Hokusai’s Action-Packed Illustrations of Japanese & Chinese Warriors (1836)

Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai cre­at­ed his best-known wood­block print The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa — or rather he fin­ished its defin­i­tive ver­sion — when he was in his ear­ly six­ties. That may sound some­what late in the day by the stan­dards of visu­al artists, but as Hoku­sai him­self saw it, he was just get­ting start­ed. At the Pub­lic Domain Review, Koto Sadamu­ra quotes the artist’s own words, as includ­ed in the book One Hun­dred Views of Mt. Fuji: “Until the age of sev­en­ty, noth­ing I drew was wor­thy of notice. At sev­en­ty-three years, I was some­what able to fath­om the growth of plants and trees, and the struc­ture of birds, ani­mals, insects and fish.”

Sadamu­ra goes on to intro­duce a dif­fer­ent, less­er-known, and even lat­er series of Hoku­sai’s art­works: “Wakan ehon saki­gake, which assem­bles images of famous Japan­ese and Chi­nese war­riors, both his­tor­i­cal and leg­endary. The Japan­ese term saki­gake in the title sig­ni­fies out­stand­ing fig­ures or lead­ers (Wakan means Japan­ese and Chi­nese, and ehon is a pic­ture book).”

Like many a hard­work­ing ukiyo‑e artist, Hoku­sai cre­at­ed these images to order, his pub­lish­er hav­ing asked him to “fill three vol­umes with ‘wis­dom’ [chi], ‘human­i­ty’ [jin] and ‘brav­ery’ [], using exam­ples of wide­ly cel­e­brat­ed mighty heroes as reminders of mil­i­tary arts even in times of peace.”

The results, which you can see both at the Pub­lic Domain Review and the site of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, clear­ly ful­fill their man­date of reviv­i­fy­ing from a glo­ri­ous past, real or imag­ined. But they also exude a cer­tain aes­thet­ic famil­iar­i­ty even today: in Hoku­sai’s depic­tion of the Heian-peri­od war­rior Hirai Yasumasa “sub­du­ing a mon­ster spi­der,” for exam­ple, “lines in the back­ground trace the motion of the gigan­tic arach­nid as it tum­bles and its sick­le-like legs flail in the air, empha­siz­ing the move­ment and force in a way that res­onates with the visu­al effects of mod­ern man­ga.”

All the more sur­pris­ing, then, not just that the Wakan ehon saki­gake (or at least two of its planned three vol­umes) are now 187 years old, but also that Hoku­sai him­self was sev­en­ty-six at the time. “Each tiny leaf grow­ing on the rocks and each tex­tur­al mark on the ragged sur­face is ani­mat­ed, fill­ing the pic­ture with vibrat­ing ener­gy,” Sadamu­ra writes. “Every sin­gle strand of hair is charged with life.”

But the mas­ter fore­saw greater achieve­ments ahead, only after attain­ing the expe­ri­ence that would attend an even more advanced age: “At one hun­dred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.” Alas, Hoku­sai died in 1849, at the ten­der age of 88, leav­ing us to imag­ine the lev­el of artistry he might have attained had he reached matu­ri­ty.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa by Hoku­sai: An Intro­duc­tion to the Icon­ic Japan­ese Wood­block Print in 17 Min­utes

The Evo­lu­tion of The Great Wave off Kana­gawa: See Four Ver­sions That Hoku­sai Paint­ed Over Near­ly 40 Years

Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Mas­ter­piece, Includ­ing The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa

View 103 Dis­cov­ered Draw­ings by Famed Japan­ese Wood­cut Artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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