Thursday, January 29, 2009

Katsushika Hokusai's Fugaku hyakkei





One of the more enduring myths in the comics milieu is the one that states Katsushika Hokusai's coining of the word "manga" around 1814 (the word today means "comics," but it meant "sketches," to say it simply, or, according to Frederik L. Schodt in Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, 1989 [1983], Kodansha: 18: "whimsical sketches"). Mitsugu Katayori explained (International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 7, # 2, Fall/Winter, 2005: 48): "The word manga in the phrase Hokusai Manga [a generic title to designate fifteen woodblock-printed volumes - manuals to painters - published between 1814 - # 1 - and 1834 - # 12 -; three posthumous volumes were published between 1849 and 1878] comes from the word manzen, which means browsing aimlessly. A long time ago, in China, there was a bird called Mangachuko. It had long legs and ate shellfish from the river. Hokusai imaged the bird when he named the collection of his drawings. He sketched as much scenery as possible, like this bird that picked up anything and everything, browsing in the river." Santō Kyōden used the word "manga" before Hokusai in the kibyōshi (yellow covers) picture book: Shiki no yukikai (seasonal passersby), 1798 (Adam L. Kern, International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 9, # 1, Spring, 2007: 23; see above). Adam even registers older uses of the word: "the term appears even earlier than Seasonal Passersby, within the text of Suzuki Kankyō's Miscellany of Comic Scribbles (Mankaku zuihitsu) of 1777 -- well over three decades prior to Hokusai's use in his title. And a couple years earlier than that, Hanabusa Itchō (1652-1724) used the Chinese graphs for manga -- though glossing them to be read as mankaku -- in the title of a work (Mankaku zukōgun chōkakukei, 1769)" (ditto: 24). The little rub that made me wonder in the above quote was: how come someone who died in 1724 wrote a book in 1769? That's when I put the www to good use and asked the excellent essay's author on the Plat list. Here's what he answered (Jun, 22, 2007): "Hanabusa Itcho produced "Mankaku zukogun chokakukei" as a manuscript sometime during his lifetime -- nobody knows precisely when -- but it was only published posthumously in 1769." Thanks again for your kind answer, Adam! This proves that trying to find firsts is a tricky business. If asked though, I would say now that, until proven wrong, Hanabusa Itchō coined the term, probably during the late 17th to early 18th century.

Fugako hyakkei is a religious book. As Henry D. Smith put it in his great intro to One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji (George Braziller, 2001 [1988]: 7): "One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji is a work of such unending visual delight that it is easy to overlook its underlying spiritual intent. Hokusai was, as he prefaced his signature, "Seventy-five Years of Age" when the first volume of the work appeared in 1834, and his effort to capture the great mountain from every angle, in every context, was in the deepest sense a prayer for the gift of immortality that lay hidden within the heart of the volcano. By showing life itself in all its shifting forms against the unchanging form of Fuji, with the vitality and wit that inform every page of the book, he sought not only to prolong his own life but in the end to gain admission to the realm of the Immortals." Fugakku hyakkei was published in three volumes. The colophon of book one has Katsushika Hokusai's famous declaration (henry D. Smith's translation, ditto: 7): "From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false. Told by Gabyō Rōjin Manji" (Manji [Hokusai's last name in a long list], old man mad about painting; see the original Japanese text in image # 4, above).

Fugaku hyakkei is part of comics' expanded field, I guess. I see no reasons, other than the usual sociological ones, to exclude this marvelous book from the restrict field though. Comics are both narrative and descriptive. This is a descriptive book: it depicts life, in all its forms (even the imaginary ones). Descriptions are usually on the background while the story unfolds in the foreground. Hokusai brings the former to center stage, but, as we'll see below, he did even more than that...

In the chapter "The Impossible Definition" of his book Système de la bande dessinée (Presses Universitaires de France, 1999) Thierry Gröensteen starts almost rejecting essentialism ("it has become almost impossible to retain any definitive criteria that is universaly held to be true": 14; translation by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen) to later invoke a "foundation principle" ("their common denominator and, therefore, the central element of comics, the first criteria in the foundational order, is iconic solidarity:" 18). If that's not hardcore essentialism (not to mention old school Structuralism) I don't know what essentialism is. But, anyway, to be as incoherent as Gröensteen, I'll use his "foundational principle" to say that, there's no doubt about it: Hokusai's images in Fugaku hyakkei show iconic solidarity in the highest degree. The link between all the one hundred and two images being the triangular form of the mountain. I also want to put a geometry concept on the comics theory table (Hokusai loved geometry, by the way...): the idea of locus (the totality of all points, satisfying a given condition; the locus, as applied to comics, is a third way between narration and description). That's certainly what Hokusai did around Mt. Fuji: he searched for geographical points, hither and yon, from where the mountain could be seen. But that's also what every other comics artist does... all the time... even if their Mt. Fujis are called Mongo, or Metropolis... even if their points are just figments of their fertile imaginations...


1. page from Shiki no yukikai by Santō Kyōden (w) and Kitao Shigemasa (a) (1798); the word "manga" (漫画) can be seen in the fifth column from the left (second) at the bottom (as published in the aforementioned page of the IJOCA);

2. a "Falcon Feather" (first edition) copy of Fugaku hyakkei (hundred views of Mount Fuji, 1834; cover);

3. "Kanagawa oki nami ura" (the great wave off Kanagawa): print # 1 of Fugaku Sanjūrokkei (thirty six views of Mount Fuji; 1826 - 1833):

4. Fugaku hyakkei's colophon's first page as published in One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji (George Braziller, 2001 [1988]): the fifth column (second) includes the declaration translated above; the seal (originally in red) represents Mt. Fuji and the I Ching trigrame for lake; in the fourth column (third) appears the name of the engraver: Egawa Tomekichi.

PS Book twelve of Katsushika Hokusai's Manga (sketches; 1834):
Richard Kruml's ukiyo-e (images of the floating world):


Jiro said...


By one of those coincidences that feel anything but coincidental, after reading your post I flipped through the latest issue (No. 2693, 31 January 2009) of New Scientist and chanced upon a review of philosopher of art Denis Dutton's new book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press), where reviewer Martin Kemp (emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford) writes:

"Dutton's list of criteria that define art includes novelty, critical dialogue and expressive individuality, emphasising communication between one human soul and another. In other words, he wants to rescue an idea of art specific to a certain notion of aesthetic value in western thought and apply it universally to artefacts from all image-making societies.

"We should not, Dutton rightly argues, deny our category of art to societies that have not formulated the concept. While we can fairly talk, for instance, about ritual in societies that have not developed that collective concept, we cannot ride roughshod over functions for images from other cultures which are not at all in line with our conventional aesthetic criteria. Rather, let us consider that the conventional definition of art is dealing with a set of characteristics in which separate subsets might be operative in any given society--without all subsets necessarily sharing any given, essential elements. This will allow us to loosen the shackles on how we analyse the role of visual images. There will be shared elements, but not a rigid set of core criteria."

I apologise for the long quote, but Dutton's definition seemed to me an apt summary of what I infer--from reading your posts--to be the rationale underlying your canon and your subsequent lack of appreciation for superhero comics.

However, what I found especially relevant was the notion espoused in the second paragraph against the essentialism of a single definition of art, basically a reformulation of your argument against and essentialist definition of comics and particularly against Gröensteen's "hardcore essentialism". What surprises me most is the absence of these kinds of notions in the writings of Gröensteen (especially given the well-regarded tradition of French criticism). Given your dedication and expertise in the comics field (expanded or not), I thought you would find the reference interesting.

Congratulations on your blog. Your canon has become my shopping list.

Isabelinho said...

Hi Jiro:

Thanks a lot for your kind words, for the very interesting quote and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. Tommorrow I'll try to answer you. Now it's way too late around here, sorry!

Isabelinho said...

Hi Jiro:

Thanks a lot for your kind words, for the very interesting quote and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. Tomorrow I'll try to answer you. Now it's way too late around here, sorry!

Isabelinho said...

Wow! A double post! This reminds me with fondness my messy messboard days!

Your two quotes are apart enough from one another to pretty much get *the* contradiction at the core of my thoughts about what's great and what's not in art. I'm a great admirer of Dwight MacDonald and I still believe in much of what the Frankfurt School had to say about the "cultural industry." I think that we're living in barbaric times and the childification of mass culture seems an obvious fact to me (what other reason would lead grown ups to seriously discuss children's art as if their lives depended on it?). I also believe that the dumbing down of everything is a fact (from the quality of food to infotainment). I'm against massification and profit at all costs (human beings and quality of product be damned). I believe in all that... but... I also believe that critics judge in a court house with no definite rules. A canon is inevitable just because it's impossible to retain everything (memory is a selective mechanism), not because some god constructed it. Plus: every canon needs to be challenged or it will die of multiple sclerosis. The under representation of minorities in the public sphere has to be challenged, but I don't believe in putting someone on a pedestal just because she belongs to a marginalized social group. I view that positive action in the arts as an insult and a condescension. I recently read an article by Trina Robbins in which she defends, quoting Ursula Leguinn, that some "signs" (as she put it) are avoided by men and, consequently, are used by male critics to call women's comics "trivial." These are: pretty, cute, romance, fashion. I would put all these labels under "saccharine" and I would dismiss anything saccharine as great art, not because I'm a male chauvinist pig who just likes violence and power (I don't, and I find these stereotypical views simply insulting), but because I hate escapism, manichaeism and cardboard "characterizations." I don't care if the saccharine is produced by men or women.
Thierry Gröensteen's book was important to add some formal concepts to comics theory, but he said that he comes from a Neo-semiotic position (néo-semiotique), not from a Post-Structuralist one.
I don't know if I hate super-heroes or not. I'm an adult and I don't want to lose my time reading children's comics. life's too short and I don't even want to read so-called adult super-hero comics, sorry (it's a choice, I suppose). I don't even want to discuss the things because, to seriously do so, I had to read them.
End of rant...