Katsushika Hokusai 1760-1849

Pictures of 100 poems by 100 poets, explained by a Wet Nurse
Visipix.com proudly presents Hokusais last great series as complete as possible
(89 pictures) in facsimile quality in the original Oban-size 15 x 10 inch.


1. About the anthology of 100 poems by 100 poets

Katsushika Hokusai illustrated 89 of the 100 poems.
The very short poems (tanka) were mostly written by noble members (Emperors, princesses) and high functionaries at the Imperial courts between 800 and 1200 AC. 20 poems were written by women.

The anthology was compiled by Fujiwara no Sadaie, more commonly known as Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) and published in the year 1235 AC century. The poems are about love, forbidden affairs, young age and old age (related to spring and autumn) and death. The Fujiwara family has always been very important in the history of Japan.


Peter Morse: Hokusai 100 poets, Brazillier New York 1989 ISBN 0-8076-1213-8 This is the leading book with all facsimiles and commentaries. Highly recommended. List price USD 80. Available at www.amazon.com at USD 50. A Japanese version is also available.

Let us be practical. This anthology represents the centre of the culture of Japan. Trying to understand the heart of Japan begins here.

Let us be impractical. We can be certain that the ancient masters were teaching this: Treat the smallest poem as if it were a matter of life and death

Your life and death

Present every poem as if the stability of the macrocosm were depending on the perfect order within this microcosm at you hands

Every child in Japan knows these poems. They learn them at school while they learn to write. They are 31-syllable poems, like extended haiku. Now they become popular in mobile phones – as rhythms and icons.The Uta Karuta ("poem cards"), the "100-poet cards" with the tanka ("short songs") are a very popular game especially for New Year's Day.


2. Hokusais pictures

This is the last monument of Hokusais work. He started in 1840 and made 27 colour woodblocks and 62 drawings and drafts. Some were first published by Peter Morse.

Hokusai is afraid that his own life might have already passed beyond late autumn. He has seen behind the veils, the secrets, the customs and the wildest passions. He was no longer afraid of anything. Hokusai did not illustrate the poems. He created new visual situations and tales which were inspired by the poems. The pictures tell their own story in the cultural context of the old Japan from 800 to 1849. Even if a poem was written by the Emperor himself and all about the rain and his imperial tears – it is Hokusai who decides if Emperor, rain and tears have a place on the woodblock or not. It was a monumental NO in the very first picture of the series. Do you think this might have been lazyness or some sort of a demo? Certainly not oversight.

Hokusai was a popular artist. His works sold extremly well to “everybody on the street”. He never cared for academy and nobility. Nothing could be less obliging to Hokusai than ancient Emperor court etiquette.

A technical detail: Hokusai and his representation of space
He was not good in describing space and perspective illusion. When he tried it, it did not come out well and he was visibly feeling sick.

He loved events, happenings, stories. His good pictures are about situations. See one of his lost fights against architecture. Of course Hokusai is a greater artist because he tried things he could not do. Look close on Michelangelos David. You will discover many artistic weaknesses. This does not diminish him as a a great artist and does not diminish the artistic value of his oeuvre. I believe that the failures are adding a precious human element to art.

Hokusais solution for 3-D was an emphasised foreground event.

A Hokusai foreground

A Hokusai perspective failure

In the "100 poems" he sometimes meanders very far away from the content of the poems. Sometimes he ridicules the nobility starting with poem number One by the Emperor Tenchi. Then 45 and my absolute darling number 61. In 61, Lady Ise describes that a single twig with some cherry blossoms were delivered around the year 1000 by a courtier from about 30 miles distance and the more sensitive persons could smell them everywhere in the palace. The Emperor Ichijo confirmed that he too was smelling them all the time and that he was delighted. Alle girls made "ah so" and "mochi-mochi", giggled and held their hands in front of their mouths and delicately wiggled their tails. Hokusais drawing shows the servants who had said: "If a few blossoms have that effect, let us see the effect of an entire tree". Then they fell the biggest cherry tree they could find and they are now demolishing the palace entrance by pulling it into the premises. To cherry or not to cherry - the owner was not amused.

Wet nurses
When one selects a wet nurse one selects her (as Hokusai would have said) for her big tits full of milk and not for her knowledge of the poetry of Emperors who had died 1000 years ago. However, especially the wet nurses share 10.000 years of experience and know a thing or two about the persons in the Emperors palaces through all ages.

Hokusais pictures describe what the poems do in the head of a wet nurse. Many things she misunderstands, some she does not understand at all, some she could not care less and of some she understands more than what the poets intended to reveal. Nobody knows Emperors and Queens more intimately, starting from the sweet kisses of them as babies and down to their piss.

Put this into the wicked mind of the very smart and very wicked old man Hokusai. Of course he expresses his thoughts simply and directly.

Art and death in Japanese culture
Suffering lovers are a great theme in the poems. However the connection of love and death is not made. We find much more of that in the Western culture (Helena of Troy, Tristan, Romeo and July, Othello, Death in Venice). A wise aged Japanese lady, an artist herself explained to me that Japanese culture has an extreme preference for tragedy. In Japan, art, death and pain have always been in an intense relationship. We remind of Japans suicide bombers in the second world war. Sado-Maso is an important element in Japans erotic culture. SM is omnipresent in todays mangas, animes and hentais.

Yukio Mishima (1925 - November 25, 1970). His suicide as a political manifest.
The world famous poet Yukio Mishima was a fervent patriot. He said “The Emperor, the Tenno is the heart of imperial Japan. He connects heaven and earth. It is better to die than to live while Japan is loosing its soul. On November 25th he went to the headquarters of the Japanese Army, wearing his homemade uniform. He has seen himself as the last Samurai. He called for an uprising and said that he will now prove his sincerity. He committed Seppuku, suicide by cutting through his belly. This is a slow, very painful death. In Japan it is a very honourable, respected act of ultimate self discipline.

About Shinto Gods:
Legendary persons especially from the concervative imperialist wing get into the list of Shinto Gods. The Western word would be “Saints”. While Christian saints have the the function of a conventient lobby close to the ears of God, the Shinto Gods represent exemplary moral standards, especially the Samurai warrior honors. Examples: 4 of the poets. The Kamikaze pilots of the Second World War because they symbolise that the imperial Japanese nation is more important than the individual life.

3. About the original poems

  • The poems are very short, very polite, very Japanese – that means
    expressing things indirectly and using words which, when spoken, had 2,3 … 5 different meanings.
  • Misunderstandings were honest fun under thoses circumstances.
    Emperors, pricesses, ministers, noblemen – all had to prove that they have poetic hearts.
    Not all were intelligent, not all had a heart, let alone a poetic one.
    There was a lot of deception.
    All knew the "Jargon" and how to pick words from the "lyric box of the 500 most emotional keywords".
  • The English translations stay close to the Japanese words and
    rhythms, therefore they are also hard to understand.
We present the poems in 3 forms:
  • The classic English translations by Clay MacCauley
    Yokohama: Kelly and Walsh, Ltd., 1917 click
    The revision by Ogura Hyakunin Isshu
  • Hannes Kellers prosa poems I want to tell you what Hokusais pictures, my fascination for wet nurses, my love and admiration for the man Hokusai and the riddles of 1000 year old Japanese poetry are doing in my brain. Remember: Hokusai wants you to think for yourself.
  • Hannes Kellers Comments

>> The poems and Hokusais pictures