The Great Wave off Kanagawa – Hokusai

I have thought long and hard before writing about this.  Part of me felt it was very clichéd to have it on here, the other part of me really loves this piece and while I looked at other things by Hokusai as a friend of mine said she loved his work, I kept being drawn back to perhaps his most iconic work.

I just want to make it clear at this point, I don’t want to be deemed as the sort of person that shies away from writing about very famous pieces, but so many people write about them, that it could be deemed that there is nothing new I could bring you about the work.

Regardless I will give it a shot.

Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese painter and printmaker in the Edo period.  He assumed many names throughout his life as his artistic career progressed.  This was common practice with artists in Japan, but Hokusai used more than any other artist in that period assuming around 30 names, it appears that he did this in correlation to changing his artist styles and mediums.

At the age of 12, his father sent him to work in a bookshop and lending library, a popular type of institution in Japanese cities, were reading books made from wood-cut blocks was a popular entertainment of the middle and upper classes.  At 14, he worked as an apprentice to a wood-carver, until the age of 18, when he entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō. Shunshō was an artist of ukiyo-e, a style of woodblock prints and paintings that Hokusai would master, and head of the so-called Katsukawa school.

In 1779 Hokusai created his first set of prints detailing Kabuki actors.  These were created in a true Japanese style.  In 1793 Hokusai started to explore European styles which were coming in to Japan via the trade routes, using French and Dutch copper engravings to enhance his own style.

Hokusai was expelled from the Katsukawa school by Shunkō, the chief disciple of Shunshō, possibly due to studies at the rival Kanō school. This event was, in his own words, inspirational: “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands.”

This event in his life made Hokusai move away from the usual subjects of courtesans and actors, which so many artists were capturing at the time, turning his attentions to landscape and everyday life of the Japanese people.  Alongside this, Hokusai also explored erotic art (Shunga), creating prints which which were enjoyed by men and women.  Shunga acted as a lucky charm for Samurai warriors and merchants who carried the images as protection against the feelings of separation while they were away from their homes.  “The Dream of the Fishermans Wife” created in 1814 was part of this series and probably one of the most well known due to the heavily erotic scene between woman and octopus.

Like many of Hokusai’s works, “The Great Wave” was one of a series of 36, and was probably one of his greatest business ventures.  It is part of a range which covered images of Mount Fuji, which to the Japanese is considered a sacred location and became a cult for many.  By creating a woodblock series which could be easily replicated prints were made and sold cheaply.  At the time of creation, Japan was not sharing its cultural heritage with the rest of the world, but these prints went through a resurgence as tourism started to reach Japan.

Today there are between 5000 and 8000 prints of this series in circulation and you will see museums that have one of the prints boast about the how early the print was – this is down to the woodblock used.  As you can imagine, creation of thousands of prints would make the woodblock deteriorate, which then meant replacement blocks were produced which varied the design. So basically the earlier the print, the high in value it is worth today due to the originality of its creation.

The series was created towards the end of Hokusai’s life as he had been creating prints and paintings for over 60 years and “The Great Wave” as we know it today was not how it originally came to life.

In 1803 and 1805 two versions of what we would see come to life in 1839 were created.

The images are a dramatic comparison to the wave which we know today.  These original prints seem more rigid in their composition, presenting the wave almost like a snow capped mountain.  There is a depth of range to the pictures giving the horizon point which disappears in the later version. The horizon points in both of these are set in the middle, which draws the audiences from the waves themselves and pulls them to the back of the print.

In both these prints you can see boats riding the wave crest which Hokusai later removed as it gave the impression that the people and the boat would have survived the event.  The boat also impacts the integrity of the curve of the wave, making it seem less threatening than it is.

You will also note in these two the colourisation is different, almost dream like rather than the viewer seeing a dramatic scene unfold before them.

So let us get on to the main event.  “The Great Wave” that we all know and love.

Many assume that this wave was part of a tsunami, but this is actually what is known as a “plunge breaker” or a rogue wave.  One huge, but no less devastating than a tsunami, wave.  The people in the boats below this wave would have been left without boats and lucky if they survived.

Perhaps that is why this print is one of the most intriguing and most dramatic.  Hokusai approached the creation of this print with a precision which creates a theatre within a frame.  Whereas in the previous two creations, the horizon was in the middle of the print, the horizon in this one has been dropped below the sea line, all that the view can see of the horizon line is the peak of Mount Fuji, losing the depth of perspective, rendering the audience unsure of how far away the shore line is.  This technique moved away from the traditional Japanese style, introducing Hokusai’s European influences, and puts the audience in the line of the breaking wave as though it is going to crash over them.

The wave itself is far more fluid indicating is intended landing spot.  The curve of the wave is now uninterrupted and reflects the golden spiral which is the geometry behind the set of divine ratios which reflects in everything around us.  The spiral gets wider as it moves outwards to the ratio of φ at every quarter turn.  Now if I have got a bit too nerdy for you there, this basically means it is the perfect ratios for what our eyes consider to be correct dimensions.  You can see how the spiral fits in to the wave:-


I am just going to make a note on the scale here.  Mount Fuji is 3776m and dominats the landscape, yet here it looks like a mere hill in comparison to the wave.

Hokusai has also demonised the wave.  The sea foam looks almost like claws of another worldly monster as it looms over the long boats.

In contrast to my last post, where I talked about man’s influence over nature, this devastatingly beautiful (in the most literal sense) print shows nature’s power over man.  This print leaves me feeling helpless at the hands of the sea, there is no escape but to ride it out and hope that there is not a watery grave at the end of it.

What do you think of when you see “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”? Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

Want to see more of what I like?  You can find me on Facebook and Instagram under WidowCranky – join the page and add yourself to my group to be introduced to all sorts of inspired media!


5 thoughts on “The Great Wave off Kanagawa – Hokusai

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  1. A rogue wave eh? I’ve experienced a few of those. I used to fish along the California coast. Waves would come in sets of three. But every so often, we’d get one that was twice or three times the size of the three. We learned to never take our eyes off the horizon.

    On January 26, 1700 the last Cascadian earthquake struck the northwest coast of the United States. People here wait in dreaded anticipation of the next (they show up every 300-500 years). The way they know the date was due to records kept in Japan regarding tsunamis. The wave from the quake crossed the Pacific and struck Japan some many days later.

    Ever considered creating a video along the lines of this one:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How does the Savior, the Messiah, Jesus Christ bring peace to the storms of your life?

    There is a famous Japanese painting. Mount Fuji is just off center in the background. A great wave is raised and obscures most of three boats with crew members struggling to negotiate the sailing of their crafts in the terrible sea.
    In the scriptures there is a record of Christ sleeping through tumultuous seas and the fear of the Apostles. Christ did not fear because he knew the truth of His mission. Do you know your truth?
    HYMNS OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS # 105 says: Master the tempest is raging! The billows are tossing high! The sky is o’er shadowed with blackness. No shelter or help is nigh. Carest thou not that we perish? How canst thou lie asleep? When each moment so madly is threatening a grave in the angry deep?
    Master with anguish of spirit I bow in my grief today. The depths of my sad heart are troubled. Oh, waken and save, I pray! Torrents of sin and anguish sweep o’er my sinking soul, and I perish! Dear Master. Oh, hasten and take control!
    Master, the terror is over. The elements sweetly rest. Earth’s sun in the calm lake is mirrored, and heaven’s within my breast. Linger, O blessed Redeemer! Leave me alone no more, and with joy I shall make the blest harbor and rest on the blissful shore.
    The winds and the waves shall obey thy will: Peace be still. Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea or demons or men or whatever it be, no waters can swallow the ship where lies The Master of ocean and earth and skies. They all shall sweetly obey thy will: Peace, be still; peace, be still. They all shall sweetly obey thy will: Peace, peace, be still.
    Christ weathered several storms in His life. That is how He became the Messiah. Our lives are one storm after another. I think that is how we become like Him in character.
    My life has been an ongoing series of tumultuous experiences. Many of which have felt like they have broken me forever. When I have turned to Christ some have turned to my benefit. When I have rejected Him I have been broken by them. This last week seemed like I would perish from the onslaught.
    The point seems to be that storms of opposition come and we can survive them IF… we go with Christ. His way is the only way to survive regardless of the rage.
    Abinadi the prophet, of Mosiah 11-24, of the Book of Mormon scriptures, did not survive physically after he fulfilled his mission, just like Christ and Joseph Smith Jr., but he did spiritually gain his eternal life. That is what really matters! In fact if each of us serves well, as King Benjamin said in his address to his nation, recorded in Mosiah 2:17, we gain all. It says …I tell you these things that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God. And as stated in these numerous places, The Holy Bible; Matt. 10:39(16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33) He who seeketh to save his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. That is, by charting our course in life as Christ did we will reach that which we seek in life; true happiness. To do so may require us to ask an eternal question that is connected with service or sin. What will be the depths to which we will have to sink?
    What will be the oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and streams we must traverse? Will it be the Kindergarten and will we “work and play well with others”? Will it be during a test in later school? Will we as Soldiers, Law Enforcement, Firemen, Emergency Medical Technicians, Physicians, Nurses, and Retail-outlet Clerks be tried somehow? Will it be some other work? Will it be when we parent our children?
    What about in our callings in the kingdom of god? Will we chose TV, a book, on-line activities or a video game over our adequate preparation for and service by the Spirit?
    There are regularly currents, winds, squalls, and so on pushing, pulling, and battering OR fair weather calling us away from our labours and duties. Sometimes beauty, calm, pleasures, relief, fun, acceptance, popularity, and so on are tempests in disguise. Are we wise enough to choose what will be to our best whether it is comforting or difficult? It is likely that no great, valiant, heroic, famous, glorious, and/or rewarding act was ever accomplished without challenging efforts.
    I encourage you to reach out for the hand of Christ in your struggles as Peter did when he lost his faith and began to sink after having walked on the water. Note, we all go from times of strength to periods of confusion, ignorance, fear, anger, hopelessness and so on, but, there are ways through without drowning in despair and failure.
    My week of great difficulty did not find relief until I Fasted after much prayer, gospel study, and efforts at obedience.
    What does it take to save our soul? That is why they call it Salvation? Christ taught us how.
    First, you must decide to set sail for righteous ports.
    Second, you must join the right crew for the destination you desire. Your companions, starting with The Holy Ghost, will make your journey or sink you.
    You must equip for the journey. Essentially that is God’s intelligence as referred to in the book called The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 93 and Verse 36. That is The Word of God, and to know, understand, appreciate, and practice it willingly and then joyfully.
    You have to fulfill faithfully your duties during your voyage.
    When storms hit and threaten to wash you overboard and drown you it is necessary to have tethered yourself to the mast, which is the Kingdom of God.
    When doldrums, which are spells of listlessness and despondency, occur you must exert determination to persist; inspired by Christ and His examples.
    If you run out of stores and suffer various difficulties you must have decided ahead to endure to the end of it all; whether for the short-term or the complete journey.
    When you lose hope and belief you need to seek faith by study and prayer from The Word. Actually, in order to avoid despair you should daily seek inspiration!
    And finally, if you will choose to rely upon your Captain, God the Father, and Navigator, Jesus Christ, as well as the Chief Mate, the Holy Ghost, and not mutiny you will reach your port of salvation and happiness.
    So what do you decide? Prayer; Scripture Studies (The Iron Rod; Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi Chapter 11, Verse 25 and 15: 23-24); Hymns; Fasting; Tithes and Offerings: Obedience; Sacrifice; Service; Pure Love; Charity; Forgiveness; Gentleness; Kindness; Virtue; Understanding; Chastity; Compassion; Purity; Etc.?
    The decision on how to chart the course of our life and to weather its storms is up to each of us. It determines our experiences, our feelings, our satisfaction, the eventual outcomes, and everything in between. Just remember this: the efforts required for a safe journey are well worth the struggles.
    Signed Chaplin Hawkeye and by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost from God.


    1. Thanks for your input, although this isn’t a religious painting nor was it ever intended to be, this was to demonstrate the fragility of life and how nature will do what nature will do. If you had read anything else by me, you will know I have no religious connotations, and while I have appreciation for others beliefs, I don’t take to being preached at.


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