By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterHokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon
By Christine M. E. Guth
University of Hawaii Press, 256pp
At the TWA Flight 800 International Memorial and Gardens on Long Island in New York, a granite wall displays the names of the 230 people on board that fatal flight from New York to Paris that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on July 17, 1996. On the back of the wall is etched a design evoking Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” (“Kanagawa oki nami ura”).
Why that iconic image was chosen for that beachside memorial is not revealed in this book, but design historian Christine Guth spent half a decade researching how this work of Japanese art became global, how it diffused across cultures and objects.
In Hokusai’s early 1830s original, part of a series called “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” the wave surges from left to right, framing Mt. Fuji in the distance. The cover of Guth’s book shows the wave moving in the opposite direction, with the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai in the background, from a 2012 print by Mohamed Kanoo called “Great Wave of Dubai.”
The spread of Hokusai’s dynamic composition is not a recent phenomenon.
Woodblock prints are not singular creations, but rather a form of mass printing limited only by the publisher of the work. In Japan, many would have had access to the image, and worldwide, it could travel just as easily.
Through the many images that illustrate the book, Guth shows just this, with an image of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky next to a print in 1911, or similar motifs on lithographs from Europe in the late 1800s.
Guth argues that another reason Hokusai’s work is memorable is the lack of a dominant culturally specific image, such as the face of a kabuki actor, that would make it less universally accessible to other cultures.
The power of nature can be imagined by the perspective Hokusai uses, with the wave seemingly towering over Japan’s revered and tallest mountain, drawing the viewer to the work.
The dominance of the wave gives rise to the image’s alternate name, “The Great Wave.”
Throughout its history, it is the wave that is appropriated the most, in all manner of objects. Guth shows the reader watches, spoons, socks and even eclairs decorated with the wave.
Of particular interest is an advertisement by The Yomiuri Shimbun placed in The New York Times of Sept. 27, 2006, showing two rows of the wave multiplied, leading to a cityscape of Tokyo with Mt. Fuji in the background.
Though at times her research might rely too much on secondary or tertiary sources, the best part of this book is the proliferation of images, the primary sources, which show the reader exactly how this work has traveled the globe in different manifestations.
While some of the examples she uses refer to entities that no longer exist, such as a business card for a defunct sushi shop in San Francisco, Hokusai’s original image endures.
Where to read
While views of the ocean and Mt. Fuji are scarce from Tokyo, find a spot, perhaps in Kanagawa Prefecture, that might replicate the view from Hokusai’s image.