Art Art and Design Artist English

Hokusai, Making Waves

When confronted with the name Katsushika Hokusai, the thoughts of both art enthusiasts and laymen alike tend to fall upon one seminal work: Great Wave, or Under the Wave off Kanagawa, as it ought to be known. This is particularly true of the reception of Hokusai in the western world. Indeed, since its mass production in the thousands, Hokusai´s wood-block print of a crashing behemoth has effected so great and permeating an influence that we have seen it infiltrate a spectrum of cultural nuances that are as broadly defined as cinema and animation – both in Japan and in the west; music and the arts – in works such as Camille Claudel´s The Wave, to name but one; and even skate, snow, and surf apparel branding. Indeed The Independent even wrote of Great Wave, referring to it as a fitting, despairing, but not altogether tragic “symbol of our times”; a nod, perhaps, to repeated and continued appropriations of Great Wave as a vehicle for political and social commentary and illustration.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under a Great Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki namiura), from the series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei), 1830-1832.
Katsushika Hokusai, Under a Great Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki namiura), from the series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei), 1830-1832.

Along with the energy and movement that Hokusai skilfully manages to observe, capture, and convey to his masterpieces, his works are uniquely characterized by the way that prominence is given to the day to day lives of ordinary working people in his paintings, sketches, and prints. Drawing inspiration for his prints from a great many walks of life (farmers, fishermen, servants, courtesans, artisans and craftsmen, to name a limited few), a significant number of Hokusai´s works contain some pervading element of human interest; likely contributing to the enduring strength of his artistic influence, spanning from the eighteenth century right up to the present day.

Katsushika Hokusai, Ejiri in Suruga Province (Shunshu Ejiri), from the series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei), 1830-1832.
Katsushika Hokusai, Ejiri in Suruga Province (Shunshu Ejiri), from the series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei), 1830-1832.

Great Wave, with its depiction of boatmen struggling in the face of a natural and overwhelming adversary, can hardly be described as benign or ordinary; but congruous with Hokusai´s skill as an artist of the Ukiyo-e (´pictures of the floating world´) discipline, it conveys a dramatic reminder of the temporality and fleeting nature of day-to-day life.
In the last fifty years, and with the advent of film and animation as popular forms of media and modes of expression, the energy of Hokusai´s influence has been renewed and reinvigorated. Inspired by the movement and dynamism in Hokusai´s work, and the charming detail of his observations, Director and Animator Tony White produced the British Academy Award-winning Hokusai, an Animated Sketchbook as his first venture into Short Film. On the sketchbooks of Hokusai, White wrote:

“When I saw them I realized that this artist was indeed a true animator at heart… he just didn’t have the knowledge or the technology to be one in his lifetime. I therefore sought to bring his drawings to life for him, as homage to his genius.”

It is fitting then, that we see modest but important tributes to his artistry in the animated films of directors like Hayao Miyazaki, whose pastoral scenes and depictions of mysterious landscapes (and treacherous seas in the children´s film Ponyo) echo Hokusai´s influence strongly.


In Hokusai we find an observational genius whose artistry and influence effortlessly crosses time and cultural nuances, and shows no signs of halting.