Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint

Great Wave

This documentary about Japan’s most famous artist is truly eye opening, whether you are new or old to Japanese art, or to the work of Katsushika Hokusai himself.

Featuring voice performances from Andy Serkis as Hokusai (don’t worry, he doesn’t do the accent) and interviews with staff at the British Museum, teary-eyed art historians, and modern day artists such as David Hockney, this examination into the 90-year-long life of Hokusai is full of revelations.

There is the personal story of the man, such as how when he was young he prayed constantly for 21 days, and by the end of it her was struck by lightning; to when he was 70, his house and all of his possessions were destroyed in a fire. Then there is the professional side, such as how he not only painted his works, but carved woodblocks, and how in his final years he was able to paint in great detail.

For me personally, his role in popular culture was the most interesting. His early work included being an illustrator for stories. Then he went travelling, and was invited by friends to draw things suggested at random. In Japan, “random sketches” means “manga”, so Hokusai became one of the first manga artists, although not in the way we would understand it today as his manga was just random art rather than a story. However, you have both styles that formed the foundation of modern manga.

But this goes on further. When talking about his most famous work, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, some of the people interviewed that because of the way the artwork is created, with the wave painted in such a way as to suggest movement, Hokusai could be said to have invented “moving pictures” and thus animation. That would make him the ancestor of both manga and anime. Interestingly, Hokusai’s daughter Oi became the subject of a manga and award-winning 2015 anime movie called Miss Hokusai.

It is truly worth watching this documentary, partly because we Westerners have always loved art from our own land, work from other parts of the world tends to get less of a look in. As Hokusai is the most famous artist possibly in the whole of Asia, he is a man everyone should learn more about.

Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint is on the BBC iPlayer.