If there is one iconic image of Japanese art that everyone knows, it is undoubtedly the mountainous crest about to consume Mt. Fuji from Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. Of course I’m referring to The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Certainly, a wonderful image, and not to be overlooked or forgotten. Though really how could it be considering the plethora of mugs, mouse-pads, totes, and t-shirts bearing it.
As worthy of its commercial success as that image may be, I tend to think it’s not the most powerful example of the wave in Japanese art.
The image I always recall is Ogata Korin’s Rough Waves.
In Ogata’s waves the figure is absent, there is no landscape in the distance to lend a sense of scale or comforting solidity. There is instead just a field of undulating ghostly waves that seem ready to drag any unlucky soul to bathymetric oblivion. Without any apparent prey at hand, they seem like tentacular dragons, foamy and rabid, set to devour one another in a ravenous acts of cannibalism.
These are waves of awe and of fear, images of an ocean (external or internal) that draws me to it and also keeps me terrified of what might happen there. This ocean, unlike Hokusai’s, seems to have no comic side, there is no one even attempting it by boat and we cannot imagine people living here or overcoming, taming its energies. Even a surrounding landscape is gone. Its just the ocean and its waves, everywhere.
This is of course the kind of image one can’t really imagine being emblazoned on the side of a coffee mug or a tote. Nature is too present, too empowered, and there are no humans to help spark a narrative. These are the kind of waves that could have been on Earth before us, and the kind that might be here once we are gone.
I try to imagine the striking clarity of Hokusai’s image replaced on some mug somewhere. Ogata’s sinewy uncurbed lines and emotionally abstract and unsteadied forms portending a more reflective and thoughtful coffee drinker. One less concerned with the beauty of landscape and awe for the ocean, and more aware of unknowable depths and the uncaring tendencies of nature.