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It’s perhaps the most famous series of artworks to emerge from Japan: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai, who carved scenes of the mountain, its surroundings, and of course, that great wave into wood blocks and our minds forever. That was 185 years ago, when ukiyo-e prints, widely produced and easily distributed, were essentially the photographs of their time.
Two years ago, photographer Raoul Ries decided to revisit the series with his camera to weave together a new, 21st-century narrative of the mountain. His resulting images pay tribute to Hokusai’s artistry rather than simply mimicking the prints, and like those of the Japanese master, they reveal much more about Japanese society than the looming mountain itself.
Ries’s crisp and quietly compelling images comprise Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a slim photo book recently published by Hatje Cantz. Like Hokusai’s woodcuts, they’re presented without additional commentary and identified only by location, though Ries didn’t adhere to the original sites. Instead, his photographs resemble the prints through their format and their focus on fleeting moments set against inimitable majesty.
“Despite the wide variety of shown scenes, most of Hokusai’s color prints share a common structure,” Ries writes on his website. “In the foreground people are going about their daily business, the middle ground refers to a different time-scale like seasons or things decaying, and finally a glimpse of Mount Fuji.”
In his updates, it’s almost always civilians, too, who immediately catch our attention. The fishermen, farmers, and craftsmen who worked steadily in Hokusai’s prints have been replaced by bus drivers on their breaks, hikers, street cleaners, and people playing mini golf. Instead of women in kimonos who point at the mountain, we see tourists in puffy jackets who aim cameras and even sticks at it. Mount Fuji looms as a backdrop for these daily activities, its snow-covered peak at times wrapped in mist and other times invisible under cloud, but always present in some way.
Ries’s series exemplifies our affinity for bestowing narratives onto nature’s great wonders. It’s also a meditative portrait of a distinctly modern Japan. Mount Fuji appears lodged between two tall buildings, as if awkwardly photoshopped in; it peeks out from behind the telltale stripes of a 7-Eleven; and it looms over rooftops lined with solar panels or the skeletal frame of a big, boxy building to come. In one picture, a woman collects trash near a large mound of plastic bags packed to capacity. The white sheen of the pile echoes the wispy cap of the faraway mountain, which has stood for centuries as a silent witness to its fast-changing surroundings.