The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife is an erotic woodcut of the ukiyo-e genre made around 1820 by the Japanese artist Hokusai. Perhaps the first instance of tentacle eroticism, it depicts a woman entwined sexually with a pair of octopuses, the smaller of which kisses her while the larger one performs cunnilingus. A shot of the work printed on a postcard that is being looked at by Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) at the beginning of the 1990 film Henry & June earned that movie the very first NC-17 film rating. It is no coincidence that the wife in question is a fisherman's wife, the significance of the absence of men in fishermen's villages is also testified by the fact the first dildos were found in fishermen's villages.
Scholar Danielle Talerico notes that the image would have recalled to the minds of contemporary viewers the story of Princess Tamatori, highly popular in the Edo period. In this story, Tamatori is a modest shell diver who marries Fujiwara no Fuhito of the Fujiwara clan, who is searching for a pearl stolen from his family by Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. Vowing to help, Tamatori dives down to Ryūjin's undersea palace of Ryūgū-jō, and is pursued by the god and his army of sea creatures, including octopuses. She cuts open her own breast and places the jewel inside; this allows her to swim faster and escape, but she dies from her wound soon after reaching the surface.
The Tamatori story was a popular subject in ukiyo-e art. The artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi produced a number of works based on it, which often include octopuses among the creatures being evaded by the bare-breasted diver. In the text above Hokusai's image, the big octopus says he will bring the girl to Ryūjin's undersea palace, strengthening the connection to the Tamatori legend. The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife is not the only work of Edo-period art to depict erotic relations between a woman and an octopus. A number of early netsuke carvings show cephalopods fondling nude women. Hokusai's contemporary Yanagawa Shigenobu created an image of a woman receiving cunnilingus from an octopus very similar to Hokusai's in his collection Suetsumuhana of 1830.
Talerico notes that earlier Western critics such as Edmond de Goncourt and Jack Hillier interpreted the work as a rape scene. However, she notes that these scholars would have seen it apart from the Kinoe no Komatsu collection and without understanding the text and visual references, depriving it of its original context. According to Chris Uhlenbeck and Margarita Winkel, "[t]his print is testimony to how our interpretation of an image can be distorted when seen in isolation and without understanding the text."
Hokusai created The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife during the Edo period in when Shinto was making a resurgence; this influenced the piece's animism and playful attitude towards sexuality. It is a celebrated example of shunga and has been reworked by a number of artists. Similar themes of human females having sexual intercourse with sea life have been displayed since the 17th century in Japanese netsuke, small carved sculptures only a few inches in height and often extremely elaborate.
Variations on title
In Richard Lane's Images of the Floating World (1978) this print is referenced as Girl Diver and Octopi from the series Young Pine Shoots (1814). Matthi Forrer in Hokusai: Prints and Drawings (1992) titles it Pearl Diver and Two Octopi from Young Pines (Kinoe no komatsu) with the same 1814 date.