Katsushika Hokusai 1760-1849

Pictures of 100 poems by 100 poets, explained by a Wet Nurse
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(89 pictures) in facsimile quality in the original Oban-size 15 x 10 inch.


Poem number 1
By Tenchi Tenno (628-681), Emperor

The original poem:
Coarse the rush-mat roof
Sheltering the harvest-hut
Of the autumn rice-field;--
And my sleeves are growing wet
With the moisture dripping through

A situational poem by HK:
I am the Emperor. I went to where my farmers work. I found shelter under a roof they made to store the rice harvest. The autumn rain drips tears through the coarse roof mats, wetting my clothes. Has nature been waiting to teach me this lesson?

Comment by HK:
The Emperor claims that he visited his farmers to symbolically participate with their hard life. Wet sleeves mean that tears have been wiped away. In this case tears of sympathy. Hokusai shows rice-paddies and farmers and indeed a harvest-hut. It seems to be difficult to climb under the roof. This is one of the pictures where the story is not what is shown but rather what is not shown. There are no Emperors, no traces of an imperial visitor, no rain, no tears. It looks as if the Emperors poem is just propaganda. That is heavy, especially in connection with poem number ONE. But there could be a twist in the story if one considers history. Maybe Hokusai was aware of history, maybe not. The Emperor Tenchi cared indeed for his people and he made a big effort to introduce the first civil code. What really counts for the life of the farmers are not imperial visits but the imperial work in offices and at conferences. Hokusai shows rich fields and a rich harvest, farmers with good clothes seeming to be well off.

A side remark
In modern analyse of poor third world societies one sees the main reason for the terrible situation of people in the lack of good civil codes, lack of affordable law, lack of courts and lawyers. Instead of legal acts everything is arranged with corruption. The chain of desaster is this:
  • Corruption feeds an immense bureaucracy
  • This bureaucracy makes it impossible to legalise the property of real estate and businesses. In Nigeria it would take 2 man-years of legal paperwork to legally start a candy-shop with a staff of two. With bribes it takes a day – one can work, but one has no property. One cannot sell the business nor take loans. The common people have no chance to build up their own property.
  • This is a devils circle. Foreign aid must first break the immense bureaucracy. Otherwise all is in vain.
The Emperor Tenchi was perfectly right with his priorities. Intended or accidental for Hokusais picture. The Emperors presence in the rice fields was not essential.

Poem number 2
By Lady Jito Tenno, Empress reign 690-698

The original poem:
Spring, it seems, has passed,
And the summer come again;
For the silk-white robes,
So 'tis said, are spread to dry
On the "Mount of Heaven's Perfume."

A situational poem by HK:
In the damp of winter time, our garments never dry. They start to rot and smell. But on the first warm day of spring, we wash them in the river, then spread them on the mountain slope. So good is this that we also dry the flax to separate the linen fibers. Does it matter that this is smelling so bad on these sunny slopes of the “Heavenly perfume mountain” as it was named by our ancestors”?

Comment by HK:
In the picture composition the “Heavenly perfume mountain” forms a strong axis with the white back of a person. Nobodys back is famous as a source of heavenly perfume. The mountain looks like a domain of Gods. They do nothing which smells bad while we humans occasionally cannot avoid that. In addition the two men do something which seems to pollute the sea with something looking bad and is probably smelling bad. In the village flax is drying. That smells awful, but the farmers have no choice.

Again, in poem number 2, Hokusai contrasts the ideal world of Gods and noble poetry with the facts of life.

Poem number 3
By Kakinomoto no Hitomaro 660-739, together with poet 4 worshipped as a Shinto God

The original poem:
Ah! the foot-drawn trail
Of the mountain-pheasant's tail
Drooped like down-curved branch!--
Through this long, long-dragging night
Must I keep my couch alone?

A situational poem by HK:
Slow heavy thoughts are dragging me through an unending lonely night, not unlike a pheasant slowly pulling his long long tail and not unlike a tired wind dragging a smoke tail from my fire and not unlike a unhandy fishermans net being awkwardly pulled up a river, maybe catching a fish or two.

Comment by HK:
Hokusai shows full daylight. A person in a middle-class home is probably spreading on a Tatami mat and observes the wind dragging a heavy cloud of smoke and fishermen dragging a net upstream against the rivers flow. The person replaces this mundane scene with a fantasy of a luxurious pheasant dragging his great wonderful tail. He even describes the elegant curve of that tail. Hokusai does not show any pheasant. Again: The clash between poem and daily life. Hokusai shows that fine art does not have to be noble. Daily life is quite enough.

About Shinto Gods:

Legendary persons especially from the concervative imperialist wing get into the list of Shinto Gods. The Western word would be “Saints”. While Christian saints have the the function of a conventient lobby close to the ears of God, the Shinto Gods represent exemplary moral standards, especially the Samurai warrior honor.

Poem number 4
Yamabe no Akahito, active 724-736, together with poet 3 worshipped as a Shinto God

The original poem:
When to Tago's coast
I the way have gone, and see
Perfect whiteness laid
On Mount Fuji's lofty peak
By the drift of falling snow.

A situational poem by HK:
Near the end of a long journey, I am travelling embedded in the comfort of a sedan chair. Me and my carriers come around a corner and are met by Fuji-San offering to all of us the view of his magnificient glory being embraced by the veils of softly falling fresh white snow.

Comment by HK:
Suddenly the Deity manifests its full glory in the image of the snowwhite Fuji San (Master Fuji) to everybody. The noble poet in his sedan describes it. His carriers, concubines and servants could see it too. But they are not aware of their unexpected opportunity. They continue to gossip and look everywhere but not at the miracle. People need education such as the pictures of Hokusai to learn awareness.

This picture of poem Number 4 is the first and only manifestation of the Deity. In the Japanese society it is represented in the person of the Emperor, the Tenno, who is the son of the Sun. In the Japanese (and the Chinese) society, everybody has his place in a multilevel hierarchy. Its top is the Tenno and he - for the sake of everybody beneath him – relates the world to the Deity. The Deity is not expected to entertain bilateral relationships to “everybody”. In this picture, Hokusai takes the viewpoint of Buddhism and the “Enlightenment”. Everybody can turn his head and see the Deity.

Poem number 5
Sarumaru Dayu, poet active 708-715

The original poem:
In the mountain depths,
Treading through the crimson leaves,
Cries the wandering stag.
When I hear the lonely cry,
Sad,--how sad--the autumn is!

A situational poem by HK:
We heard the cry of the lonely stag who now has found his mate on the top of a gentle hill. They are surrounded by the red and green colors of autumn while the melancholy of winter is coming so soon.

Comment by HK:
The center of the picture are two tiny figures on the upper left corner. You see indeed the stag from the poem. The poem mourns the sadness of loneliness and of autumn signals of approaching death. The day is over, sadness prevails. Hokusais picture tells the opposite. His stag has a mate. They are ready for the joys of physical love. The farmers are already entering their homes. Their women happily follow them with their own expectations. They carry rakes and baskets. The baskets are not heavy burdens. Maybe they got precious mushrooms. The landscape is like ideal fairy country. Gentle hills, wonderful trees, a romantic pond. A rich harvest guarantees comfort and security. Here, death is not the theme. This landscape is as close to the ideal landscape (of e.g. Pussain and Lorraine in Western art) as Hokusai ever wanted to come.

>> Poems (06 - 10)