Photo/IllutrationThis part of “The Appearance of Hoeizan,” a work of ukiyo-e by Katsushika Hokusai, shows human bodies being tossed in midair. (Owned by the Shizuoka Prefectural Central Library)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Iconic ukiyo-e woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is back in the news, with his famed “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” work selected to appear in the design for Japan’s 1,000-yen ($8.90) bills.

Hokusai enjoys global fame even in Western nations for his iconic “36 Views of Mount Fuji.”

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” one of the works in the series, shows a snow-capped Mount Fuji on the far side of a surging wave. However, it is little known that Hokusai also depicted Mount Fuji’s eruption in 1707.

“The Appearance of Hoeizan,” as the ukiyo-e woodblock is titled, is part of the “100 Views of Mount Fuji,” a collection of the artist’s works.

In the artwork, rocks are seen pouring down. Houses have collapsed. A horse is stuck under a building. Even humans are being tossed about in midair.

In the chaos, other people dash about trying to escape, totally at a loss what they should do.

The woodblock is supposed to show a scene of Mount Fuji’s eruption of 1707, which came in the Hoei Era (1704-1711). It contains images of huge amounts of lapilli that come falling from the heavens, people crushed under destroyed buildings and humans desperately running around in search of an escape.

The work effuses a sense of urgency and horror, which is a far cry from Hokusai’s more typical style of depicting Mount Fuji as it stands calmly and serenely.

The Hoei eruption continued off and on and resulted in the emergence of a new peak, called Mount Hoeizan, near a crater along a Mount Fuji ridgeline. The artwork’s title is likely derived from that event.

“Illustrations of disaster scenes were not typically for sale at the time,” said Shugo Asano, director of the Museum Yamato Bunkakan in Nara, who is well-versed in ukiyo-e. “Perhaps this is the only available illustration of that category that was ever published.”

Junichi Okubo, a professor of ukiyo-e studies with the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, said the work of art was drawn more than a century after the eruption event, so few have paid much attention to it from the viewpoint of disaster history studies.

“The Appearance of Hoeizan” does not show an image of Mount Fuji itself.

Okubo, 59, said, however, that Hokusai’s hallmark touch can be seen in the energetic vibes of the woodblock’s composition, which shows timber from collapsed houses and human bodies being tossed in midair.

“The configuration contrasting the workings of nature against disoriented humans evokes a worldview that is reminiscent of ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa,’ which shows surging waves and a clutch of human beings who are clinging onto their boats at the mercy of waves so they will not be thrown into the sea,” Okubo said.

Masaaki Komiya, 64, a curator with the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History in Yokohama, pointed out that only 15 illustrations of Mount Fuji’s Hoei eruption are known to have been drawn or painted in real time.

“Works with shogunate connections,” or circulated replicas of illustrations that were submitted to the shogunate for report purposes, account for 10 of the 15 pieces, whereas “works without shogunate connections,” which were left behind for posterity by local residents who witnessed the eruption, account for the remaining five.

All are simple illustrations, which are therefore unlikely to have been drawn or painted by expert artists.

Many artists have themed their commercial works of pictorial arts, including ukiyo-e prints, on Mount Fuji.

The shogunate, however, prohibited the dissemination of disaster information to a larger public audience because of a need to maintain social order. That may account for the paucity of available pictorial representations of the eruption event.

The “100 Views of Mount Fuji” is a three-volume book with an encyclopedic coverage of the history, customs, faith and other aspects associated with Mount Fuji. Readers may be curious as to why Hokusai pictorialized the eruption event and included it in the collection.

Asano, 68, pointed out that “36 Views of Mount Fuji” and “100 Views of Mount Fuji” represent different types of media. The former is a collection of Hokusai’s stand-alone illustrations, whereas the latter was published in book format.

He said that “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” which strongly reflected the intentions of the publisher, likely did not include works that were not expected to be in great demand. By comparison, “100 Views of Mount Fuji,” published in book format, possibly had lesser constraints on the individual works included therein and allowed Hokusai’s intentions to be better reflected in its content.

“Hokusai, a perfectionist, probably wanted to pictorialize all aspects of Mount Fuji,” Asano said.

It remains unknown, however, what reference material Hokusai used in working on that artwork. Studies to date have shown that Hokusai carefully studied foregoing literature and illustrations before working on his own pictures.

Asano has one hypothesis.

“Hokusai must have studied the eruption, but perhaps he found it too difficult to envisage the event,” he said. “That may explain why he decided instead to show the image of people running about.”

(This article was written by Akihiro Tanaka and Yoshito Watari.)