Hokusai, perspective and his One Hundred Views


I came across this book on Hokusai’s One hundred views of Mount Fuji once and really liked the way its Introduction made sense of the cultural differences relevant to these perspectives of Mt Fuji. I always knew I liked Hokusai’s work, but I’m no art major and I didn’t know anything much about it. I think these notes are from Henry Smith’s introduction, but I confess I need to check (I forgot to reference properly). Anyway, the Introduction is subtitled ‘Hokusai and the Mountain of Immortality’ (pp.7-22) and Smith(?) wrote:

One hundred views of Mt. Fuji is a work of such unending visual delight that it is easy to overlook its underlying spiritual intent. Hokusai was, as he prefaced his signature, ‘Seventy-five Years of Age’ when the first volume of the work appeared in 1834, and his effort to capture the great mountain from every angle, in every context, was in the deepest sense a prayer for the gift of immortality that lay hidden within the heart of the volcano. By showing life itself in all its shifting forms against the unchanging form of Fuji, with the vitality and wit that inform every page of the book, he sought not only to prolong his own life but in the end to gain admission to the realm of the Immortals.

Signaling this quest, Hokusai announced in the signature a change of name, the fifth and last such change that he would make in the course of his long career. He was no longer ‘Iitsu, Formerly hokusai,’ but now ‘Manji, Old Man Mad about Painting.’ Manji is ‘the figure of ten thousand,’ the ancient religious symbol of the swastika, giver of life and fortune. The signature was followed by this famous declaration: ‘From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that 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. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false.’ Told by Gakyō Rōjin Manji” (p.7 Introduction)

One Hundred Views, Smith(?) continues “is in fact less well known than the Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji which immediately preceded it, the famous set of forty-six prints (ten more than promised) that marked the beginning of Hokusai’s courtship of the mountain. The reason is simple: the Thirty-Six Views are large single-sheet color prints, while the One Hundred Views is a book, in three small volumes, printed in monochrome black and gray. It is also a work that achieves masterpiece status only in the original edition, …but which has been largely known through later states with clumsy printing from worn.

The Organization of the One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji in book form is particularly important, for it provides a totality and an order of presentation that is absent in the [-p8] single-sheet series. For Western viewers, it takes practice to accustom the eye to Japanese style: reading from right to left. It will soon become apparent, however, that the compositions were intended to be seen in this way: note for example that the position of Mt. Fuji itself tends on the average to be right of center; and in those compositions in which the mountain assumes an assertive role in the overall design, it will almost always be on the right. The actual order of the views seems to have a secret inner logic, offering sequences that both please and perplex, enhancing the experience of viewing the work as a whole. / To reach the inner meanings of the One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, however, it is necessary to know something of the mountain and its place in Hokusai’s culture.” (pp.7-8)

Understanding the place of the mountain

Smith(?) goes on to discuss the place of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s culture in some detail, pointing out that “Fuji today is so tame (although still technically classified as active) that we tend to see it as a passive symbol. Not so for Hokusai, however, for whom the last great eruption in 1707, which left the Hōeizan crater on the southeast slope (see Nos. 7-8), would have been within living memory at the time of his birth in 1760. / In modern times, Fuji has become so much the tool of chauvinists and commercial image-makers that it has degenerated into a hackneyed and passive symbol for Japan itself.” (p8)

Hokusai’s own deeper concerns, however, had little to do with Fuji as symbol of Japan: his was rather an essentially religious preoccupation, a concern with life and death. Religious faith in Fuji stemmed from the primitive Japanese veneration of all mountains as sacred and is reflected in Hokusai’s opening depiction of the mountain as a Shintō goddess. As an organized religion, however, the worship of Fuji evolved primarily within the context of Buddhism, among the wandering mountain ascetics who came to be known as yamabushi. Their semilegendary patron saing, En no Gyōja, is depicted by Hokusai in No.3 of the One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, fearlessly practicing nighttime austerities on the summit of Fuji during his exile in Oshima in the late seventh century.” (p9)

He continues: “Hokusai’s spiritual preoccupation with Fuji is …not to be found in the organized worship of the mountain but rather in a different tradition, one which is Taoist rather than Buddhist in origin: the belief in Fuji as the source of the secret of immortality. Although he wrote ‘Fuji’ with the characters meaning ‘not-two,’ his real intentions are to be found in still another folk etymology of Fuji as ‘not-death’ (fu-shi), hence immortal. / The classic source for this etymology is the conclusion to ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’ (Taketori monogatari), a story of about the ninth century. There, a heavenly maiden returns to the sky after a sojourn on earth during which she won the heart of the emperor, to whom she left a letter and a jar containing the elixir of immortality. The distraught emperor ordered these to be taken to the summit of a great volcano in Suruga Province and there committed to the flames. From that time, the story concludes, smoke continued to rise from the peak, which was given the name ‘Fuji,’ or ‘not-death.'” (p10) “…from an early time, Mt. Fuji was seen as the source of the secret of immortality, a tradition that was at the heart of Hokusai’s own obsession with the mountain. Although none of Hokusai’s views specifically depict this tradition, it is in effect his hidden agenda.” (p11)

“Why one hundred views of Fuji?”

Smith(?) asks, then continues: “The simple answer is that, by the 1830s, enough artists and poets had already sone some sort of ‘one hundred Fujis’ that it had become a genre in its own right. The oldest precedents were poetic, dating back to at least the early seventeenth century, when Minase Ujinari composed one hundred waka on Fuji. …a search of the bibliography on Fuji reveals four other poetry works in the one-hundred Fuji genre that had appeared within three decades before Hokusai’s work: one of haiku, one of kyōka, and two of waka. All of these were available in printed editions.

According to Smith(?): “A decaying maple leaf is caught in a spider’s web against the gray silhouette of Fuji. It is another example of a pictorial haiku, to which one of Bashō’s verses seems almost perfectly matched: Kumo nani to / ne o nan to naku / aki no kaze; Hey spider! How do you sing, / in what key? / Wind of autumn.” (p215)

It is particularly revealing that four of these seven literary precedents were not in the traditional waka form, but in the short form of haiku and the comic form of kyōka. …Hokusai’s views offer a number of compositions that bear close structural parallels to haiku and to its comic counterpart, the senryū, of which Hokusai was himself a practitioner [particularly evident in Nos. 60, 72, Fuji Through a Web, and 77] .” (pp.13-14)

“No one can fail to be impressed by the ingenious variety of guises in which Hokusai manages to represent the sacred peak. This is more than a game for the artist, despite a certain playful wit. Rather, it is at heart an extended demonstration that Mt. Fuji by way of its form maintains the power to remain unchanged in spite of the constant change that surrounds it. It is like the focus of Hokusai’s Myōken faith and the source of his very name: the North Star, which remains fixed and immovable as the heavens rotate about it. By thus standing apart from the world of phenomenal change, Fuji transcends all change: it becomes, in short, Immortal.” (p18)

“What sets the latter work [One Hundred Views] apart [from the former, Thirty-Six Views] is an expansion of Hokusai’s methods of presenting Fuji beyond the standard landscape form. One such extension is into the realm of history, as seen in the opening views of Volume I, where the creation of the mountain, its ascent by En no Gyōja, and the Hōei eruption are all depicted. Thus we are given to understand that Mt. Fuji does indeed have a particular past, just as it is always seen from a particular place. But in the end, of course, it is beyond all time and place.” (p19)

Hokusai, mastery and old age

I loved the attitude towards old age depicted here – or communicated by Hokusai, at least. In his concluding comments, Smith(?) explains that: “In the end, Hokusai’s countdown to one hundred fell just ten years short of the mark. On his deathbed in the Fourth Month of 1849, Iijima Kyoshin reported, “he gave a great sigh and said, ‘If only I could have just another ten years.’ Some time passed, and he spoke again ‘just another five years – then I could become a real artist.'” Whether true or not, the anecdote is perfectly in character. / As it turned out, Hokusai did of course achieve the immortality he sought, in the continuing life of his art.” (p21)

Ref: now this is bad, but I didn’t record the reference properly… oops. I think these comments are from the introduction (by Henry Smith) to Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849. One hundred views of Mount Fuji / Hokusai ; introduction and commentaries on the plates by Henry Smith… but until I get back into the Fine Arts Library to check my page against theirs, I can’t be certain. Let’s just say I’m mostly sure it was him.

NOTE ALSO: I’m including this under the categories ‘Manga’ because of Hokusai’s relevance to that genre – and also under ‘city as text’ because I’m really interested in this discussion of how Fuji became a text – and how the text around Fuji was used by Hokusai to create his hundred views… and how his hundred views then became a textual reference to Japan in ‘the West’ and so on and so on in a Hall of Mirrors kind of way

Info on Hokusai etc. available at: http://www.answers.com/topic/hokusai


A History of the World in 100 Objects (available as audio files done in chapters at the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/MAPlqOEHRsmI1awIHQzRSQ)


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