Under the Wave off Kanagawa

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Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji
(富嶽三十六景, Fugaku Sanjurokkei)

Woodblock print title
Under the Wave off Kanagawa
(神奈川沖浪裏, Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura)

Katsushika Hokusai

The masterpiece is recognized as having one of the most dynamic compositions of the many images of waves Hokusai had created over the years.It is perhaps the most widely recognized work of ukiyo-e in the world.

The image is said to depict a view of Mount Fuji seen off the coast of present-day Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture. The powerful imagery illustrates a monstrous wave rising out of the ocean with so much energy and force as it produces sprays from the whitewash. Inside the water, it is full of action as the seamen frantically attempt to maneuver their boats amid the crashing waves and raging sea. All these movements are brought to life by the contrasting stillness and grandeur of Mount Fuji in the backdrop. 

The key elements

  • Waves
  • Boats
  • Mount Fuji

1. Waves

The blue areas of the waves are the underside, which are represented by two shades––one darker than the other––of indigo. Hokusai utilized varying shades of the indigo color to create shadows.
These two different saturations of blue further emphasize the rise and swell of the waves. 

Furthermore, the whitewash is also depicted with a very subtle light blue to add texture to the waves. 

Hokusai enthralls us with his endless innovations and mastery in illustrating various subjects, including the wind and other invisible elements, as well as those that are imaginary. The ukiyo-e master was particularly devoted to capturing waves in his works, to which he was committed throughout his lifetime.
Under the Wave off Kanawaga was published when Hokusai was in his early 70s, but his composition style of placing a large wave in the foreground had already appeared about 30 years earlier.
When Hokusai was in his late 30s, he began experimenting with ways to illustrate massive waves as evident in his picture book illustrations and prints.
Various imageries of waves can be found in the famous Hokusai Manga (北斎漫画), a collection of sketches created by Hokusai in his 50s, as well as in One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Hyakkei, 富嶽百景) published in his late 70s.
As you can observe, the artist had a strong desire to explore the techniques and methods to capture various expressions of the waves, and it became his lifelong project.

Hokusai Manga Volume 2 (北斎漫画)

Hokusai Manga Volume 7 (北斎漫画)

Fugaku Hyakkei (富嶽百景)

2. Boats

The boats you see floating between the waves are called oshiokuri-bune (押送船, lit. “push-through” boats), and they were used to quickly expedite the transportation of seafood products to Edo (present-day Tokyo) from the fishing villages. 

At the time, Edo Bay (current Tokyo Bay) flourished with fishing boats and vessels traveling from all parts of Japan, and these fast oshiokuri-bune were used to deliver fresh hauls to Edo. 

The boat on the left appears to be caught between the smaller swell hindering its path and the huge wave that is about to break on top of it. We can feel the tension and drama as the boat is moments away from being swallowed. 

3. Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji stands serenely and majestically in the background.
Hokusai used a dark, grayish colorant on both sides of the mountain to give the viewers the impression that Mount Fuji is located at a far distance. 

Despite its small size, Mount Fuji exudes a bold presence achieved by the contrasting movements of the roaring waves, thereby creating an exquisite balance of stillness and motion. 

Another Mount Fuji hidden in the wavesIf you see closely, there is a sizable swell rising in front of the massive wave. Doesn’t it appear similar in shape to Mount Fuji in the backdrop? The vivid contrast of near and far contributes to the creation of spacial depth, adding dimension and texture to the waves in motion.

This ukiyo-e piece highlights the dynamic forces of nature by capturing the grandeur of Mount Fuji set off by the powerful waves through Hokusai’s masterful application of perspective combined with the striking contrasts and composition of stillness and motion, and, of near and far.
Outside of Japan, the image is commonly known as “The Great Wave” and continues to fascinate people all over the world. 

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Woodblock Prints


Under the Wave off Kanagawa also known as The Great Wave off Kanagawa

神奈川沖浪裏, Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura