Hokusai Reimagined

For a class project, I decided to reimagine Katsushika Hokusai’s seminal “Red Fuji” as ASCII art. Essentially, I wrote a Python script that converted Hokusai’s “Red Fuji” into text art using only the letters in Hokusai’s name. Since different letters have different visual weights, you can use them for gradations of shading. The script converts the image into black and white, then assigns a numerical value to each pixel depending on how dark the shading is. Then it replaces each pixel with the letter assigned to that shade range. I like how it turned out.

Red Fuji

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849). South Wind and Clear Sky (Gaifū kaisei), also known as Red Fuji, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830–1832, Edo Period. Size: 15 3/4 x 10 1/2 in. Color woodcut; ink and color on paper.

This print can be viewed at several museums, including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Harvard Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The British Museum.

Katsushika Hokusai’s seminal “South Wind and Clear Sky”, commonly referred to as “Red Fuji” for obvious reasons, was made in the Edo Period (ca. 1830-1832) as part of the artist’s series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”. Red Fuji contains a depth of meaning, both historical and cultural, that may be missed by a casual observer who is unaware of Japanese history. Strangely enough, this piece also owes its existence in large part to tourism. In previous periods, casual travel in Japan was not common as Japanese citizens by necessity were focused on the harsh demands of their daily lives, with little time or resources leftover for leisurely pursuits. However, in the Edo period, Japan now enjoyed an unprecedented economic prosperity and political stability, which allowed them a degree of newfound leisure. Even though travel was technically illegal during the Edo period, there was a simple workaround: a would-be tourist only had to declare that they were on a pilgrimage to a holy temple and then they could travel freely. This led to an increase in travel and tourism became a popular activity for the first time in Japan. Along with the increased popularity of tourism also came growth in the tourism market. Publishers realized the potential of commissioning art that could be easily copied as woodblock prints. These could be sold to tourists for a relatively low cost and allowed travelers a physical representation of their experiences traveling. Thus, woodblock prints became a popular souvenir for this new tourist demographic. Scenes from the infamous Yoshiwara Pleasure District were popular choices for prints, as were Kabuki Theatre scenes and portraits of beautiful women, however tourists were also attracted to landscapes depicting Japan’s natural beauty and iconic destinations, such as Mount Fuji.  

Hokusai was seventy years old when he began to artfully depict Mt. Fuji. In the next five years, he created 46 designs for the print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. The mountain, located near Fujinomiya, is an active volcano, although it hasn’t erupted since 1708. It is notable for being the tallest mountain in Japan (12,389 feet), and on a clear day it can be seen as far away as Tokyo. In Japan, Mt. Fuji has long been cherished as a sacred site for the Shinto faith, oftentimes being a recurring motif in Japanese literature and poetry. Many artists and writers have tried to capture the power and epic beauty of the summit; however Hokusai’s woodblock print series showing the summit through different seasons and weather conditions is perhaps the most famous attempt. Hokusai was a ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period, and is the most famous of all Japanese artists. In a long and successful career, he produced over 30,000 paintings, sketches, and woodblock prints. None were so successful as his Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, which contained his most famous prints: Red Fuji and The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. These now iconic artworks secured Hokusai broad recognition in Japan and overseas.

Japanese printmakers in the Edo Period used a limited range of colourants. This is because, when creating woodblock prints, colourant particles need to be fine enough to sufficiently penetrate the paper when they are applied, but not so fine that they run through the paper and bleed out the other side; this leaves a limited amount of colourants that are suitable for the purpose. Hokusai created his Red Fuji using only four colors: bright red was used for the mountain, contrasted with a bright blue sky, a soft white was reserved for clouds and snow, and deeper shades of green were used to create foliage at the base of the mountain. The colors are bright and punchy, as if the day recorded here was bathed in sunlight that over-saturated the scene. The image has a flat, static quality. Though rows of overlapping clouds dipping behind the mountain and a strong hierarchy of color do create some sense of depth, the overall impression of this stylized piece is that this is a depiction of a flat two-dimensional space. The focus of the artwork is Mt. Fuji itself, which is placed off center to the bottom right of the image, cutting diagonally up, and takes up an even half of the visual space. The cloudy sky is a balanced element that uses up the remaining visual weight, diagonally controlling the top left quadrant of the piece. As such, the piece is quite balanced and symmetrical. Each individual element is depicted simply with minimal detail, to an almost cartoon-ish effect. Fuji isn’t being recorded in all it’s fine detail, rather the idea of Fuji is the subject here. The emotion of witnessing Mt. Fuji is invoked by this piece, but maybe Mt. Fuji’s symbolic meaning in Japan is what Hokusai was really focused on. The artist successfully captured the depth of meaning of Mt. Fuji in a way that a photograph perhaps could not.

Though the summit is colored in a bright, fiery red (a color that is typically used to express anger or danger), this piece somehow remains a calming, tranquil image. There is a sense of peace and stability in the artwork that is a somewhat ironic method of depicting an active volcano. This is no doubt intentional though and is typical of how Japan symbolized Mt. Fuji as an enduring, unchanging entity. In fact, the summit was often associated with the notion of everlasting life. Hokusai, who himself was obsessed with finding eternal life, may have found a source of inspiration here. That may explain his intense fascination with Mt. Fuji. In his colophon to Volume One of One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, Hokusai describes his ambition:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the forms of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false.

Hokusai sadly did not live quite long enough to achieve this lofty goal, his life finally reaching it’s end at the age of 88. However, he achieved in his lifetime a sort of immortality, as his work lives on and has only grown in popularity over the years. His Red Fuji is still the most recognizable artistic depiction of the mountain, even after all this time. It’s historical and cultural relevance endures as steadily as Mt. Fuji itself.  

“Hokusai’s Mount Fuji.” RISD Museum. August 17, 1991. https://risdmuseum.org/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/hokusais-mount-fuji.

Jamieson, Anna. “Iconic Hokusai Prints: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Japan Objects. May 18, 2018. https://japanobjects.com/features/hokusai-fuji

Korenberg, Capucine et al. “Developing a systematic approach to determine the sequence of impressions of Japanese woodblock prints: the case of Hokusai’s Red Fuji.” Heritage Science. February 26, 2019. https://heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40494-019-0250-5

Thompson, Sarah. “Hokusai.” Boston: MFA Publications. 2015.