves after being raped by the ruling army. Those who achieved victory might hold the power, but that doesn’t make them just. Ah!
*The Warring States Period in Japanese history from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century.
A woman is never far from jealousy. Punishment for beautiful women who are favored by married men includes various kinds of water torture. Sometimes, they are dunked mercilessly underwater after being whipped and beaten. Sometimes, they are drenched in water on cold nights or locked inside water-filled chambers. The most appalling of it all is to be bound to rotating waterwheels. This is torture of hell.
Hihi* monsters are living in trees. Many legends tell about young virgins of unequaled beauty being offered as sacrificial victims to old cedar trees with thick and dark foliage, in order to protect villages from disasters. Iwami Jyutaro is known as a hihi slayer, but perhaps a hihi is some kind of a bandit.
*A hihi is a fabled monster that looks like a giant monkey. These beings are believed to have lived in mountains and attacked women, often demanding human sacrifice.
The golden age is not the product of the Taisho and Showa periods only. It is said that love potions from Sado work best*. Surrounded by policemen, thieves cut their bellies and scatter stolen gold from the top of a tower. Can the policemen take this gold, or does it become property of the commander and the Shogunate? Who knows where such dirty money goes.
*This proverb means that coins minted from gold of the Sado Kinzan mine work better than any other love potion.
Even Kashima’s kaname-ishi* stone loses its effect over time. We can study the cause of an earthquake and announce its epicenter after it happened. Yet, this doesn’t stop an earthquake. A loyal warrior, Fujita Toko** was crushed to death under falling beams, while trying to save his mother. It is the most regrettable event in a thousand years. When can we ever escape from this living hell?
*The keystone of Kashima Jingu shrine, which is believed to have the power of preventing earthquakes.
**A renowned scholar from the Mito domain, who died during the Ansei Edo Earthquake in 1855.
With no regard for human rights, Edo’s pleasure quarters and the institution of slavery created a kind of punishment called snow torture. What we see in theater at the Yamanaya scene from Ake garasu yume no awa yuki* was nothing out of the ordinary at brothels in old times. Now that licensed prostitution is totally abolished, we should be glad that such torture is no longer practiced.
*The kanji characters literally mean “morning crows dream frothy snow”. It was originally the title of a famous song from the Shinnai reciting tradition based on a real story of a couple who committed double suicide. The second half of the song is a detailed description of snow torture. The song was later adapted for various other song traditions and theater forms such as Kabuki.
There is a delta sandbank of the Sumida River at its midstream called Mitsumata. A governor of Sendai, Lord Date Yorikane bought Takao Dayu* from Miuraya and made advances to her. However, she did not reciprocate, and thus, was beheaded on a boat. This is the so called “suspension slash of Takao.” Meanwhile, another story tells that Takao arrived in Sendai with the lord and lived there well into her 80s. Perhaps, Takao’s stories are mixed with a case of Usugumo Dayu** from Yoshiwara***, who had refused a lord so-and-so, and as a result, was murdered after having her fingers cut off one by one over a period of ten days.
*Takao Dayu is the name of a legendary tayu (the highest-ranking courtesan) in the Edo period. There were many generations of tayu with the same name.
**Usugumo Dayu is the name of another legendary tayu, or of many generations of them.
***Yoshiwara was a famous pleasure district in Edo (present-day Tokyo), which was licensed by the government.
隅田川の中流中洲のデルタを三ツ股と称す。仙台の太守伊達賴兼公、三浦屋の高尾太夫を購ひ、之を挑めも應ぜず、船中にて 之を殺す。世に言ふ『高尾の吊るし切り』はこれなり。或いは言ふ、高尾仙台公に伴われて仙台に到り八十余歳の壽を保つと。思ふに当時吉原の遊女薄雲太夫が 大名某候を嫌悪して、十日に十指切りて慘殺されたる事蹟を混同したるものか。
It is rare to find words for a beautiful woman that do not include allusions to flowers. Albeit not as beautiful as a keisei*, even a meshimori can turn a jinya. ** One should know that there are specific manners for how to be with an oiran*** of the tayu profession. Nowadays, young men know only of prostitutes, but not about a keisei of Yoshiwara. Nothing remains of that culture, except for what is secretly kept in Shimabara**** of Kyoto.
*Literally meaning “a castle turner,” keisei (傾城) refers to a woman so glamorous that she can ruin a castle by captivating its lord with her beauty.
**Meshimori (飯盛) were hired by inns as maids and often engaged in prostitution. The quote indicates that a beautiful meshimori can bankrupt at least a jinya, an inn designated for feudal lords, if not a castle like a keisei can.
***High-ranking courtesans of Yoshiwara were called oiran (花魁).
****The three major licensed pleasure districts in the Edo period were Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi in Osaka, and Yoshiwara in Edo (present-day Tokyo).