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There is currently an exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on the influence of Japanese art on American art, from about 1880 to 1920. It is organized around the major world fairs/exhibitions in American cities during this period: San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, St Louis... The walls and cases include both examples of Japanese arts and crafts that were shown at these fairs, and examples of the paintings, books, pottery, and other items of western manufacture that showed a Japanese influence through these pathways. I was particularly struck by a book open to show wonderful drawings of animals from Hokusai’s manga, or sketchbooks, and had to learn more about them.The reason I bought this older book with James Michener acting as editor and writer was that I found a blog that claimed it had the best reasonably priced reproductions. Also, it is printed in a way that mimics the way the books were originally printed: with two sequential pages printed side by side on one side of a piece of paper, which was then folded in half. The book was bound with both edges in the stiched edge and the folded edge the one that the reader turned. That is, the left hand image would be our page one, and the right hand image our page two, on the flip side of the folded ‘page’. Michener had the images printed at original size on slightly larger pages. With one two-page diptych he illustrated the difference between the technology of the original and the way he had to produce his book. He had the left hand side of the diptych printed with the offset lithography process used for almost all other pages in the book. But the right hand side of the diptych is printed using a newly cut woodblock (with Hokusai’s image on it), so you can see the variations in the reproduction processes. There is a hardness about the lithographed image, which makes you wish you had a few thousand dollars to spend on an original.Michener says that all of the images were taken from prints that were made with the original blocks, although the sources were many different volumes. The books were meant to be used, and all became the victims of heavy use. The manga were so popular that they were reprinted many times, and the designs eventually had to be recut because the original blocks got worn out.The original manga came out as a series of 15 volumes. Michener chose examples of each genre of drawing from among all the volumes: people, fauna, flora, landscapes, the past, grotesque, technical, and architecture. There are 187 plates, as well as hundreds more small images scattered across the top of his text pages. Colors are limited to the black, grey and pale pink colors in the originals.Michener doesn’t lack for opinions. He is an art enthusiast, but not a trained art historian, so I would recommend supplementing this with other reading. He does spend quite a bit of time discussing the attitudes of the Japanese themselves toward Hokusai, in particular the way many art collectors (at least when he was writing) looked askance at such popular, low class art that ignored the precepts and examples of fine Chinese painting. But Michener himself enjoyed Hokusai’s reckless attitude toward life and his dedication to his art. That comes through, even though I disagreed with many of his judgments about the quality of particular drawings. He writes an introduction to each topic, as well as an explanation of what is going on in each plate. This edition also includes all of the original forwards written by various artists and writers for each of the fifteen volumes as they were issued.I will return to dip into this occasionally. There are many images that show an understanding of human nature and daily life, its humor and ups and downs, that still amuse or inform.

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