Before ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai died in 1849, he famously said that if only heaven had granted him five more years he could have become a true painter.

Hokusai's Great Wave, by Christine M. E. Guth.
272 pages
University of Hawaii Press, Nonfiction.

This deathbed lament, originally recorded in Iijima Kyoshin's 1893 biography of the artist, is the perfect denouement to the Hokusai legend, in which the prodigious variety of his oeuvre arises from an extravagant and lifelong abandon to the cause of art itself.

And yet one of Hokusai's images literally towers over the rest: "Kanagawa Oki no Namiura" ("Under the Wave off Kanagawa"), published in the early 1830s and better known today as "The Great Wave off Kanagawa."

What propelled this particular print to worldwide fame? What does it mean when we find it on everything from the cover of the first edition of Debussy's "La Mer" to the TWA Flight 800 International Memorial in New York? These are the questions that Christine M. E. Guth explores in "Hokusai's Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon."

After setting the scene with an initial chapter exploring the Japanese context of the print's creation, Guth moves confidently through Japonisme in 19th-century Europe, the early American market for Japanese art and the image's repurposing and commodification in the postwar world.

The writing is unapologetically academic, but Guth's focus on concrete examples and context usually keeps things grounded and engaging as she shows how this unmistakably Japanese work has been mapped onto local ideas and anxieties — a dynamic which the brooding epilogue, "After the Tsunami," shows is still active today.