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!


2 thoughts on “The Great Wave off Kanagawa – Hokusai

Add yours

  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

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