Published in 1832 (Edo Period) as the first in Hokusai's series 36 Views of Mount Fuji.
The primary component of this print is a giant wave poised to crash onto small boats. It is not, as is often suggested, a tsunami, but rather an off-shore wave, or okinami. The print portrays a grand struggle between man and nature, placing the viewer in the midst of the ocean swells. The waves serve to frame a distant Mt. Fuji in such a way that the peak remains noticeable, even though it is small in comparison to the giant waves in the foreground.
As a Westerner, without any cultural conditioning or background in Japanese prints, glancing at the image, one will be invariably drawn first to the largest of the waves, only later discovering Mt. Fuji. For Japanese, however, the 'normal,' traditional way to view the print would be from right to left, implying "that Hokusai's Great Wave was designed to tumble into the viewer's face, so to speak" (Forrer). More importantly, by viewing the print in this manner, one quickly discovers Mt. Fuji; indeed, the viewer is naturally drawn to linger on Mt. Fuji by the sloping of the waves, as it appears perfectly at the bottom of the "half-pipe," to borrow a term from skateboarding.
Another important difference between 'The Great Wave' and earlier manifestations is the stunning use of color in the final print, namely, that of Berlin Blue, or bero. Looking at the print, shades of bero dominate, coloring the water, people, and Mt. Fuji. The color is thick, bold, and aggressive (contrast this with Kanagawa oki Honmoku no zu). Although the publisher of the prints certainly had a hand in Hokusai's wide use of the ink, due to the recent popularity of the color, Hokusai himself probably sought to employ the bero not only for commercial reasons, but also as a result of personal taste. As Smith offers, "…the symbolic meanings of the colour blue, with its implications of water and rebirth, must have been of great personal appeal to Hokusai himself as he embarked on his 'second life'" (Smith 259). Whatever the dominant cause, the coloring of 'The Great Wave' certainly contributed to the overall popularity of this print.
Text from spideronthefloor.com
To see a extrememely high res version of the great wave click here
The Great Wave was also the inspiration behind the quicksilver logo: