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Art and Images in Psychiatry
January 2008

Under the Wave off Kanagawa

Author Affiliations

Copyright 2008 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.2008

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(1):12-13. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2007.21

If Heaven will grant me but ten more years of life, with even five more years, I could become a true artist.—Hokusai at age 89 years1(p272)

Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) Under the Wave off Kanagawais an iconic image of humanity facing the overpowering forces of nature. The breaking peak on the crest of a steep wave is the dominant image of turmoil in a restless sea while Mount Fuji, calm and steadfast, stands firmly in the background. Thus Hokusai contrasts the sanctity of the mountain with the seeming treachery of the sea. It is best viewed from right to left, making the threat from the great wave more apparent; this is how it would have been seen by Hokusai's contemporary Japanese audience. On 3 barges that are apparently conveying fish from the southern islands to Edo (now Tokyo), crew members cling to their boats and avert their gaze from the approaching calamity as they risk foundering among the great waves. Hokusai too faced calamity in his life and was a survivor who lived for 89 years. In that long life he was restlessly creative; near death (epigraph) he prayed to live a few more years to perfect his art. The adopted son of a mirror smith (with the status of a samurai) in the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period), he outlived both his wives and most of his children. His daughter, O-Ei, became an artist in her own right; she collaborated with him and took care of him until his death. He persisted with an indomitable desire to perfect his work despite his family losses, the great rice famine of 1836, and palsy, from which he nursed himself back to health.1Remarkably proliferate, he is said to have completed 30 000 illustrations, drawings, and woodblock prints.