The Great Wave off Kanagawa Analysis: How the Artist Stopped Time

Recreating of The Great Wave by Hokusai by Artsapien

Perhaps the most famous Japanese artistic creation recognized everywhere in the world and is present in every form, from linen to woods to wall and even emoji ?, is a giant wave with foamy fingers, knowns as The Great Wave off Kanagawa by the print artist Hokusai, Katsushika. This article will try and execute The Great Wave off Kanagawa analysis, finding out what’s so great about this woodblock print art.

The omnipresence of this print (and not painting, since this was originally made in print, then transcended the boundary of mediums) shows the influence it has had on artists and creative geniuses. You could almost say that this is the Japanese version of the famous Starry Night painting by Vincent van Gogh. However, it would be the other way around. Vincent van Gogh, in the letters to his brother Theo, said that he was inspired by Hokusai Katsushika, the creator of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. 

But what does this wave represent? Why did Hokusai choose this view and what are the other influences that had their input in the creation of this painting? This is the analysis of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai Katsushika.

But before we look into the intricacies of the painting, let’s analyze the physical aspects of it, the period it was created and why was this painting created. 

The origins of The Great Wave Painting 

First, let’s get the name of the painting right. It is not The Great Wave off Kanagawa but Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa and there’s a reason for that which will be mentioned later. In Japanese, it is called Kanagawa Oki nami-ura 

For simplicity, we’ll refer to the painting as “The Great Wave”. The Great Wave is a part of a collection of paintings called the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Yes, the painting is not about the wave, it’s about the sacred mountain in the background. 

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is not a painting about the wave in the foreground, but it is about Mount Fuji in the background.

Here are the other 35 paintings from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

  • Fine Wind, Clear Morning (Red Fuji)
  • Rainstorm Beneath the Summit 
  • Under Mannen Bridge of Fukagawa
  • Sundai 
  • Cushion Pine at Aoyama 
  • Musashi But, Senju
  • Inume Pass
  • Fuji View Filed 
  • Ejiri 
  • Mitsui shop in Suruga
  • Sunset in Ryōgoku
  • Sazai Hall 
  • Tea house at Koishikawa 
  • Shimomeguro
  • Watermill at Onden 
  • Enoshima in Sagami Province 
  • Shore of Tago Bay
  • Yoshida at Tōkaidō
  • Kazusa Province
  • Nihonbashi bridge in Edo
  • Barrier Town on the Sumida River
  • Bay of Noboto 
  • The lake of Hakone 
  • Reflection of Mount Fuji on Lake Kawaguchi
  • Hodogaya on the Tōkaidō
  • Tama River in Musashi Province 
  • Tōto Asakusa honganji
  • Tsukuda Island 
  • Shichiri Beach in Sagami Province 
  • Umezawa 
  • Kajikazawa in Kai Province
  • Mishima Pass in Kai Province
  • Mount Fuji from the mountains
  • A View of Mount Fuji Across Lake Suwa 
  • Ushibori in Hitachi Province

The reason I included all the names of the paintings is to show that the whole concept of the Great Wave and all other paintings was to show Mount Fuji from different vantage points.

The Great Wave is not about the waves

As established earlier, and from the list of other paintings, this painting is not about the waves. While the waves take the foreground and draw the viewers’ attention, the painting is about what’s under the wave. Hence the name “Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa”. 

The collection of thirty-six paintings all show Mount Fuji from different angles and emotions. Two paintings from the same collection come very close to this painting; Tama River in Musashi Province (Bushū Tamagawa) and Kajikazawa in Kai Province (Kōshū Kajikazawa).

The former image shows the use of blue color to represent a calm and serene Mount Fuji while the latter shows the use of white, finger-like projection to show the foaming sea waves. The purpose of all the thirty-six paintings is the representation of Mount Fuji, which is considered to be sacred in Shinto and Buddhist culture. But then, what makes this painting so popular? It’s the emotion.

What makes The Great Wave so popular? 

The reason why Under the Wave is so popular is because of two things; the use of Prussian blue and brilliant composition and the dynamic scene captured in the painting. Let me elaborate.

In the entire series of paintings, there is just one painting other than Great Wave, which portrays some dynamic action, stalled. It is the Village of Sekiya at Sumida River. The painting depicts three horses racing towards a narrow path and Mount Fuji in the background.

This scene is dynamic, shows urgency as if something is about to happen, a clash, a fight. This is very similar to The Great Wave. 

Village of Sekiya at Sumida River.

The painting depicts a dynamic motion stopped for us to show the beautiful and powerful perspective. A powerful, large wave with white, frothy claws advancing towards three small boats, about to devour them. This is what’s on the right side of the painting. 

On the left side, we see three boats that are moving towards this giant wave. They are about to have a head-on collision with it and there’s something peculiar about the inhabitants of the frail boats. 

Their faces or bodies show no sign of fear at all. Without any expected reaction towards the wave, they calmly move towards it. Could it be because these fishermen are used to these waves? Could it be that they are afraid but not willing to show it? No one knows, for the time is stopped. 

The time is stopped for us, the viewers. Hokusai has chosen that moment when the cusp of this giant wave is right above Mount Fuji in the background, creating a dramatic scene. The anticipation of what’s about to happen when time moves again. 

Mount Fuji is under the wave. The colors are so similar to the waves, with the rich, blue body and the white summit. So beautifully the mountain melts and merges with the waves.

The perspective 

Where Mount Fuji sits shows a lot about the European influence on Hokusai’s art. The focus of the painting, even when it is in the background, still gets our attention because of the parallel lines running towards the viewers. 

So from the right is this massive wave, destructive with its raw power, so huge that it makes a mountain look small. From the right, we have people on their frail boats, unbothered, not afraid, and moving towards the wave.

Focusing on Mount Fuji for the Great Wave off Kanagawa analysis
The perspective shows Mount Fuji in direct line of vision

And in the middle, under the wave, sits Mount Fuji, in this suspended state. Even though nothing is moving, we get the sense of the powerful motion and the emotions from what’s about to happen. That is the genius of Under The Wave off Kanagawa. 

Understanding it easily

For the modern viewer, I have to draw a comparison, and quite a blasphemous one, to make you understand why this painting stands out from the other thirty-five paintings. I say blasphemous because I’ll be using movie scenes and modern technology for the explanation.

In movies that are filled to the brim with action, there are moments and scenes where everything needs to be slowed down. One example is Avengers: Age of Ultron wherein the introduction scene, the Avengers all attack at the same time in a parallel formation, and the whole scene is slowed down. 

Now take any modern photograph as an example. If I showed you a photo of a normal scene where people are just standing, some are waiting, some sitting in a nearby cafe, and a few cars moving, it would not be anything special. The scene won’t be emotion-evoking.

But if I showed you an image of a person in the middle of a fall, the coffee spilling out of the cup, about to fall and a bird captured mid-flight, this image would evoke emotion because it is a suspension of a dynamic world. 

Since in the Edo period and many years after that, people did not have slow-motion cameras, this scene was something unique, something that made a dynamic world static.

Is the wave tsunami? 

There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of the wave in the picture. Is it a tsunami? Or is it just a normal wave? Considering the frequent occurrence of earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, it would not be uncommon for Hokusai to depict such a disaster in the painting. 

But research by the Royal Society has ruled out the wave being a tsunami wave. It is a “plunging breaker” which is about 10-12 meters (32-39 feet) in height.

Not being a tsunami does not mean it is a sigh of relief for the brave fishermen on the boat. With the sheer size and power of this wave (and since it is in the middle of the sea in Yokohama in Tokyo Bay), the wave also has a high velocity. So a direct hit from it can be fatal.

The philosophy of The Great Wave

As with every painting that gets the privilege to be analyzed, there comes the possibility of the analyzer to put their ideas as the ideas of the painter. And The Great Wave is no exception. There are multiple ways of interpreting the philosophical implications of this print. One of the most common interpretations is the conflation of European and Japanese culture. 

The giant waves are coming from the right side of the print. The brave fishermen are coming from the left side of the print. What does this signify about the philosophy? Or how does it show the amalgamation (or clash) of European and Japanese views? 

In Japanese culture, both books and paintings are read from either right to left or top to bottom. But in The Great Wave, the waves that catch the attention of the viewers are coming from the left side. 

The Japanese (the fishermen) are coming from the right side of the painting. The waves have a deep, Prussian blue color which is from Europe. So we have the left representing Europe and right representing Japan, both in content and position.

And just before the clash is about to happen which might lead to the death or the survival of the fishermen, we get a view of Mount Fuji. 

The Great wave off kanagawa by Hokusai
Kanagawa oki nami ura or Under the Wave off Kanagwa

While this interpretation is very believable, especially the reluctance of Japan to open up to the world for trade at that time, it most likely is just a creation of an astute art enthusiast and not what Hokusai meant.

Hokusai was also a mangaka, which means he wrote mangas and other literary works. He also created The Great Wave when he was above seventy years of age. So he considered this print as an important one. But nowhere did he mention anything related to culture.

Since I cannot go back in time and ask Hokusai about this print, it most likely wasn’t about the meeting of two cultures. It’s just about the admiration of the view of Mount Fuji, a view that is almost impossible for anyone to get in real life.

About the painter, Katsushika Hokusai

The painting was created in 1830 but made available for the public in the year 1832. Hokusai was around seventy years old when he completed the painting. And his life was as interesting as the painting he created. 

It is said that he started painting at the age of 6. At 19 years old, he came under the artist Katsukawa Shunsho, one of the leading artists of the Ukiyo-e paintings.

“If I could only have one more day, I could do a great painting.”

Hokusai took on more than thirty names. Some of the names include; Shunro, Hokusai, Manji Rojin, Iitsu, Taito, Gakyojin, etc.

Hokusai was influenced by the novel European art that focused more on the perspective and line structure to direct the gaze of the viewer towards the subject of the painting. This can be seen in the series of paintings where Mount Fuji is the subject. 

The use of Prussian blue also shows his affection for European art. Blue was a rare commodity and Prussian blue was exclusive to Europe since it was artificially created there. The use of this color shows a clear influence of the European ways. This magnificent masterpiece was created in the Edo period and the style is Ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e meant the ephemeral state of the world or floating worlds. And I think this woodblock print explains the style very well. The things we miss in an instant.

This concludes the article. Here are some other interesting art analyses that you will like