Exhibitions and events
Hokusai: the father of manga?

Walk into a bookshop in Tokyo today and the shelves are packed to bursting with manga books by Tezuka Osamu, Hagio Moto, Inoue Takehiko, Yamazaki Mari, et al. They’re published by Kōdansha, Shūeisha, Shōgakukan, Hakusensha, and many other firms. Almost anyone can afford to buy one. The artists and their characters are superstars, talked about in playgrounds, offices and homes throughout Japan.

Now let’s time-slip back two hundred and twenty years (like in a manga such as Olympia Kyklos by Yamazaki Mari, which slips between the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and ancient Greece), to 1799.

Walk into a book and print shop in Edo (the old name for Tokyo). The shelves are piled high with colour woodblock prints of actors and courtesans by Utagawa Toyokuni, Kitagawa Utamaro, and illustrated books by Katsushika Hokusai, Santō Kyōden. They’re published by companies including Izumiya, Tsutaya, Tsuruya, Nishimuraya. Almost anyone can afford to buy something. The artists and their subjects and characters are superstars, talked about in temple schools, samurai guard houses and homes throughout Japan.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Tsutaya book and print shop, 1799

The vast phenomenon of popular manga publishing in Tokyo, as we enter the Reiwa era (from 1 May 2019) of new Emperor Naruhito, is startlingly reminiscent of the vast phenomenon of popular print and illustrated books published in Edo in the late 1700s and early 1800s. One big difference, however, is that the industry that produced single-sheet popular colour woodblocks (ukiyo-e) declined rapidly in the early 1900s. We can think about where the urge to create all those cheap, strikingly beautiful pictures might have gone.

Tezuka’s most famous character, internationally, is Astro Boy, Tetsuwan Atomu.
Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989), Atomu Taishi (Atom the Ambassador) © Tezuka Productions

So was it Hokusai who invented manga in 1814? Or was it Tezuka, in 1947? To keep the peace, let’s consider for a moment whether both these propositions might be true. Hokusai did start to issue his Hokusai manga picture books (in Nagoya) in 1814. Tezuka’s first hit in a comic strip-type manga book, New Treasure Island, did come out (in Osaka) in 1947.  With a bit more time, we could enjoyably debate the somewhat different meanings of ‘manga’ in 1814 versus ‘manga’ in 1947. We also need to remember that Tezuka was watching Disney cartoons as much as he was looking at Hokusai prints and books, maybe even more. The history of manga is complicated…

To find out what happened to manga in the intervening century, you might want to take a look at this interesting blog by my colleagues Ryōko Matsuba and Alfred Haft:

But let’s return the story to Hokusai. Between the ages of 16 and 19, Hokusai was training to cut the woodblocks used to print popular books and prints. He’s famously supposed to have cut the last six pages of text for a novel about the Edo brothel district, Yoshiwara, published in 1775. From about the age of 20 he switched to being a print artist, and quite a few of his early designs of kabuki actors have survived. The point is that Hokusai knew the popular print industry inside out – as a block cutter, author and artist. In the 1780s and 1790s he was regularly designing illustrations for the so-called ‘yellow cover’ or kibyōshi genre of popular comic fiction; and sometimes writing the stories for them too. In the Manga exhibition catalogue, scholar Adam Kern calls these ‘comic books’.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Acolyte Manjusri: Precepts for the Young, 1801

Notwithstanding their modest size and inexpensive woodblock technique, ‘yellow covers’ were packed with comedy and satire in both their images and their texts (including direct speech between the characters). They were indeed comic books for adults, like modern manga.

Hokusai was an incredibly inventive artist, always trying different genres and subjects, sometimes creating new ones. In the early 1800s, he collaborated with the leading author of long adventure stories, Bakin, to develop the wildly popular genre of popular fiction known as yomihon (literally, ‘books for reading’). Hokusai developed a new style of action-packed illustrations that were filled, often literally, with explosive drama.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Strange Tales of the Bow Moon, 1807

Narrative and dialogue were interspersed, every few pages, with Hokusai’s exciting images. You could argue that these are important precursors, albeit distant in time, of the equally explosive ‘dramatic picture’ (gekiga) style of manga art that has developed since the 1960s, initially in the pages of the magazine Garo (1964 – 2002). In the 1980s, gekiga artist Saitō Takao created a gripping story in this dramatic style about the early medieval sculptor Unkei.

In the 1810s, Hokusai was particularly busy producing ‘picture manuals’ (e-dehon), commercially printed drawing manuals full of pictures to copy, that spread his style widely in the general population throughout Japan, not just in Edo (Tokyo). The most famous of these, was Hokusai manga (15 volumes, 1814 – 1878). The preface to volume one makes it clear that this title was suggested by Hokusai himself, a still unusual use of the word manga, which can playfully be translated as ‘brush running away with itself’. The preface also refers to Hokusai’s ‘divine skill’ and the ambition ‘to transmit his spirit’. When we look at a typical double-page opening from volume one, we see an inventive and playful arrangement of lots of Buddhist monks, some (for those who knew) alluding to famous characters from history.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Buddhist monks, from Hokusai manga, 1814

The pictures are gently humorous and there is no text or dialogue. The meaning of manga here, then, seems to be something like light-hearted, somewhat random pictures for a mainstream audience. In spirit, they do have quite a lot in common with the atmosphere of modern manga.

In working on Hokusai over the last few years and spending a lot of time with his art, I’ve come to wonder if he wasn’t one of the most important inventors of modern animation. This is particularly apparent in the ‘freeze-frame’ technique of his masterpiece print ‘The Great Wave’ of about 1831, in which the wave is drawn so that the myriad tentacles of foam stretch forward to the maximum, just before it is about to fall. Because of the way the picture is so imaginatively composed, we feel an incredible surge of energy in the sea from right to left and on up into the wave.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), The Great Wave, about 1831

Another gripping example from almost the same date, about 1833, is the terrifying rictus grin and staring empty eye sockets of the skeleton of Koheiji. The skeleton’s bony fingers are pulling down the mosquito net to menace Koheiji’s sleeping wife, who had conspired with her lover and murdered him. Everything about the picture is set up to give instant, creepy intelligibility.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, about 1833

Again, it’s a kind of freeze-frame, with the implication of bloody mayhem to follow. Now we take such techniques for granted. It was Hokusai who invented them, and his block cutters and printers who skillfully translated them into such memorable graphic images, for all to enjoy.  Manga and ukiyo-e are both admirably democratic forms of popular art.

If you’d like to find out more about Hokusai, book tickets for our latest exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, which is open at the British Museum from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022. Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun.

You can also buy the accompanying hardback book, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, on our website.