This month will see the release (hopefully) of a new Japanese movie (details here) exploring the unknown life of the artist Katsushika Hokusai, who lived in Japan’s late Edo period (the early 19th Century). His works, such as “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” and “36 Views of Mt Fuji”, are recognizable to millions around the world – but who really was Hokusai? What transformed him into the eccentric genius who won the hearts of Japan’s common folk, despite the Shogun’s attempts at censorship? What secrets do his paintings still hide?
Let’s find out by taking a look at this museum in the heart of Tokyo, dedicated to his memory …
(Writing and photos by J P Catton)
There are two things that haunt you everywhere you go in the eastern Tokyo district of Sumida. One of them is the Sky Tree, a giant communications tower dominating the skyline and casting its shadow across your path. The other is the painting of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” affixed to walls and traffic signs: the iconic work of the artist Katsushika Hokusai.
Hokusai, along with other artists such as Hiroshige and Utamaro, was an exponent of the art form known as ukiyo-e. This is the style of woodblock print and painting that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868), a style that has become one of the most immediately recognizable forms of traditional Japanese art around the world. Three years ago, a museum opened in Shitamachi (the oldest part of Tokyo) dedicated to Hokusai.
Whether Hokusai was the ‘best’ ukiyo-e artist is purely a matter of opinion. It would be fairly safe to say, however, that he was a creative genius who transformed the way ukiyo-e was perceived. He was also a true man of Shitamachi, born in the teeming hive of artisans, merchants, priests, prostitutes, gamblers, crooks and beggars that made up the Low City of Edo. He shared their values; he knew what it was like to struggle for money to live, and although he spent time traveling across Japan he lived, ate, drank, fought, and partied in the Low City that he eventually died in. The people of the city loved him for it; he was a celebrity of his time, and his residences were frequently visited by acolytes hoping to learn from his experience.
The Shitamachi Low City’s area spreads from what is now central Tokyo through Taito, Sumida and Arakawa wards to the eastern edge of today’s capital. The Sumida Hokusai Museum is located a short walk from Ryogoku station, past the huge Edo-Tokyo Museum. In fact, the street it’s on is also named after the artist; the Hokusai Dori stretches from the Edo-Tokyo Museum to Kinschicho station, and the Museum is easy to find. Its post-modern, slightly controversial architecture (designed by award-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima) is set back from the road, past a small park and children’s playground.
The Museum is comprised of four floors. The first is the entrance and gift shop, the second is the office area, the third is a special exhibition space, and the fourth is the permanent exhibition.
The permanent exhibition is not exactly large, but it contains the essential information on Hokusai’s life and times, with copies of the artworks he has become globally renowned for, and there are interactive touch screens in several languages. There is a family tree near the entrance, outlining where he was born, who his adopted parents were, and mentioning his connection to the 1702 Ako Roshi military raid (known globally as the story of the 47 Ronin). The exhibition’s interior explains his early life as an apprentice to a mirror-maker, his entry into the world of ukiyo-e, and the different stages of his artistic career, showing how his techniques changed as well as the themes he depicted. Until Hokusai appeared, ukiyo-e was a genre restricted to portraits of famous samurai, courtesans, and actors, because that’s what the public wanted. Hokusai was the first artist to attempt landscapes and depictions of nature in ukiyo-e, and despite the initial misgivings of his sponsors, they were a huge success. Hokusai won acclaim not only for painting vistas of natural beauty such as the views of Mt Fuji, but also the working lives of the common Low City people, around the Sumida river where he lived.
For those interested in the Yokai – those supernatural creatures that inhabit the rich and varied world of Japan’s mythology, folklore and urban legend – there is not much you haven’t seen before, unfortunately. One exception to that is a large reproduction of Hokusai’s ‘lost’ painting, “Susano-o no Mikoto Making a Pact with the Spirits of Disease”. This was a large votive tablet that Hokusai painted in 1845, depicting Susano-o no Mikoto the Shinto God of Storms, and donated to the nearby Ushijima Shrine. This painting was destroyed in the fires following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the restoration is based on a single black-and-white photograph taken not long before the disaster struck.
As this is a blog post for Excalibur Books, I declare a vested interest in Hokusai Katsushika; he is a major character in Voice of the Mirror and Voice of the Jewel, books 2 and 3 of the Sword, Mirror, Jewel trilogy. The series gives a fictional explanation to some of the great unsolved mysteries surrounding the artist. Why did he change his name so many times? Why was he constantly on the move, changing residence 93 times during his life, but always to houses within the Sumida area? What was the story behind the strange disappearance of Hokusai’s contemporary rival, the artist Toshusai Sharaku? What secrets are contained within Hokusai’s most celebrated work, the hypnotically fascinating “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”?
For answers to those questions, click here … and start your journey!
To visit the museum …
Address: 2-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm (Closed Mondays)
Entrance fees: ¥400 (Adults),¥300 (High school, university students and seniors). Free admission for pre-schoolers, elementary school and middle school students.
Once you’ve been to the exhibition – don’t forget the shop! We can recommend the Hokusai Rice Crackers (salt and prawn flavor). The cookies are in a nice decorative tin, but are sadly not all that tasty.
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