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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Theater director Amon Miyamoto enchanted by Hokusai

Aug. 3, 2017

The mammoth blue wave flexes its claws at Mount Fuji, frothing over the snow-capped mountain as three boats struggle in its surge.

The "Great Wave" is one of the most recognized masterpieces of Katsushika Hokusai. The renowned artist of Japan's Edo era was in his 70's when he made this iconic painting that has swept the world.

A new exhibition now at the British Museum in London focuses on the last 30 years of the artist's life. "Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave" features some 160 prints, paintings and sketches.

They include landscapes, flowers and animals, beautiful women, the erotic and the fantastic.

Hokusai even created new styles, combining Asian and European colors and techniques. He reached beyond genres to paint the universe.

"Old Hokusai got so interesting and more powerful," says Tim Clark, the Head of the Japanese section at the British Museum "Somehow more spiritual he's become. Another thing we want to do is that we want to introduce to people as many as possible of Hokusai's later days of paintings."

Hokusai described himself as an old man crazy to paint. He worked vigorously his entire life. But what exactly was he trying to achieve?

Theatre director Amon Miyamoto has long been fascinated by the artist, is on a mission to reveal the man behind the works.

"As a Japanese living at this time, I hope to be able to introduce and share Hokusai's charms with as many people as possible," says Miyamoto. "I somehow feel that I'm in Hokusai's embrace."

Miyamoto made his directorial debut in 1987. He has worked across borders and genres, from the Broadway musical and Western opera, to Japanese Noh and Kabuki.

His focus these days is to present Japan on stages around the world. Miyamoto's love for Hokusai has inspired him to create an original play about the artist's life. It was performed last week in a special reading for one night only, at the British Museum, where Hokusai's works are now on show.


Director Amon Miyamoto joined Newsroom Tokyo's Aki Shibuya and Hideki Nakayama in the studio to discuss Hokusai's life and work.

Shibuya: You've been a huge fan of Hokusai for more than 20 years. What first attracted you to him as an artist?

Miyamoto: Because my international friends asked me “Who is he?". When I worked overseas, they asked me about Hokusai many times. So, I researched again, and I became very fascinated by how eccentric he was.

For example, he lived until the age of 90. But he wanted to live more than one hundred years. He moved house over 90 times. He changed his name 30 times.

And he kept changing his styles, and created more than 50,000 pieces of work. I became more and more interested in why he could create such amazing works.

Nakayama: Your play, together with the Hokusai exhibit at the British Museum, is a groundbreaking project. Why did you want to do the production at the museum?

Miyamoto: Our production started out as a collaboration project with a museum: The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Japan, which is located where Hokusai was born.

We wanted to perform our show in a museum, where Hokusai’s works are present.

That way, the audience can see and feel Hokusai as a person, and enjoy his art even more deeply.

And of course, with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics on the way, I wanted people around the world to re-discover the art of Japan.


What is it about Hokusai's work that continues to move us beyond time and borders? Perhaps there is a hint in Miyamoto's new play.

At the British Museum in London, the play is in the Great Court, Europe's largest covered public square.

British and Japanese crews are working together on the stage. Miyamoto checks everything thoroughly before the opening.

Hokusai fans and aficionados fill the space.

The play explores the passion of Hokusai, and moves between the Edo period and the present time, where an art critic tries to explain the work.

The critic Minami Hasegawa is with his assistant, giving a lecture on "The Essence of Hokusai."

Hokusai saw Mount Fuji as a symbol of stillness. Hasegawa analyses his paintings, which appear to have been created with a free spirit, but he says they are actually based on meticulous calculation.

Diagonal lines from the corners of the frame become the backbone for the structure of the painting.

An arc drawn from the height of the images determines the position of the wave and Mount Fuji.

Hasegawa insists that the power of Hokusai comes from his aim for the ultimate composition, backed by the mathematical science.

The story then moves back in time, to the Edo Period when Hokusai lived. The artist, in his 70's, is still drawing, relentlessly. Yet, he is penniless, and has moved house no less than 93 times. Oei, his sharp-tongued daughter, is always with him.

Hokusai believed that the older he got, the better he became as an artist. He tries to feel the power of nature in the strong winds and heavy rain, and reflect that in his drawings.

Whether by meticulous calculation or emotional visualization, the audience is thrown into the sea to find out how Hokusai views his subjects.

Hokusai was obsessed with waves and practiced drawing them throughout his life.

The "Angry Waves" is a twin-set masterpiece created some time after he turned 80.

Japan was isolated from the world, and Christianity was banned in the country. But Hasegawa points to some hidden motifs in the frame.

In one painting, you can see squirrels, parrots and a little angel at rest, as in Western mythology.

In the other, you see creatures of Oriental mythology, like the Phoenix, the peacock, and the lion.

What is the message Hokusai is sending us?

The critic in the play says the Angry Waves must be advocating an opening of Japan to the wider world.

"Look. There are two kinds of waves, in white and blue," he says. "I believe the white waves represent the West, while the blue waves symbolize Asia. The white and blue crash against each other, but in this painting, they harmonize. In short, Hokusai was showing that the West and Asia might clash, resulting in chaos in the beginning, but will gradually come together to head in the same direction.

Right up until his death, Hokusai avidly pursued the ideal of the artist, to create the ultimate work. Hokusai died in 1849, at the age of 90.

He created a piece in his very last year. The dragon passing Mount Fuji and ascending toward the Pole Star may be Hokusai himself. It is his sublime journey to the freedom that he longed for. The freedom of eternity.

5 years later, Japan ended its period of isolation and opened its doors to the world.


The exhibition, now in Britain, will move to a museum in Osaka, western Japan, in October. Miyamoto's play, "Fanatic Artist Hokusai," is coming to the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo in September.