Tag Archives: Great Wave

For Some Reason. . .


Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), c. 1830-32, polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 10 1/8 x 14 15 /16 inches; 25.7 x 37.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)


I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.**

FOR SOME REASON, everything works out the way it is supposed to. The world is filled with elements and each and every detail is here with a purpose. A machine is a noun defined as a piece of equipment with moving parts when given power. Our world is comprised of tiny details that work together to create one great machine.

One possible reason… originating from Asian culture, is that the world is based on five amazing elements; we have water, wood, sky, fire and wind. Water hangs out in the ocean, it evaporates into the sky and proceeds to fall from clouds as rain or snow. Some snow lands on mountain tops, freezes and melts, flowing down hills into running rivers. And you see, the moon and sun control gravity, so depending on this planet and star, water’s currents are pushed forward, sometimes with strong pressure, other times with gentle pressure.

And if you’re living, you have to eat! Thankfully the wind can carry your boat that was made with wood collected from trees, out to the ocean where you can catch fish or all sorts of crazy creatures under the sea. You can bring them in for a meal or sell in exchange for steak from the butcher or potatoes from the farmer or rice harvested from the water fields near the running rivers from down the mountain slopes. Once the food is prepared you can enjoy your dinner while watching a show of Sumo wrestlers as you are safely protected by the Samurai guys, And with pleasure, have a glass of sake poured for you by Geisha ladies, fermented from the harvested rice.

You see that? every element in our world works together, like a machine.

For some reason Katsushika Hokusai depicted Mt. Fuji in a scene with a great big wave surrounding it. Mt. Fuji, in fact, is a sleeping volcano. It is the highest mountain in Japan. During winter, snow sticks to the top. During the warmer months it melts into flowing rivers. It has a chip off the top from its last lava flow in 1707.  The peak is standing confidently, resting quietly and humbly surrounded by roaring, fierce winds and cold currents splashing in a violent direction. Cobalt blue waves of a tremendous size, give off white sprays of water, landing like sharp fragments. These ambitious fishermen are here caught on the sea in the storm. Not to worry, sailing comes as second nature to these go getters, it is what they do. These men are secure in their boats, made of wood which is at ease on the sea. Bravely they sail, carrying the fishing expedition through. Mount Fuji is standing there quietly in the background reminding them of peace, strength and tranquility.

Put together in the time of 1830-32, The Great Wave, is a ukiyo-e / woodblock print comprised of a good balance and proper arrangement of elements. If it was here by itself with out the surrounding details, we wouldn’t really understand its importance. It runs in harmony with the waves and its fishing men. The colors, the wide currents and the surrounding pieces tell us a story about Japanese culture. Like a machine, all of these natural roles work together to tell a story of Japanese harmony.

Traditionally ukiyo-e prints were designs of courtesans and actors. Instead, Hokusai focused on the daily life of Japanese people from a variety of social levels (which, I’d like to add, is something of Genre Art). If your still curious on these prints and would like further detail on Japan, there are plenty of books out there about the specifics.

Mt Fuji is a tiny little triangle and plays a huge role in the perspective of the print. Three repeating points of Mt. Fuji and two waves bring things together. The waves even kind of look like the snowy top of the mountain. To keep it simple, the design is blocked with four basic colors of yellow, blue, white and beige. When looking at the picture the eye begins at the top of the volcano and carries through the story of the first fishing boat to the next fishing boat, to the small wave then to the third fishing boat and then the final hugest wave, and then starting all over again, in harmony to the top of the mountain.

Now, Geisha women, are a distinguished staple in Japanese society. Not to say that other persons are not a key factor. But in the book Memoirs of a Geisha a discussion takes place on the topic of  water and the five elements and the world working together in harmony. Here we have a conversation between Mameha and Sayuri…….

“Waiting patiently doesn’t suit you. Water never waits. It changes shape and flows around things, and finds the secret paths no one else has thought about. There’s no doubt it’s the most versatile of the five elements. It can wash away earth; it can put out fire; it can wear a piece of metal down and sweep it away. Even wood, which is its natural complement, can’t survive without being nurtured by water.

Those of us with water in our personalities don’t pick where we’ll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.

I’d never understood how closely things are connected to one another. We human beings are only a part of something very much larger. When we walk along, we may crush a bottle or simply cause a change in the air so that a fly ends up where it might never have gone otherwise. And if we think of the same example but with ourselves in the role of the insect, and the larger universe in the role we’ve just played, it’s perfectly clear that we’re affected every day by forces over which we have no more control than the poor beetle has over our gigantic foot as it descends upon it. What are we to do? We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them.”3

So when you look at it like that, you can relax freely. Just let the waves carry you along and make your decisions accordingly. Every element including you and I allow our universe to flow in harmony.

Ukiyo-e is the name for Japanese woodblock prints made during the Edo Period. Ukiyo-e, which originated as a Buddhist term, means “floating world” and refers to the impermanence of the world. The earliest prints were made in only black and white, but later, as is evident from Hokusai’s work, additional colors were added. A separate block of wood was used for each color. Each print is made with a final overlay of black line, which helps to break up the flat colors. Ukiyo-e prints are recognizable for their emphasis on line and pure, bright color, as well as their ability to distill form down to the minimum. 1


** The quote was discovered and brought to my awareness by my cousin Al.

** Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Scholastic Press: New York, 2007


2 “Mount Fuji Symbol of Japan.” National Geographic Education.  Sue, Caryl. Web. 6 April 2015. <http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/media/mount-fuji/?ar_a=1>

3 Griffis, William, Eliot Griffis. History of Japan 660 BC to 1872 AD.

3Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.:  New York, 1997

Feifer, George. Breaking Open Japan. New York; Harper Collins, 2006. Book.