The following book review of “Hokusai’s Lost Manga” appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Drawing magazine. For more drawing instruction and additional reviews of drawing books, subscribe. Review by Austin R. Williams.
Today the word manga refers to Japanese narrative comics and cartoons, but the tradition of Japanese comics dates back only to the late 19th century. When discussing earlier periods, “manga” refers instead to another type of artwork published in book form: collections of informal drawings by master artists intended as copy books. During their peak of popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, manga of this sort were reliable business for publishers. Students purchased them for practice, and collectors bought them simply for the accomplished and lively artwork.
Among the most important manga authors was Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the great painter, draftsman and printmaker of the ukiyo-e school. Beginning in 1814 Hokusai published 15 manga volumes, which sold well and were reprinted multiple times. Sometime between 1822 and 1833 Hokusai also produced a curious object: a small, unsigned, three-volume album of ink drawings. Referred to as Drawings for a Three-Volume Picturebook, the album is now a part of the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). It comprises roughly 180 pages, in which the artist illustrates subjects spanning astrology, mythology, plant and animal life, landscapes, scenes of labor, scenes of domestic life and more.
The story behind the book’s composition is unknown, but it is suspected to be an intended manga that was never published. Hokusai’s Lost Manga, a new book by Sarah E. Thompson, a curator of Japanese art at the MFA, reproduces the album in full—and offers a possible explanation for its mysterious origin.
The new theory rests on an advertisement: Researchers recently noticed that another book, published by Hokusai in 1823, features an ad promoting a forthcoming book titled Master Iitsu’s Chicken-Rib Picture Book. “Iitsu is one of the many names Hokusai adopted over the years,” writes Thompson, “while ‘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. Translated more freely, the title would be something like Hokusai’s Tasty Morsels. As far as we know, the Chicken-Rib Picture Book never appeared in print. The Boston album may be the manuscript for this lost Manga sequel.”
The question of whether the MFA’s album is in fact the elusive Chicken-Rib book is interesting but ultimately a secondary concern compared to the sheer enjoyment to be had from the drawings themselves, and most of Hokusai’s Lost Manga is given to reproducing the full picture book at life size. The images are of a variety known as hanshita-e, drawings intended to be transferred to woodblocks and published in large editions. Hanshita-e were often prepared by a master’s students, and Hokusai sometimes enlisted pupils in preparing the drawings for his manga. But in this case, Thompson writes, “the superlative brush technique of the drawings indicates that they are indeed by Hokusai himself.”
Some pages include several small drawings; others present more unified compositions. As we flip through the album we often jump abruptly from one subject to another. Some pages form coherent groups or chapters, such as a 13-page sequence of fish and other marine life, but others seem unconnected to the pages surrounding them. The drawings are reminiscent of other volumes of Hokusai’s manga, although the ink medium gives them a somewhat more spontaneous feel. A few drawings point toward later, more famous works by Hokusai. For instance page 120, showing a wave dwarfing a distant island, anticipates his most famous print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave), which he created in the early 1830s.
In addition to the album itself and Thompson’s introductory essay, Hokusai’s Lost Manga includes 20 pages of annotations, with a short note explaining each drawing and situating it in the context of early-19th-century Japanese art. From these we discover a wealth of obscure trivia, for instance that Hokusai preferred Buddhist names for stars rather than the more standard Chinese names. We also learn the workings of devices such as grain-winnowing machines and undershot waterwheels, and we’re told the size of the largest giant octopus on record in Hokusai’s time (30 feet, but the artist liked to draw them even larger).
In a way it’s a stroke of luck that the book was never produced, for if it had been, Hokusai’s original drawings would have been destroyed. “They would have been pasted facedown to panels of cherry wood—the ink lines clearly visible through the thin paper when damp—and carved through by a professional blockcutter to create a printing block,” Thompson writes. “After the blocks were carved, a professional printer would have inked the blocks, placed the paper facedown on them, and rubbed with a pad to make the finished impressions.” Those impressions would then be bound and sold to students and collectors. But their loss is our gain, as we’re able to appreciate this bounty of drawings straight from the master’s brush.