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Bodies in Hokusai's Manga

     Born in 1760, Katsushika Hokusai was an exceptionally popular artist of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He grew famous in the early 19th century for producing what he is best known for, his landscape prints, as well as hundreds of illustrations for popular novellas. The fact that he was such a prolific artist and so well known to a large public led Hokusai to gain a number of pupils and followers who copied his ever-changing artistic styles. His fame and followers led to the incredible popularity of his manga, a series of sketches and studies that spanned for fourteen volumes and over thirty years. The first volume of manga was published in 1814, when Hokusai was fifty-four years old, and his followers proceeded to continually publish manga in Hokusai’s name, even after his death in 1849—suggesting both the immense popularity of the manga and Hokusai himself.

     The word manga roughly means “sketch”, but it also indicates sketches and studies done in a lively manner that imply action and movement, and perhaps even humor[1]. Hokusai’s manga served a variety of purposes. First of all, the books were a guide for other artists, showing a wide range of people, plants, and landscapes in various positions. The full name of the manga, Denshin Kaishu: Hokusai Manga, can be roughly translated to “beginner’s manual for transmitting the true image,” suggesting that Hokusai’s primary intention for sharing his sketches with the world was to educate[2]. Hokusai demonstrates his careful, skillful use of brushstrokes throughout the manga, despite the “unfinished” nature of the images haphazardly arranged across the pages. Brushwork, and applying varying levels of line thickness and sensitivity, was the mark of a talented artist in Edo period Japan, and his manga provides examples of calligraphic brushwork in both figures and landscape.  Secondly, the books were meant to entertain. Hokusai draws a number of people from scenes of every-day life in Edo, such as bathers, people relaxing and playing board games, and simple depictions of average men and women walking through the streets. However, Hokusai also depicts supernatural monsters and ghosts, as well as lively gymnasts, athletes, and entertainers. Even mundane subject matter is portrayed with a sense of humor; in Swimmers, for example, the figures that dive under the water are in absurd, exaggerated positions with arms open wide, legs twisting around themselves, and buttocks unflatteringly positioned directly towards the viewer.

      Bodies are a subject matter that receive a notable amount of attention in Hokusai’s manga. Although Hokusai included a number of studies of animals, flowers, and his famous waves and landscapes, the majority of images in his manga depict people in one way or another. The range of bodies and positions included in Hokusai’s manga suggest a careful observation of human anatomy and an understanding of devices such as foreshortening for portraying bodies in motion. Within the manga, Hokusai portrays nearly every body type imaginable, from stick-thin, tiny women and men to massive, muscular, fat people. Hokusai also draws a number of faces and caricatures men and women, ranging from the young to the old to the monstrous. His bodies are also the source of a large amount of the entertainment value within the manga; Hokusai recognizes the humor inherent in a man making silly faces in the mirror and sticking chopsticks up his nose. The lively facial expressions and body language of Hokusai’s human subjects suggest that Hokusai engaged with and observed a large range of people and had a deep understanding of human expression.



[1] Jack Hillier, “Manga,” in The Art of the Japanese Book, vol. 2 (London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1987), 813–26.

[2] A. Hyatt Mayor and Yasuko Betchaku, “Hokusai,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 43, no. 1 (1985): 1–48.