My friend Chess and I were talking of the disaster in Japan. It is just so shocking to hear and see of such destruction and suffering. It is mind numbing to think of the implications of what happened, to watch video footage of the water washing away buildings, ships, cars, bodies. It is a nightmare to imagine the impending troubles with the nuclear plants that loom.
I shared with Chess an image that has kept coming into my mind: Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa. I told her the print was one of the most recognized Japanese prints ever made, and that it was likely an image of a tsunami wave. I told her it kind of worked for me in making sense of the event. I said something about its description of patterns in the natural world, of its depiction of the awesome force of water that dwarves our human lives, of its offering of a beauty in the dynamic shapes of the water. Even in the tsunami’s destruction we might keep our awareness that the dynamic forces of the earth are our life and survival, they are how we got here in the first place. The image of Mt.Fuji, a symbol of a volcanic dynamo of the earth turned stable, I believe holds its beauty and meaning in great part because it is both stable and everlasting and is also evidence of a hugely devastating and awesome event, for its creation must have been a particularly destructive volcanic event eons ago.
Well I hope my friend will forgive me, for in part I lied. The fact that “The Great Wave” is perhaps the most famous ukiyo-e print of all might be true, but the second statement, that it is an image of a tsunami wave, is not . . . necessarily. It is most likely an okinami wave, a great open ocean wave. But it has been associated with the idea of a tsunami wave, and I am not the first to make the connection.
When I mentionned the print image to another friend while talking of the disaster she jumped to the idea of it as a prophecy of the March 11 disaster. Hmmm, there have been other tsunamis, and Kanagawa is considerably south of Sendai, for it is south of Tokyo. But in the way the print juxtaposes the great force of the waters of the ocean and our small human scale and effort, and in the way the instantaneous moment of a breaking wave juxtaposes with the timeless idea of Mt. Fuji, I think this image could be thought of as prophecy if it helps in coping with the emotional impact of the most recent disaster in Japan. It is helping me.
And it is so beautiful . . .
My prayer is that this image, along with other images and acts of beauty, begin quickly the process of healing from Japan’s most recent disaster.
P.S. I am not the only woodblock printmaker to reflect on this disaster. Please consider reading Dave Bull’s recent post of how things look from his point of view, as he works along from his studio outside Tokyo.