Published in Newsweek Japan 8/8/2017
Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, the exhibition currently showing at the British Museum, has been a tremendous success. Despite the four month run, tickets have long been sold out. Inside, the crowding is reminiscent of Shinjuku Station at 8 a.m.
The visitors are of all ages and many different nationalities. Hokusai himself would surely have been amazed to witness the popularity of his work in a country which only two or three Japanese had ever visited at the time of his death, nineteen years before the Meiji Restoration.
He would be even more surprised if he saw another current London exhibition – the one at the Victoria and Albert Museum which celebrates the British rock group, Pink Floyd. There on the band’s drumkit is emblazoned his most famous picture – The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Apparently, Nick Mason, the drummer, was so taken by what he saw during the Floyd’s 1972 tour of Japan that he commissioned the design.
Some cultural productions travel far through time and space, whereas others, though wildly popular for a brief period, are soon consigned to oblivion. Hokusai ‘s enduring appeal is a prime example of the staying power of Japan’s cultural footprint, even while its economic footprint has shrunk, at least in relative terms. The conjunction of factors that created the Hokusai phenomenon may offer clues about what to expect in 2050.
First, Hokusai’s work, like the plays of Shakespeare, did not spring spontaneously out of a single artist’s mind. They were products of a specific cultural context. He learned his trade by apprenticing to a master and there were other famous artists whose influence he would have absorbed. All were dependent on a highly-developed infrastructure of entrepreneurial publishers and skilled engravers and printers. Crucially, there was a public with the money, leisure and refinement to support the work. Just as you get the politicians you deserve, you get the art you deserve too. In a sense, they are joint productions of the creators and the consumers.
Second, ukiyo-e woodblock prints were associated with the world of entertainment and the pleasure quarters. They were remote from the officially-endorsed high art of the time. Hokusai himself produced shunga, prints that might be considered the Edo era equivalent of porn, such as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. If the Shogun’s top bureaucrats had set up a “Cool Yamato” programme to enhance the “soft power” of pre-Meiji Japan, they would probably not have included any ukiyo-e at all. Indeed, when foreigners flooded into Japan in the 1860s, they were amazed by how cheaply woodblock prints were valued, with some being used as wrapping paper.
Third, ukiyo-e uses what was a leading-edge technology at the time, allowing numerous high quality, vividly coloured prints to be produced and distributed at little cost. Hokusai himself used Prussian Blue, the predominant colour in the Great Wave, as soon as it became available as an import. He also deployed Western concepts of perspective when they suited his purpose. In contrast, traditional paintings on screens used age-old techniques and were so expensive they could only be owned by the political and religious elites.
Finally, Hokusai changed his pen name to “Old man Crazy to Paint” at the age of seventy five and even boasted that he would be at the height of his artistic prowess at the age of one hundred and ten. He did not make it that far, but remained productive until he died at the age of eighty nine. The romantic Western ideal of an artist is of rebellious youth “burning with a gemlike flame”, in the words of Victorian aesthete Walter Pater. But there is another tradition too – that of the dedicated adept honing his art into old age and continuing to progress. Hokusai embodies that spirit, as does Picasso. Then there is the shining example of Japanese film director Kaneto Shindo who at the age of eighty gave up his hobbies of mah-jong and watching baseball in order to concentrate on making movies.Nick Mason’s Hokusai-designed drumkit
A Kurosawa of VR by 2050?
Our globalized networked world could hardly be more different from Edo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but some things never change. Man’s delight in artistic expression is one; talent is another. Cultural context, though, is ever changing. The intimacy between creators and consumer is almost impossible to maintain in a mass, globalized market-place, which is why the works of today’s biggest stars, such as Damien Hirst or Steven Spielberg or Haruki Murakami, will mean little by 2050.You may remember a wonderful dinner you had in a hot spring resort decades ago. You will not remember your last Happy Meal at McDonalds.
The cultural productions that do have staying power will not be those designed to satisfy a large proportion of the seven billion human beings on the planet. They are more likely to come from vibrant, but little appreciated sub-cultures populated with obsessive otaku with time and money to spare.
Manga and anime were once belittled by Japanese intellectuals wedded to the superiority of “jun-bungaku” (high literature) and traditional arts. Today they are recognized as the form of Japanese cultural expression most widely diffused abroad, as exemplified by the films of Hayao Miyazaki and recent hits such as Your Name and This Corner of the World. Likewise, what are now known as video games may one day reach the level of critical approval that anime and manga have reached.
Technology changes the parameters of expression. It is likely that in fifty years’ time what we now call films and manga will have become immersive and interactive, with creators and consumers collaborating in ways currently impossible. In the right hands, virtual reality may reach beyond mere thrills-and-spills to an experience that has a profound psychological and spiritual significance. It awaits the coming of a Hokusai or a Kurosawa or a Miyazaki.
As ever, official recognition will be late in coming. By the time prizes are being awarded and academics are holding conferences, the scene will be dying and new forms of expression being born. It may be that the first signs of critical appreciation comes from abroad – as was the case with the ukiyo-e and indeed the films of Kurosawa. For such creators to be anointed “Living National Treasures” may take a century.
Even so, some of the candidates may be alive today. According to researchers in the Netherlands, by the year 2070 the upper bound of the human lifespan will have lengthened to 120 years – and the first person to break that level will be a Japanese woman. So Hokusai’s boast about reaching the summit of his artistic achievement at the age of 110 could well be surpassed. Instead of one “Old Man Crazy to Paint,” there may be many “Old Persons Crazy to Create” as well as plenty of the aged, but still obsessive otaku necessary to sustain a thriving artistic culture.