J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Takahiko Masuda and Matsuo Basho

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Takahiko Masuda and Matsuo Basho by timtak
The Great Wave off Kanagawa , a by Katsushika Hokusai on Flickr.

Katsushika Hokusai's waves are really good, so beautiful that they remind some people of Khalil Gibran's poem "Beauty", which ends:
Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.
(Bang on, Gibran!)

The commentary next to this painting in a local museum, however, seem to me to miss the mark. It claimed that The Great Wave was painted from the viewpoint of someone in another, a fourth, boat.

Takahiko Masuda points out many of Hokusai's paintings of the floating world, and as is a common trope in Japanese art and even in the artworks of contemporary Japanese, The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a view from nowhere. Borrowing Gibran's words again, this "is an image which you see though you close your eyes." The Great Wave is, and it forces us to realise that it is, and image in the mind. "Pictures of the floating wold" are floating, in all their ephemeral-immobility (see below), cynical-romantic, valorous-vainglory, and because they are 'seen' as if from the point of view of someone floating a few metres in the air.

I also think that it is important that, in the above picture, Mount Fuji looks like a wave at first glance. Hokusai seems to conceal Mount Fuji in several of the pictures in this series so that some of them are almost a little like "
Where's Wally." But this is no joke.

The wave is so striking, the peril of the people in the boat so great, and the similarity between the wave in the foreground with Mount Fuji so confusing, that one can lose site of Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, even though it is almost bang in the centre of the picture. So at first glance, for a split second, everything is in motion. The image is filled with splashing waves, flung spray, blown spume and frantic seamen. And then whammy, right in the centre, a rock (no, wait!) a mountain so large that it makes a ripple of the wave that is, towering above (no, wait!), frothing far below it.

This picture invovles for me a return (as pointed out by Ezra Pound) like that experienced when reading Haiku, most famously in that of Matsuo Basho:
An old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of the water
For me this poem describes Matsuo Basho, and vicariously, ourselves coming accross a pond, and seeing, a visual scene from a distance. We then presume (probably quite correctly) that a frog jumped into the pond, but then, whammy Basho points out that there was no frog, no movement, the scene did not change at all. All there is is the big old pond, and the sound of the water.

In both Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa and in Matsuo Basho's poem we are reminded that, despite our presumption of rapid change, there is something big and unmoving right in front of us! But what? I think Gibran answers that question, above, far better than I could.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is part of this series. My choice of post processing is probably a bit too blue.

This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.