Fuji and waves are both themes central to Katsushika Hokusai’s imagination; he depicts each of them dozens of times, in states ranging from serenity to rage. Here the mammoth wave soars to its peak, an instant before it will crash down over three fishing skiffs and the men huddled within. Shown in deep perspective—an innovation borrowed from Western artists—the foaming edge simultaneously descends like snow on the mountain peak, which seems to rise out of one of the boats.
In Buddhist tradition, the enduring nature of Fuji highlights—by way of contrast—the transience of human existence; fu-ji is literally ‘no death.’ Visible from Hokusai’s home city of Edo (Tokyo), he dwells on the sacred mountain as an image of changelessness and immortality, by comparison with the ‘floating world’ of everyday reality. Yet Hokusai distinguishes himself from traditional artists by also exploring in depth daily life in Japan’s chic new capital city. Earlier artists focused on ceremony, high society, ‘pure’ nature, but this master draftsman, painter, and printmaker looks carefully at everyone: peasants and geishas, butchers and laundrywomen, victims of rape and the most recent eruption of Fuji—or (as here) fishermen pursuing their dangerous occupation.
Notably, Hokusai’s visions of Fuji were mass-produced prints—in this series alone, thirty-six images, a number signifying completeness. A single sheet sold for little more than the price of a bowl of noodles. Thus they circulated widely among tourists, townspeople of all classes, and pilgrims who came by the thousands each year to climb the sacred mountain, hoping to glimpse a reality that transcends the floating world of pleasure-seeking and pain.
Likewise, Psalms 42–43 (originally a single psalm) express a pilgrim’s longing for God’s ‘holy mountain’ (43:3), presumably Jerusalem. Wandering in distant places, literally or metaphorically, the psalmist prays that divine light and truth will lead her to the place where God’s saving presence is a palpable reality.
Baatsch, Henri-Alexis. 2016. Hokusai: A Life in Drawing (London: Thames & Hudson)
Lane, Richard. 1989. Hokusai: Life and Work (London: Barrie & Jenkins)
42As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
2My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
3My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
4These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
5Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help 6and my God.
My soul is cast down within me,
therefore I remember thee
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of thy cataracts;
all thy waves and thy billows
have gone over me.
8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
9I say to God, my rock:
“Why hast thou forgotten me?
Why go I mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
11Why are you cast down, O my soul,
my help and my God.
43Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from deceitful and unjust men
2For thou art the God in whom I take refuge;
why hast thou cast me off?
because of the oppression of the enemy?
3Oh send out thy light and thy truth;
let them lead me,
let them bring me to thy holy hill
and to thy dwelling!
4Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise thee with the lyre,
O God, my God.