The Great Wave off Kanagawa was the first design for the series "36 Famous Views of Mount Fuji", a kaleidoscopic view of pastoral life around Japan's sacred mountain. Created by Hokusai around 1830, the 36 prints were published and serialized by Nishimuraya Yohachi in around 1832.
In this dramatic scene, a huge wave looms over three pitiful boats filled with cowering fishermen. The clawed wave dwarfs Mount Fuji, which presides solemnly in the distance.
At first glance, one thinks that these fishermen are surely doomed to perish. We are witness to the tipping point, the moment when the crashing down of the monstrous wave becomes inevitable. The irresistible force of nature and the fragility of human beings is distilled down to a single snapshot of earthly drama.
But the boatmen may not be ill-fated. Rather than appear panicked, they hang to their oars in a disciplined brace.
These swift, streamlined boats were used to transport fresh fish from nearby fishing villages to the markets of Edo (today Tokyo), and were manned by experienced fishermen. Edo at that time was the second largest city in the world, with a voracious need for fresh food for its 1 million inhabitants.
The boats are in Kanagawa prefecture, with Edo to the north, Mt Fuji to the northwest, the bay of Sagami to the south and the bay of Tokyo to the east. The boats, oriented to the southeast, are returning to the capital.
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa draws its power from its composition, which simultaneously creates the sense of dynamic, dramatic tension while also conforming almost perfectly to the golden ratio.
It’s important to read the print from right to left to get the experience which Hokusai wanted to convey. From a Western left-to-right perspective, our eye runs across the crest of the wave down towards the boats with a sense of downward crashing motion. However read from right-to-left, we identify more with the boatmen as our eye rolls down the smaller undulating wave, before rolling up towards the crest of the great wave which seems to almost hit us in the face.
We also see Hokusai’s trademark use of repeated motifs throughout the image, using visual symmetries to create a sense of harmony. Notice the smaller wave at the foot of the scene mirroring the shape of Mount Fuji itself.
For such a renowned print, the design is simplistic in terms of colour, using a limited palette which would not have required many woodblocks.
The beautiful dark blue pigment used by Hokusai, called Prussian Blue, was a novel material to Japanese artists at the time, newly imported from England through China. Hokusai clearly fell in love with this deep, rich blue as he used it extensively in his prints, usually to create beautiful gradations (known as “bokashi”) in the skies and waters of his landscape scenes.
Hokusai had been building towards the great wave for quite some time. We can see the idea being sketched out and taking shape decades before it was perfected in its final enduring form.
Without any doubt, Hokusai was inspired by a revolutionary Western-style painting from Shiba Kokan, the likes of which had never been seen in Japan, shown below.
The Seven League Beach at Shichirigahama - Shiba Kokan (1796)
We can see Hokusai was clearly inspired by the painting, incorporating the key elements in a design he made for a book of poetry - shown here:
Women on the beach at Enoshima, Hokusai (1797)
And he developed the idea further, in several more prints in which the wave became ever more terrifying, and the design evolved towards the composition of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. We can see that in this print which predated The Great Wave that we know and love by around 30 years.
Great Wave at Kanagawa, Hokusai (1805)