The Quiet Stories of Japanese Woodblock Art


I lived in Matsuyama, Japan from 1990 to 1992, teaching English and studying kendo, Japanese fencing. Since coming home, I occasionally find myself wandering in the Japanese section of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). While the kimonos and swords are works of art and poetry themselves, with their elegance and attention to minute detail, it is the woodblock art, ukiyo-e, which grasped my attention and made me want to learn more. Two of my favorite artists are Hokusai and Hiroshige. Today I’ll tell you about the first.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) made many different kinds of sketches and woodblock art, from portraits and still lifes to erotica and illustrations for humorous poems, but what he is best known for is his landscapes, particularly his two collections of Views of Mount Fuji. Most people are familiar with the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” (I even have a T-shirt of this!), but some of his less famous works offer me the opportunity for yet another Important Excitement/Small Obsession. And lots of poetry.

For me, the beauty of his landscapes lies not just in the visual beauty, but in the way he adds people to the scenes, villagers and travelers who are responding to each other, to the view, to the viciousness and beauty of nature. And when I look at these pictures in art books and draw on what I learned as an East Asian Studies minor at Middlebury College, I start to tell myself stories about what is happening, who those people are, what their hopes and dreams are, and what small epiphanies I can open up by telling those stories through poetry. Here is one from my upcoming ebook, Icons and Action Figures (Batteries Not Included):

Mount Fuji Seen from Eijiri

(Hokusai, 1823~29)

Typhoon season begins this way:

with a sudden gust

slamming travelers forward

blasting road-dust against their legs

hat papers leaves becoming birds

flutter and soar, tumble and fly—

the trees lean after their leaves

longing to follow

while the travelers stumble

cursing luck and wind and all

impermanence, the loss of letters

painted by hands of white silk,

the loss of a sloping straw hat that leaves

a poor man vulnerable

to the gushing rains

that wait, like Mount Fuji,

solid and irrevocable against the sky.

Spilecki, Susan. “Mount Fuji Seen from Eijiri.” Verve (1996) 8:1.