When it comes to the great Japanese artworks that everybody knows, the figure of Hokusai looms large. From the ubiquitous The Great Wave off Kanagawa to the infamous Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the work of Hokusai has come to represent the art of Edo woodblocks almost single handedly in the popular imagination yet there has long been scholarly debate about the true artist behind some of the pieces which are attributed to his name. Hokusai had a daughter – uniquely gifted, perhaps even surpassing the skills of her father, O-Ei was a talented artist in her own right as well as her father’s assistant and caregiver in his old age.
Miss Hokusai, based on the popular 1980s manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, takes up O-Ei’s story towards the beginning of her career before her marriage and subsequent divorce, after which she returned to her father’s side to nurse him as his health declined. Like the manga, the film is a collection of scenes from Edo life loosely tied together by its overarching theme, but broadly follows O-Ei as she lives her life as a young woman with a level of forthrightness and determination which sets her apart from the women of the time. Determined to become an artist, she lives with her father in their studio where neither of them cooks or cleans but each devotes themselves solely to art. Also living with them at the time is an ex-samurai and aspiring artist, Zenjiro, who specialises in erotica which has its own particular qualities even if his skills aren’t on a par with Hokusai or O-Ei.
When not in her father’s studio, O-Ei likes to visit her younger sister who, ironically, was born blind and is being cared for by the local nuns. O-Nao’s blindness is a sore spot for her father who hardly ever visits her, feeling as if her lack of sight is some sort of cosmic slight against him – the master painter with the daughter unable to appreciate his art and therefore his entire life philosophy. O-Ei is not so rigid and delights taking the girl out on trips where she can experience the world through her richly developed other senses. O-Nao particularly likes visiting the bridge with its complicated soundscape from the river below to the vendors above and all the passersby. There’s also a lovely set piece in which a young boy who quickly figures out that O-Nao can’t see tries to entertain her by knocking snow off a tree. Miss Hokusai, though a story of visual art, has an especially intricate sound design which proves that you can paint with materials other than ink and makes a point of calling out the stubbornness inherent in the world view of someone like Hokusai whose singleminded vision has become his entire universe.
O-Ei has her fair share of troubles as a young woman, though living with her father as his assistant she is a relatively free and unsheltered one. Her father doesn’t hide any aspect of his work from her – she even assists him with his erotic pieces and is said to be a particularly fine painter of women though her male figures lack conviction. “Sensation” itself becomes a theme, art is something which must be felt and therefore must have feeling imbued within it. As an unmarried woman O-Ei is ill equipt to complete these kinds of assignments and some say perhaps she should not be given them though her determination would never permit her to turn them down leading to rather a strange interlude in which she tries to gain some “experience” in a presumably “safe” way which won’t have much effect on her later life.
Less successfully, the film also attempts to enter the realm of the supernatural as we learn a painting can have other effects on the viewer particularly if it isn’t completed in the proper fashion. From a possessed geisha to a woman driven mad by O-Ei’s suitably creepy painting which features terrifying scenes from hell, Miss Hokusai most definitely occupies a world where ghosts, spirits and demons are real things which co-exist with real people. Luckily, Hokusai is able to fix the problem with the disturbing painting by closing its symbolic imagery with a suitable addition whilst berating O-Ei for having cut corners and not properly complete her vision so as to leave the onlooker “haunted” in an unintended way. Again, the painter is parent to the painting which attains the kind of immortality impossible for its creator in this transient world.
Clearly bound-up with the notion of transience, Miss Hokusai makes a valiant attempt to bring ordinary Edo living with its geisha houses, dusty rooms and drinking songs to life in vivid detail. However, its message becomes slightly confused with the superimposition of the modern Tokyo in the final frame of the film. At this point, the rather bizarre choice of a modern, electric guitar based soundtrack, begins to make a degree of sense at least on a thematic level but nowhere near enough to mitigate its jarring presence throughout the film.
Animated by animation powerhouse Production I.G who have been responsible for some of the most beautifully made animated movies of recent times, Miss Hokusai is a giant step up from Hara’s previous film, Colorful, in terms of its execution and boasts a number of scenes which are remarkable in their technical proficiency. The sky in particular as well as the background in general takes on a dreamy, woodblock style which is perfectly fitting for the film’s themes. An interesting look at the young O-Ei, an inexperienced female artist still looking for her voice in a world where the only thing that counts is the signature, Miss Hokusai doesn’t quite succeed in breathing life into its disparate collection of tales but makes a valiant attempt all the same.
Miss Hokusai is currently touring the UK with the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 and will be released by All the Anime later in the year.