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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)


Hokusai waterfall Hokusai kanji Katsushika Hokusai (θ‘›ι£ΎεŒ—ζ–Ž) was an artist of such prodigious skill and imagination that it is nearly impossible to discuss his achievements in anything less than a book-length exposition. Considered by many to be the greatest artist of the ukiyo-e school, he is said to have made over 30,000 designs (prints, drawings, and paintings) on subjects or in formats as diverse as landscapes; beautiful women; kabuki actor portraits; legendary figures and historical tales; still life; nature, including birds and flowers; erotica; surimono; sketch books; illustrated albums, books, poetry compilations, and novels; and instructional painting manuals.

Only one print is discussed here, arbitrarily selected from among an overwhelmingly large number of impressive landscape compositions. The scene is titled Kisoji no oku Amida ga taki ("Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road") from the series Shokoku taki meguri ("Journey to the Waterfalls in All the Provinces"), circa 1832. The name is based on the round hollow of the waterfall, reminiscent of the "round eye" (or perhaps halo) of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. A servant at the far middle left heats a water kettle while two men converse and admire the view from their spectacular vantage point.

What is fascinating about compositions such as this is how well they reveal Hokusai's vivid draftsmanship in combination with realism and wide-ranging imagination. This image of the Amida waterfall is simultaneously a realistic representation of a meisho or famous place and also a transparent rendering of the basic forms underlying Hokusai's vision. The nearly perfect circle of the hollow is a central decorative motif, a metaphorical "round eye" simplified as though intended for Hokusai's students to use as a model from one of his didactic treatises. The zig-zagging waves of water approaching the precipice are decoratively drawn in a stylized shorthand that could be suitable for transfer to other media, such painting on ceramics. The falling water first descends in branch-like arteries, and then drops precipitously in long, straight verticals. Grassy cliffs frame the scene, bulging inward toward the central pictorial space, with shapes almost wavelike, their underlying compositional structure not so different, perhaps, from the wave in Hokusai's famously iconographic print, the Great Wave Off Kanagawa. The human presence is depicted poignantly, the men dwarfed by the surging falls and imposing cliffs, yet their presence is nevertheless a harmonious part of this magnificent view.

For further disucssion regarding Hokusai, see Kachô-e. © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Forrer, M.,: Hokusai: Prints and Drawings. Munich, 1991, no. 42.
  • Lane, R.: Hokusai: Life and Work. New York, 1989, p. 202 and plate 260.
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