Of Manga and Mice

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is surely the best-known Japanese artist outside of Japan. His wood-block prints of Kanagawa’s great wave and of Mount Fuji, all thirty-six views, have been reproduced I would wager no less than a million times. He was all the rage in the last part of nineteenth-century France, inspiring Monet, Manet, and Degas, Cézanne and van Gogh just to name a few. And from these Impressionists and Post-Impressionists his influence extended, according to many, well into the twentieth century to the Japanese comic book artists. He has even been called the country’s ‘first manga master’[1]—if only, I wonder, because he released fifteen volumes (three of them posthumously) of sketches, starting in 1814, with the title Manga.

The Japanese word manga is hard to pin down in Western terms, and if you do a google translation, the flat-footed definitions “cartoon” and “comic” pop up. But essentially it means a picture (ga) without restrictions (man)—drawings without any sense of formality.

In Hokusai’s case, his Manga was both a set of art instruction books—images for aspiring artists to copy—and an exhaustive collection of sketches, in which he sought to capture, as he put it, “everything in the Universe”—real and mythical: beasts and Buddhas, scenes from everyday life and humans with funny facial expressions, horse equipment and a huge array of animals—for instance, take the five white mice eating a two-tiered mochi cake (shown here). Above all, in his characters, two-legged and four, the artist’s personality twinkles; his humor is clear, cheeky and comedic. Hokusai Manga in total contains more than four thousand wood engravings.

What separates his work from what we recognize as a manga today is the lack of ‘sequential art’; his images, randomly displayed on the page, don’t tell a story frame by frame. Rob Vollmar on the Comics Worth Reading site points out, in his review of a new (2007) edited edition of Hokusai’s Manga, that to draw a direct line from the contemporary manga back to Hokusai Manga, is a disappointing endeavor. It seems for the moment the ‘god of manga’ Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy is more akin to Siegel’s and Shuster’s Superman than to, say, Hokusai’s “Game of One Hundred Grimaces.”


[1] Christophe Marquet (with Jocelyn Bouquillard), Hokusai, First Manga Master, translated by Liz Nash, 2007.

Other sources, Rob Vollmer, “Review of Hokusai, First Manga Master,” Comics Worth Reading.com; Sergi Camara and Vanessa Duran, Art of Drawing Manga, 2007; Department of Art, Digital Collection, University of Michigan.

(Image from Hokusai Manga, “Fauna, vol.14, block 29,” Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum  of Art, Japan, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

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