Books

Hokusai’s Picture Book of Everyday Life in Edo-Era Japan

The manuscript would have been destroyed if its pages had been used to create a printed book during Hokusai’s lifetime.

Katsushika Hokusai, from "Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book" (c.1823-33) (all photos © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston unless otherwise noted)
Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33) (all photos © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston unless otherwise noted)

Katsushika Hokusai was a prolific draftsman. Although most famous for his landscapes in his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, he drew just about everything, from scenes of everyday life to the supernatural. He even published his own modern designs for combs and pipes, filling two entire volumes with 150 illustrations of solely the former. Printed in 1823, that title also advertised a list of its publisher’s other offerings, including another book of Hokusai’s drawings that has never been found. Known as Mister Iitsu’s Chicken-Rib Picture Book, it may exist only in manuscript form; many scholars believe those pages make up an untitled, three-volume album owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Katsushika Hokusai, from "Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book" (c.1823-33)
Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)

The museum has now published the manuscript of nearly 200 ink-on-paper drawings for the first time, following a major traveling exhibition it organized in 2014 on the famous Edo-period artist. Laid out to read from right to left, Hokusai’s Lost Manga replicates the original three volumes, with individual prints set on their own pages. The paper works were likely intended as a continuation of Hokusai’s previously published, highly successful sketchbooks, which featured subject matter of all kinds, from sumo wrestlers to insects and snakes. First printed in 1814, they became guides for aspiring artists unable to afford drawing lessons, but people also purchased them to simply flip through for pure pleasure.

“Chicken-rib” is a “classical Chinese literary expression for something that is trivial but nevertheless worthwhile, like the small but tasty bit of meat on a chicken rib,” Sarah E. Thompson, the MFA Boston’s assistant curator for Japanese prints, writes in the introduction to this new release. She offers additional context, providing a brief summary of the development of Japanese woodblock printing as well as an overview of Hokusai’s career.

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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
Katsushika Hokusai, from "Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book" (c.1823-33)
Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)

Loosely translated from Japanese, the title means “Hokusai’s Tasty Morsels” — essentially, simple visual treats. Hokusai had adopted the name “Iitsu” (“one again”) in 1820 to celebrate his 60th birthday; it was just one of over 30 signatures he attached to his works throughout his 70-year career. The MFA Boston’s manuscript features no signature, but its sketches closely resemble the artist’s drawing style between 1822 and 1833, according to Thompson. Images of rippling waves, for instance, are remarkably similar to that famous Great Wave.

Rather than offering a narrative, these images are informal drawings that depict animals, plants, and subjects related to astronomy and geography — the very same illustrations described in the 1823 advertisement for Mister Iitsu’s Chicken-Rib Picture Book. We also get views of workers from a variety of trades, of lively festivals and plays, architectural studies, and ones beyond earth, of meteorological phenomena. There is even one unique image of a fetus in a womb. A section of detailed annotations by Thompson offers explanations of each image.

Katsushika Hokusai, from "Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book" (c.1823-33)
Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
Katsushika Hokusai, from "Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book" (c.1823-33)
Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)

Though they’ve remained in excellent condition, the pages would have been destroyed if they had been used to create a printed book: professional blockcutters would have rubbed each one with oil and placed them face down on cherrywood to leave an impression of lines to carve along before sending them to printers who could ink the blocks. Although once destined for disposal, the manuscript offers important tools today to understanding the printmaking process: it retains details that no final book would reveal, such as annotations in red ink. Some pages bear numbers that indicate the intended order of pages; some suggest the mistakes made: Hokusai fixed these by cutting out wrongdoings and patching up holes with drawings on new sheets of paper.

We may never know why this group of drawings failed to become a full-fledged book, but Thompson surmises that Hokusai was going through a difficult time of his life then, having been widowed for a second time and facing serious illness as well as financial troubles due to family issues. It is likely that it is unfinished, as no colophon nor preface accompany the illustrations. As it stands, the collection also highlights how driven Hokusai was to record his surroundings, no matter how quotidian; his “tasty morsels” offer a comprehensive view of Japanese life at the time, from the people to the architecture to religious and cultural customs.

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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)
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Katsushika Hokusai, from Drawings for a Three-Volume Picture Book (c.1823–33)

Hokusai’s Lost Manga is available through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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