Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) is the Japanese artist best representative of ukiyone (lit. pictures of the floating world) in both painting and ­woodblock print formats. He started working as an artist in 1779, becoming renowned for his yakusha-e (actor’s pictures). As an artist he was versatile, eccentric and inspirational. He was a prolific, adventurous and very talented artist and produced more than 30,000 works in his long career. Hokusai’s works are creative, dynamic and genre crossing. They were produced as pictures as well as illustrations for picture books (e.g., kibyōshi and yomihon). The topics of his works ranged from beautiful landscapes to pornographies and the supernatural.

Hokusai’s most famous ukiyone is considered to be “Kanagawa okinamiura” (The great wave off Kanagawa) published in 1831, which depicts helpless people on narrow, wooden boats toyed by mighty tsunami-like waves, in contrast to the serenity of Mt Fuji faraway. The colors are simple with white and deep indigo blue and the design is radical and dynamic. This was included in his “Fugakusanjūrokkei” (Thirty–Six Views of Mount Fuji), which demonstrates the breadth of his perspectival skills, and inspirations to create distinctive pictures of the same object, Mt Fuji.

As exemplified by teeth-like white waves and water drops reflecting stormy gusts, Hokusai’s works demonstrate his fascination with movement. Things and people were stylized yet captured in motion, much like manga and anime. Male heads, faces and often even bodies are round and short, whereas females are slightly long, slender yet still curvy. Motion is represented with a variety of postures, gestures and facial expressions.

Hokusai produced a number of pornographic works, known as shunga (lit. spring pictures), a common practice for ukiyoe artists (including his own daughter, Katsushika Ōi) of the period. Some graphics were accompanied with written texts (e.g., conversations, similar to manga). Hokusai’s works are characterized by strong fantastical imagery. His controversial work, Tako to ama (Octopuses and a female diver) is exemplary of this.

Hokusai is also a celebrated creator of yōkai (monster, ghost, supernatural). Although the number of his surviving works is limited, their impact is undeniable. His Oiwa-san in the form of a paper lantern ghost and Waraihannya (laughing demoness) from Hyakumonogatari (one hundred ghost stories, 1831-1832) typifies his yōkai creations being vivid, macabre yet somewhat comical.

Hokusai’s breadth of artistic kills and imagination are showcased in his famous sketch collection, titled Hokusai Manga (15 volumes, 1814-1878). The word ‘manga’ essentially is used to refer to ‘casual’ rather than ‘comical’, although including many comical pictures of humans and yōkai.

Hokusai was a prideful, pure creator, whose life was dedicated to continuous artistic creations. His output was abundant,  yet it never resulted in wealth. As indicated by his frequent change of living places (close to 100 times!) and many episodes of eccentric behavior, which made his life volatile. Nevertheless, he was a true freeman possessed of artistic skills to vividly and joyfully embody his abundant and never-ending inspirations. Like himself, Hokusan’s works are not bound by time and period, inspiring even European artists (e.g., Impressionists).

Mio Bryce

Further Reading

  • National Diet Library Digital Collections. 2011. Hokusai Manga. Accessed July 1, 2015.http://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/851646
  • Calza, Gian Carlo. Hokusai. London; New York: Phaidon, 2004
  • Nagata, Seiji (1995), Hokusai: Genius of the Japanese Ukiyo-e. Translated by John Bester.Tokyo; New York: Kodansha. 1995. Print.