For this review I’m examining Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
It’s a legendary piece that’s ubiquitous around the world. But few people know much about it, Hokusai (1760-1849), or the array of literature surrounding the print. Most folks just like staring at the dramatic and iconic finished product.
So I wanted to learn more about the artist, as well as what his work stands for. I took a detailed look at Hokusai’s Great Wave by Timothy Clark as part of my research. It’s a fine book – you can also take a look at his more expansive (but detailed) work Beyond the Great Wave. But I used the former for quotes and insights throughout this review.
That sits alongside independent research to document the remarkable painting from circa 1830.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Great Wave (かながわおきなみうら) is a wooden block print from the ukiyo-e era of artists (the genre flourished from the 17th to 19th century). I don’t claim to be experts on art as I’m a student of literature, but this piece has fascinated me for a long time.
It’s also captured the world’s attention. You’ll see the image everywhere – on the side of chopsticks, in graffiti, and across all manner of merchandise. There’s also the matter of the print – you can find it on postcards and as a poster. Or you can hang it as a picture on your wall.
I even found it on some random instant noodles I came across in a shop. As the image is now in the public domain and free from copyright claims, all manner of businesses can adapt it to their benefit.
Whilst I loathe such corporate nonsense, I still can’t help but delight whenever I see the image of the wave. And at least a modern artist out there did something innovative with it.
Yet the man who created it over 150 years ago saw none of this success. For him, it was another woodblock piece from his vast body of work.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one piece as part of Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
Yet staring at it now, you wouldn’t know the backstory of how the man came to produce such an image. It’s mysterious in its perfection, but Hokusai dedicated his life to perfecting his craft.
There were many precursors. Pieces he finished decades earlier that, whilst still striking, lack that eye-catching, astonishingly clear-cut imagery. One was in 1803, the other 1805 – I cover how these came about further below (yes, you’ll have to keep reading).
Above is the 1803 piece. Click it to expand the image for a closer look. But, as you can see, it’s minimalistic when compared to what Hokusai created around 27 years later.
Sure, it’s a good piece of art. It’s still striking, but the vivid colours aren’t there. The capacity to stop you in your tracks to take notice is missing.
He had another go – two years later he produced this. What’s obvious here? Mount Fuji is missing from both pieces.
It’s dramatic, but the wave is more like a rigid building – lacking the dynamic life of his later pieces.
The artist continued working and redefining his approach. But away from his creative intent, his life was touched by tragedy and absurd bad luck. Hokusai was struck by lightning in 1810 when he was 50. He got away with that, but it wasn’t until he was in his 70s that his work reached a real streak of genius.
The artist clearly spent a lot of time watching the ocean and, you could argue, had a great deal of respect for the fishermen toiling out there.
But how do you take a step from his work above – as good as both pieces are – to this?
As an objective appraisal I should factor in how the above picture is sharpened up for modern standards. Whereas the previous pieces look like the original prints and are a bit tatty.
But the other two look like they’re from the past. The Great Wave is distinctly modern in its use of colour – like it’s plucked from some Japanese manga or anime.
Studio Ghibli’s film Ponyo (2009) consistently reminds us of Hokusai’s work. A certain section of the soundtrack seems especially fitting – Ponyo’s liberation from her controlling father and escape across the ocean.
Throughout that scene (which I couldn’t find on YouTube, unfortunately) giant fish leap from the water. The protagonist joyously bounds from one to the next – mingling with that are huge waves and foaming crests.
Such is the influence of Hokusai’s print – as I cover at the end of this review – The Great Wave continues to influence a lot of modern culture.
And at this point I can introduce Timothy Clark, whose insights are excellent (the paperback book of his work was £6 brand new and I can highly recommend it). This is his perception of the work.
A monster wave – almost a wave monster, with animate tentacles – rears up to come crashing down on three narrow boats and their crew of crouched, heroic oarsmen. The wave also seems to menace Mount Fuji, which should be the highest, most immovable thing in Japan – by far. Bubbles of foaming spray cascade down the whole left side of the image, adding to the visual excitement created by the wave-tentacles.
Now, there are 6,852 islands around the archipelago of Japan. Only 430 are inhabited. But what is ever-present for the nation’s citizens is the assault of the ocean.
In some ways, I can understand how that must feel as England is a diddy island, too. But as I covered in my The Book of Tea review, Japan (or Nippon if you will, the western noun is an exonym) isolated itself from the world for centuries.
As a result, exports to the wider world were rare. The situation was so severe the Japanese threatened to kill any outsiders who dared land on its shores. That was the mindset under which its citizens lived. It’s the governmental outlook under which Hokusai created his art.
That makes The Great Wave all the more imposing. With Mount Fuji off in the distance, you can think of the waves as warding off any no good invaders! These days it’s a symbol of artistic excellence – the power of nature. And a symbol of a country.
Japan has a vibrant and enduring tradition of printmaking which has long influenced the world of art far beyond its shores. The Great Wave in particular has developed an extraordinary afterlife in world visual culture since impressions gradually began to leave Japan in the decades after the country opened its ports to the international trade from 1858.
Clark notes he completed his book during the terrible 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. And that’s one thing we don’t have in England – we’re largely free from natural disasters.
And a lot of people make the assumption the Great Wave depicts a major disaster in action. It doesn’t – it’s not there to document a national event, rather to depict an average day in the life of a country and its citizens.
Scientific experts tell us that [it] is not a tsunami close to shore, but rather a plunging breaker, an exceptionally large storm wave out at sea. But responding to the print in a direct and emotive way, many surely now read this image as the sea threatening Japan. Such is the sheer graphic and emblematic power of Hokusai’s Great Wave.
Japan under threat? Certainly during the 20th century the great nation faced one of its most troubling times. These days it’s a creative, technological, and electronic powerhouse.
But there was a time when Japan was shut off from the whole world, instead basking in an almost reverential sense of economic repose. Back in Hokusai’s day, only a few thousand prints emerged of his masterpiece.
Selling these prints made from the original blocks likely continued over several years. In the early nineteenth century the standard price for a print in the ‘large sheet’ or ōban (26.5 x 39 cm) size used for the Great Wave seems to have been about 20 mon just a bit more than a double-helping of soba noodles in a restaurant. However, a passing reference in a letter written by the author Bakin in 1838 suggests that this price had risen to 32-48 mon, perhaps reflecting the effects of the economic crisis affecting Japan in the later 1830s.
Early prints comprised eight colours:
- Indigo blue for the outlines.
- Three shades of Prussian blue for the sea
- Pale grey for the sky and bits of the foreground boats.
- Dark grey for the sky behind Mt. Fuji and the matting near the bows of one boat.
- Pale yellow for bits of the foreground boats.
- Pink for the clouds at the top of the sky.
There’s a special printing process called bokashi (ぼかし) that creates a variation in lightness and darkness across colours. Here it’s in use where the dark and light greys merge in the sky.
When you think of the Great Wave, it’s primarily that deep, dark blue merging so vividly with the white crest of the waves. It’s the one enormous monster up in the top left that grabs your attention.
The sky is secondary. Before researching this piece, if you’d have asked me what the colour of the sky was in the print my mind would have drawn a blank. But take a closer look and it has an enticing haze to it. There’s also one giant cloud that almost merges its hue with the wave’s crest.
Back in 1830, the process to make any woodblock print was complex. It would involve Hokusai making “energetic, line-perfect drawings” across some thin paper. He’d take that and stick it onto a printing block – “block-ready drawing” is the term.
For the colours, he no doubt spoke with craftspeople who would take his work and finalise it.
The cutting of blocks and printing was down to them, but he’d point out what he expected the various hues and whatnot to be.
Publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi hired these people, including Hokusai, and the product was then sold across Japan. The first copies were available from the Bakuro-chō region in the city of Edo (present day, it’s Tokyo).
This was during the Tokugawa Shogunate era, the last feudal state in Japan – 1603-1868 (The Last Samurai – a 2003 film – displays life back then rather faithfully).
Artist Hasegawa Settan (1778-1843) documented one such printing shop for posterity.
That’s a snapshot into life back then. And it’s shops like this that helped the Great Wave shift around 10,000 copies.
The Japanese people of the day would have kept their print collections in boxes or stuck them in albums. Copies could also go on the sliding paper door panels as a type of poster.
And it’s important to point out Hokusai did receive respect during his time. He’s not a tragic Vincent van Gogh figure – an undiscovered genius. Even the local samurai had respect for his work.
Unfortunately, none of the original printed blocks from Hokusai’s era remain. But from the initial batch of mass-produced ones, some are possibly still in existence. Tucked away in someone’s attic, perhaps.
Widely accepted to be the “best” [print of the work], that is to say both the earliest and best preserved impression in the world today is the one formerly in the Howard Mansfield collection, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum, New York in 1936.
The British Museum bought it in 2008 and apparently it could well be one of the top 20 impressions to have survived.
In 2017 the museum ran a special event into the artist’s life, with particular focus a certain oceanic print.
Initially, us lot in the West called it “The Wave”. This changed to “The Great Wave” and now we have the full title.
But, remember, this was one image amongst many: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.
And despite the obvious appeal of the seawater in his most famous work, the artist wasn’t there to document the ocean. He had his sights set firmly on something else dominating the skyline.
[His] idea was to show the beautiful form of the sacred mountain from the widest possible range of vantage points and in all seasons, weathers and times off day, and he was undoubtedly inspired by a profound spiritual reverence for Mt. Fuji. Many of the views situate us in the everyday world of work and leisure of ordinary people living in Edo or the surrounding provinces; however, their compositions are anything but ordinary. Hokusai creates such inventive views that we perpetually seem to be playing a sort of hide-and-seek with Mt. Fuji, often looking with the people in the picture as they enjoyed unexpected vistas.
And for the most famous work of the lot, it’s located out in the Pacific Ocean right before Edo Bay. The small boats we see are oshiokuri, skiffs that could move along at serious speed and were nimble. Ideal for fishing and overcoming rough seas.
But there it is in the background lurking away – the mountain. And the artist’s representation of it shifted around from the complex to the strikingly simplistic. It is a deity.
This piece grabs your attention, but on close inspection it’s a basic work with not much going on. There’s the sky, clouds, red mountain, the peak, and trees. It’s surprisingly simplistic.
Yet it’s captivating. A perfect summary of Japanese/Buddhist minimalism the likes of Okakura and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki discuss in The Book of Tea and In Praise of Shadows, respectively.
It’s the above image the Japanese also prefer from Hokusai’s collection. There was a major exhibition in 2005 at the Tokyo National Museum. That led the nation to appreciate The Great Wave off Kanagawa more reverentially, but over there it’s the mountain that draws in much appeal.
If you’re living under the shadow of the mountain (which last erupted in 1707), you would no doubt see why. Some wave doesn’t compare to a dormant volcano – no matter how great it is. To this day tourists flock to see the spectacular peak.
Whilst the mountain is naturally enigmatic, the artist’s reputation is also shrouded in the same sense of mysticism.
Hokusai used many different art-names in his signatures and seals in the course of his long career – perhaps up to fifty, and in varying combinations. Adopting a new name to reflect an important life-event was not unusual among Japanese scholars and artists, but Hokusai changed this name (and name combinations) to an obsessive degree, reflecting his restless quest for new knowledge, greater understanding and renewal.
The signature on the Great Wave, for example, reads: “From the brush of Hokusai changing to Iitsu.” That last word means “one again”. This was a life event as he had turned 60.
Back then, the Japanese held the belief turning 60 meant beginning your life again.
Further back, when Edo was founded in the 17th century, religious cults sprung up in honour of Mount Fuji. Naturally, this inspired much art about it. 富士山, in Japanese, is the highest volcano in the land of Nippon and stands at over 12,000 feet.
It’s 60 miles south-west of Tokyo, so the views are naturally dramatic. The “cone” at the top is snow-covered for around half of the year. It’s fair to say it’s an absolute symbol of Japan.
And in Hokusai’s work it almost looks like a wave. In the distance, it sits ominously only a century on from its last eruption. Clark notes how it was likely something of a revelation.
Two aspects of the Great Wave are particularly striking and would have seemed novel at the time: the dramatic sense of depth in the middle of the picture; and the preponderant use of shades of blue. Both of these aspects were revolutionary in their day; even tinged with a certain ideological danger. For both the deep space and the strong blue signalled ‘Europe’ – or at least ‘outside Japan’. Foreign travel had been forbidden to Japanese since the late 1630s and all interactions with the outside world were closely policed by the Shogunate, the ruling military government, and generally confined to the periphery of the state.
But European books of art were imported to Japan nonetheless. As were prints. This would have included cityscapes of Paris, London, Amsterdam, and wherever else.
Hokusai was born in Edo, 1760. He would no doubt have keenly observed these foreign pieces, working as a carver in a printing shop as a young man. Elder statesmen of art such as Shiba Kōkan (1747-1818) even went as far as to criticise Japanese art, suggesting the European stance was the way to go.
All of which influenced the younger generations of emerging artists.
As Japan moved unknowingly towards a socioeconomic revolution and opening its ports to the rest of the world, Hokusai had signalled this was inevitable in much of his work through the use of subtle European artistic techniques.
He wasn’t the first to do so. Many other great Japanese artists had pushed ahead with this leaning when Hokusai was a young man.
Clark sites Kōkan’s 1796 painting as a likely influence on the young Hokusai – this piece was hung in Atagoyama Shrine until 1811. It was so radical priests took it down due to its “exotic” style.
He saw this, almost certainly, and you can see a few telling influences. The waves lapping at the shore, humans going about their duties with nature as their backdrop, and Mount Fuji looming ominously in the background. A similar piece emerged from Hokusai in 1797.
[He] introduced more topical interest into his version, in the stylish ‘floating world’ manner. He drew the figures larger and more attractively dressed; he made Mt. Fuji clearly visible; and he gave much more prominence and form to the threatening waves about to catch the oblivious figures unaware.
As this all indicates, the early foundations for the iconic Great Wave were set some 30 years before the artist set about it. As Clark attests:
Hokusai was a prolific and extraordinarily fertile artist, maybe to a unique degree; always working on different projects in parallel. In the intervening decades between about 1800 and 1830 he was active as a painter, print artist and book illustrator in a wide range of genres, many of which he took the lead in developing. He explored many different subjects: figures – beautiful women, actors, warriors – genre scenes, townscapes, landscapes, mythological, historic, religious and spiritual subjects of China and Japan, fantastic adventure stories, still-lives, comic prints.
In the early 1800s he began introducing elements of a European style. He did this through printed picture frames and sideways inscriptions. The block-cutters also:
Went to great lengths to create effects of light, shadow and modelling – surely under close instruction from Hokusai – within the overall European-style perspective compositions that the artist had designed.
For his landscape prints, there’s the View of Honmoku off Kanagawa and Fast Cargo Boat Battling the Waves. Those are the two right at the start of this review.
Honmoku is a neighbourhood in the modern Yokohama city. That’s on the western side of Tokyo Bay and could potentially be a precise location for where The Great Wave is set. But the early pieces fall short of any iconic status.
Compared to the final Great Wave, the ‘studies’ of waves if all three of these much earlier prints have little sense of energy or movement. They rear up, to be sure, but otherwise seem frozen, with none of the animation of the tentacles of foam that are so memorable in the Great Wave. Hokusai was trying out ideas learned from Kōkan and other artists working in the European-influenced style, but he had not yet fully digested them to the degree necessary to produce his great masterpiece.
As Clark notes:
Comparing the four images also emphasises just how radical is the composition of the Great Wave. The middle ground is done away with, leaving just the dramatic effect of directly juxtaposing distant Mt. Fuji with the foreground wave – itself something of a cut-out, a bit like painted stage scenery. By denying us the comfort of any visible horizon, we get a (safe) inkling of the terror of really being shipwrecked at sea. Mt. Fuji is flattered by being presented as the safe, solid fulcrum in all this flux. Part of the genius of the Great Wave lies in what Hokusai was able, wilfully, to ‘unlearn’ from all his painstaking lessons in European-style art. He managed to transform European naturalistic deep space into something far more symbolic, dramatic and exciting.
As I mention earlier, blue is what we typically think of when this print springs to mind. Clark has a fabulous term for it.
The image is, in essence, a symphony in blue.
The use of Prussian blue is a key aspect art scholars focus on. The dark blue pigment was first synthensised in Berlin circa 1704. In Japan, it gained the name “berorin-ai” (or “bero”). This merges the Dutch term for Berlin with the Japanese one for indigo.
Around 1820, imports of this colour into China and Japan continued to grow at a pace. This, again, indicated Japan wasn’t far from opening its doors to the rest of the world. With the benefit of hindsight, it was an inevitability.
In the summer of 1829, an artist called Keisai Eisen triggered off the craze as he used a print entirely in Prussian blue.
It’s a chemical pigment that fades to a lesser extent. It also prints with greater levels of saturation – this was ideal for sky and water images. So the genre of landscape prints received a welcome jolt in a new direction. Perfect timing for Hokusai’s artistic journey.
He followed Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (1835). Such was his growing obsession with the mountain. This produced the lesser-known print below.
In 1829, Hokusai celebrated his 70th birthday. Apparently, prior to this, he suffered a stroke. Using homemade remedies he was able to recover enough to keep working.
His wife also died in 1828. Meanwhile, he was also responsible for managing a troublesome grandson. This individual had gambling debts and other issues. This was too much for the ageing Hokusai, who sent the grandson back to his son-in-law – the artist Yanagawa Shigenobu.
After that, Hokusai promptly went off into hiding. He was also aware he was ageing, deciding to create this self-portrait. There are no photographs of the artist.
He was feeling the effects of his magnanimous streak, having funded the grandson out of various issues. He sent his publishers a desperate letter.
No money, no clothing, barely enough to eat; if I can’t make some arrangement by the middle of next month, I won’t make it through spring.
Funds for his completed Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji project saved him from total destitution. He appears to have experienced a relatively steady life after that.
Amongst his losses and hardships, more and more he turned to the mountain that appears to have defined his existence.
He continued creating right up until the end of his life. In 1849, a few months before he died, one of his last works depicts a dragon surging around the peak of Mount Fuji. There are wave-like rocks at the base of the scroll.
What I hope this review shows is there’s much more to this man than one image. It, in fact, is something of a tragedy so many people will look at his most famous print block and know little else about it.
We must think about his artwork, and the ocean, but also turn our attention to the dormant volcano that peers down over the region.
As Yosunari Kawabata’s the Sound of the Mountain (1949) also indicates with an ageing gentleman, it’s as if this volcano breathed life into the artist in his final years. Clark explores the idea:
Understanding the significance of Mt. Fuji helps us to appreciate even more the impact of the Great Wave. It helps us to refocus on the mountain as the central presence in the image and savour the extraordinary tension created when that central presence is threatened by the force of nature. Seen in this light, the Great Wave becomes quite a subjective, even emotional image – compare, once again, the three earlier, much more objective and less demonstrative wave prints. Hokusai’s personal exploration of the subjective and the emotional becomes an ever more significant quest in his late art, unprecedented in the work of any of his Japanese contemporaries. The Great Wave and other dramatic late Hokusai subjects such as a solitary eagle, bristling tigers and ecstatic deities can even be read as kinds of psychological self-portraits. Time and again, the elderly artist marshals his energies to create intense, animated presences that stand triumphant and defiant.
Clark also suggests the wave represents anxiety. Sacred Japan under threat from a new era – the outside world was waiting to wash over the land. The nation’s carefully maintained and deliberate isolation was under threat.
Sure enough, the regular arrival of impressive warships from America, England, and Russia indicated there were imposing nationalistic forces with greater might than Japan. In 1825, the coastal lords were ordered to attack on sight anything that came into view.
But that changed in 1853 when the Americans arrived with mighty ships and gave a simple ultimatum. Japan had to open its doors or face annihilation.
With great fortitude and intelligence, the nation finally allowed outsiders onto its shores. Within two decades Japan underwent an economic and technological overhaul. The manner in which the nation changed is quite exceptional, although it did trigger civil war as the final samurai clashed with a new order.
But, of course, Hokusai was no longer there to see this upheaval. Dying on 10th May 1849, four years before the Americans arrived. As such, the artist belongs very much to old world Japan.
Yet it’s the opening of Japanese ports from 1858 that quickly led to Hokusai’s work finding a wider audience across the world. His art was soon discovered by the likes of Degat, van Gogh, Manet, and Monet.
Posthumous international fame was fast. Initially, it was One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji that gained the most attention. Only from 1890 through to 1910 did the Great Wave generate the reputation it now has today.
A biography of Hokusai in 1896 by Edmond de Goncourt was one of many bits of praise that pushed through its social recognition. His description is rather dramatic.
The rending of its crest as it disperses in a rain of droplets formed as animal claws.
French artists such as Henri Rivière took note as well. He modernised Hokusai’s landscape infatuation with 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower. He went about the lithographs between 1888 and 1902.
The influence is clear – the leaves replacing the waves, the tower is Mount Fuji. It’s a playful adaptation – a homage, if you will (not a fromage, though).
Composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy also took notice – there’s a photograph of them standing beside a Great Wave picture frame in 1911. All of this indicates the proliferation of the image across the world was well in motion at the turn of the 20th century.
And it’s a process that continues to this day (as I cover further below in an addendum). And rightfully so – it’s a masterpiece.
But do remember there’s much more to Katsushika Hokusai than one woodblock print.
Researching this piece, I came across an enormous and remarkable body of work that indicates the man was a genius. And I think it’s a fitting way to end with a quote from the man about his infatuation for art.
From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At one hundred, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself The Old Man Mad About Drawing.
In Modern Culture
In the immediate decades after the Great Wave was published it spread to the West. In 1888, van Gogh praised the piece and suggested it had a terrifying emotive impact.
Claude Debussy adapted it for his work La Mer (1905), which is striking in a different way. It’s melancholic and drab – maudlin in the unusual use of green.
But what place does Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa have in the 21st century?
Well, it’s all over the place. Have a look on Instagram and it’s a constant feature. Wherever we walk about in cities it’s not long before I come across it in some way.
Whether that’s a wall mural, on a pair of chopsticks, with marginally tacky tattoos across someone’s thigh – it’s ubiquitous. Not in a negative way, I find, as I never tire of looking at the wave.
It’s symbolic of many things and always resonates with me – it’s Japan’s influence on the world. The wonderful cultural delights it sends across to us.
And the artistic style is spreading into modern technology, notably in video games. Ōkami (2006) is one, which recently had a Nintendo Switch rerelease. Although minus any direct references to Hokusai, it’s still resplendent in Japanese artistic history.
In 2009, Wii platformer Muramasa: Demon Blade went a step further and involved the player directly in a battle with a giant octopus.
As you go about the fight, a certain oceanic feature bubbles and froths away magnificently in the background.
Much more in keeping with the woodblock prints is Haiku Adventure.
It’s a living and breathing Edo classic in motion, set to some fabulous poetry. It’s not out for release yet, but I’ll review it once it is.
Fittingly, British developer Small Island Games uses an outline of Mount Fuji across its design imagery and marketing materials.
Elsewhere virtual reality is stepping up to provide an in-depth study of the Great Wave.
This process uses “tilt brush” – artist James R. Eads goes about recreating the iconic print for a close-up – you can swoop around and have a candid consideration of everything it involves.
All this open interpretation of Hokusai’s work is now part of its astonishing legacy. Due to copyright laws, it’s in the public domain. Enough time has lapsed for us to do so.
You can go off and do what you see fit with the piece right now. And what a wonderful and fitting legacy that is – a defining artistic image that everyone is able to adapt in reverential fashion.
And rightfully so, as The Great Wave off Kanagawa is timeless. Long may future generations stare at it and revel in the natural beauty of the world.