Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)

Katsushika Hokusai

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura; The Great Wave), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), c.1830–32, Polychrome woodblock print; ink and colour on paper, 257 x 379 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, JP1847, www.metmuseum.org

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Terror, Transience, Transcendence

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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)

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