Having studied carving and block printing, his early work focused on brush-painting portraits of actors and courtesans, before he made a switch to landscapes and genre themes. He also collaborated in book and comic illustrations, and between 1814 and 1820, he was involved in the production of twelve collections known as manga, probably precursors of today’s craze. However, it wasn't until many years after his death in 1849 that the West embraced manga comics. It was a series of thirty-six woodblock depictions of Mount Fuji, started in 1831, that first ensured Hokusai's enduring legacy, with its popularity necessitating the addition of ten more views.

The iconic Great Wave at Kanagawa is one of the best known, but equally recognisable is Two Carp in a Cascade, sometimes referred to as Carp Leaping Up a Cascade. Only one actually appears to be going upwards, but the twisting and turning of the fish through the forceful flow of the waterfall provides continuous movement. The woodblocks convey the peace of this famous location against the violence of nature, and the up and downs of the daily grind. Hokusai didn't begin these until he was seventy, but he developed the idea further in a second series, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, halted only by his death at the age of eighty-eight.

Hokusai's influence extended to Western art such as Impressionism and Art Nouveau, with practitioners in both adopting his themes, and thereby helping to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western traditions. He was also Japan's top expert on Chinese painting, with his own work reflecting that of Sesshū Tōyō and other styles from China. As a follower of a Buddhist sect with a strong belief in eternal life, Hokusai used reproductions of Mount Fuji, which was a familiar sight both in Japan and internationally, as a symbol of immortality. Although Two Carp in a Cascade doesn't feature the mountain itself, the picture's circular motion could be taken to suggest unending life.