Sensuka, to be sure, is a place of endless fascination and delight, but it can also be a heartless place. When one enters Sensuka Harbour and first looks out upon the colonnaded wharves and polychrome marble facades rising from the emerald waters, and behind them the glorious tangle of domes, towers, palaces and gardens, spreading out every which way as far as the eye can see, the effect can be intoxicating. The city’s iconic skyline seems gilded with the promise of extravagant pleasures: pastel boxes being wrapped with ribbon in the luxury boutiques, seductive glances across the glittering theatre foyers, bowing waiters in the famous restaurants, twinkling fountains in the innermost courtyards, rooftop parties with the bright young things sourced from all four corners of the empire. In truth, however, these pleasures are reserved only for a privileged few. The dazzling dream of the place makes one liable to forget that, somewhere beneath that endless sea of rooftops, an evicted family is having its belongings tossed out onto the street, that in an airless room, ragged children stand hunched alongside one another over a silk spinning machine, that in a basement of the Imperial Palace, a knife is being sharpened against a whetstone before the terrified eyes of a man about to be “processed” into a eunuch for service at the emperor’s court. There is a definite undercurrent of cruelty that runs through the city, the natural consequence, perhaps, of its position at the confluence of so many forms of exploitation.
Few projects, for instance, could have been more maliciously conceived than the Tizabu Prison, which takes its name from the district in which it is located, in the northwest corner of the city. The prison building consists of an immense stone block, seven storeys high, very long and not very wide. The ground floor is reserved for administrative functions, and its windows give off onto a walled courtyard. The other floors are entirely occupied by jail cells, laid out in such a way as to give each one a view of the adjacent Tizabu Park through a small, barred window.
This public park, which was laid out alongside the prison as part of the same project, is a magnificent recreational green space, featuring two kani fields, dimba courts, an outdoor gymnasium, tanning chairs, and an assortment of little romantic gazebos. These are all much-appreciated amenities in this rather underprivileged area of the city, and the park always attracts large crowds. On most evenings, save during the cold winter months, there is live music from the bandstand, and people congregate to dance or to have a drink at one of the outdoor “wine gardens,” which are permitted to remain open into the wee hours of the morning. Throughout the summer, there is a seemingly never-ending succession of festivals, which draw in visitors from all over the city and beyond. All of these events are financed by the municipal government, with what it views as the doubly beneficent aim of providing entertainment for its citizens and of delivering just punishment to the prison inmates. For indeed, the suffering endured by these prisoners, alone forever in their tiny cells and confronted at almost all hours of the day and night with the terrible reality of other people’s happiness, can scarcely be imagined. It is true that they can choose not to look out their window, but they cannot choose not to hear the sounds of music and of laughter. And once these are heard, not looking generally only makes things worse. One pictures the freest, most joyous dancing imaginable, and the flash of white teeth between the lips of the prettiest girl, directed at a man she is just beginning to fall in love with.
In this print, the artist presents us with a view of Tizabu Prison from across the park. It is raining heavily, and the park appears empty, save for a few people who have taken refuge under the bandstand. If the rain keeps up, the evening’s concert (advertised on the sandwich board) will have to be cancelled. The inmates will thus be given a brief reprieve—a few silent, gloomy hours in which the world around them will seem to be in sympathetic harmony with how they are feeling inside.
For many Sensukans, the act of having a good time in Tizabu Park before the unseen eyes of the inmates is regarded almost as a civic duty, a way of taking part in the righteous carrying out of justice. By choosing to depict the prison on a rainy day, however, the artist may have intended to express some measure of compassion for the thwarted souls behind each of those narrow windows.