Hokusai: First Manga Master

Review by Rob Vollmar

Hokusai: First Manga Master is a short guided tour through the Manga of celebrated Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Originally released to wide acclaim in Japan as fifteen separate volumes over a forty-year period, the Manga is a work that defies easy classification by Western standards. It is, at once, a copious sketchbook left by one of the 19th century’s most influential artists, an encyclopedia of Japanese visual culture before Westernization, as well as the supposed precedent for one of the world’s now dominant narrative art traditions. For me, as a critic, there are lingering questions about the relationship between contemporary manga and Hokusai’s work by the same name that I hoped this book would answer, setting a high expectation on my part in finally getting to read the manga equivalent of the Rosetta Stone for the first time.

Hokusai: First Manga Master cover
Hokusai: First Manga Master
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Writer Christophe Marquet highlights an unanticipated element of the Manga’s global significance in his introduction, noting that, “although it is undoubtedly the work of a draftsman of genius, it is also the product of a collaboration with the engravers’ and printers’ guilds, which created these albums of wood engravings” (17). This is a sober reminder that, for all of experimentation focusing on the interplay between words and images that took place prior to the 19th century, the birth of comics (or manga) was dependent on certain technologies to slowly develop that could adequately reproduce a particular artist’s line and then mass produce it for public consumption.

With fifteen volumes and over four thousand images to choose from, the editorial emphasis here is on presentation over quantity. The images in this book are carefully displayed as historical documents, retaining the faded coloring implicit in the original reproduction process. The plates are grouped and commented upon thematically, reflecting Hokusai’s original encyclopedic intention for his work as a primer for visual artists in a variety of media. The writers do an excellent job of showing when and how Hokusai regularly moves the material beyond that original function, delivering stunning and, occasionally, narrative drawings that push the envelope of the production process to which his work is subject. Readers familiar with the artist’s more celebrated landscape paintings will find loads of material here worth pausing over for study.

The work on display here is stylistically restless, though First Manga Master no doubt magnifies the contrast between volumes much in the same way a Greatest Hits album can for a musical band with a long career from which to draw. A good portion of the drawings are journalistic in their intention, realistic to the point that the production process will allow. Hokusai spends a good deal of time in this mode recreating animals, plants, tools, and, in some cases, elements of landscape. For the more evocative or fantastic images, he exaggerates form in service to the first hints of narrative expression. Occasionally, as in the much reprinted “Game of One Hundred Grimaces” plate, what begins as a simple image list begins hinting at the possibilities of a sequential visual narrative but never develops meaningful content to sustain it.

A third aspect of Hokusai’s work presented is a surprising nod to essentially Western perspective techniques as well as a number of impressive architectural drawings. While European art movements like Japonisme would lionize the Japanese for the untainted quality of their fine art tradition, the Manga clearly shows that nation’s most celebrated artist as not only curious about but in mastery of a number of Western drawing techniques some forty years before the so-called opening of Japan. Other plates, essentially schematic drawings, of handguns and cannons underscore this curiosity as a recurring theme in Hokusai’s Manga.

On the final question of whether there is enough continuity between Hokusai and Tezuka’s work to warrant the latter’s appropriation of the term manga from the former, First Manga Master falls disappointingly silent. There is little on display here to support the idea that Tezuka’s work was somehow more connected to Hokusai than, say, Popeye. Whether further evidence of that might exist in the remainder of Hokusai’s Manga not covered in this book is yet unknown (at least to me), but, based on the material displayed here, the claim for continuity between the original mang-ster, Hokusai, and the contemporary manga tradition seems less compelling than it did. That caveat aside, Hokusai: First Manga Master is a fascinating and multi-layered overview of the Manga that will yield new treasures with each subsequent reading.


  1. If you’re looking for more of Hokusai’s work, could I recommend James Michener’s commentary on the Hokusai Manga (currently out of print, but libraries should have it), or the catalog from the excellent exhibition they had at the Freer last year (http://www.freersacklershop.com/hokusaivolumei.html). They’re not necessarily going to shed much light on the relationship between Hokusai and modern manga, but they’re both excellent reads.

  2. Amy K Ganter

    Oh man… I LOVE Hokusai. Thanks for pointing this out!

  3. Linking manga into studies of historic Japanese art or culture seems to be quite the trend nowadays. Besides this book (which is an excellent sampler of Hokusai’s work), I’ve come across MANGA FROM THE FLOATING WORLD: COMICBOOK CULTURE AND THE KIBYOSHI OF EDO JAPAN, by Adam L Kern. “Kibyoshi” were illustrated novelettes created by the commoner artists and writers of Edo (now Tokyo) – humourous, fantastic, erotic or satirical. MANGA FROM THE FLOATING WORLD is mainly a quite serious and scholarly study of this non-aristocratic “townsman” culture and its literature, but I was interested to see that (a) Kern explicitly mentions modern manga, as well as US publishers such as Dark Horse and Tokyopop; and (b)to read the second part of the book, you have to start from the back, as he’s translated three “kibyoshi” in the original unflipped format. (I love the titles: “Playboy Roasted a la Edo”, “The Unseamly Silverpiped Swingers”). It’s not particularly cheap, so I’d suggest checking it out at a library unless you’re really into Edo culture, but it’s definitely worth a look.

  4. […] At Manga Life, Michael Aronson gives middling grades to vol. 2 of DN Angel. Rob Vollmar reviews Hokusai: First Manga Master at Comics Worth Reading, and readers chime in with more recommended reading in comments. At the […]

  5. I made the assertion that linked comics to advances in printing technology, as much as to any on-going continuous artistic tradition back in March (I try not to be guilty of gratuitous self promotion so I won’t link it, it was 5by8 #13 on Comicsnob for the really curious [He wouldn’t link but I will — JDC]) but it’s interesting to see that you’ve also noted how the production of comics is just as noteworthy as the art. If you’ll let me get away with quoting the column:

    “I think folks who try to find the historic roots of comics miss the point that it is a product of technology as much as the output of an artist. Not just the advances in printing, but also in the new visual vocabulary that comics share with photography and film. When I review a manga and pull in terms like shifting camera angles and blocking, I intentionally reference cinema in an attempt to describe (via words only) the more complex relationship that the images have to each other and the story. [ref. wiki: mise en scène] The aspects of sequence, story, and visual dynamics are what make comics unique, not the static images of centuries past that have the occasional speech balloon or scroll.”

  6. All,

    Hey, thanks to everybody who stopped in to comment.

    Dave: I was not aware that Michener had written on Hokusai and look forward to checking that out!

    Jenny: I’ve been geeked out on Edo culture for a couple of years now so I’ll definitely try and run those books down.

    Matt: I believe it was Eddie Campbell who first steered me on the idea of comics as essentially a technology-bound phenomenon. I have misgivings about sequence or sequentiality as being a cornerstone of comics but your writing is well-crafted and persuasive.

  7. […] Rob Vollmar reviews Christophe Marquet’s Hokusai: First Manga Master. […]

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