Miss Hokusai (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: All The Anime) Running time: 90 minutes approx.
Bio-pics in anime a rather rare, although many historical figures have featured in films and TV shows, usually in tales suffused with fantasy elements or heavy on dramatic licence. Miss Hokusai is a little of both as it documents a fictional telling of a snapshot of the life of a little known figure with a very famous father.
The Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai should be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Japanese culture; if his name doesn’t ring any bells, his most famous work, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, almost certainly will be instantly recognisable. Hokusai was a prolific and hugely influential artist in the late 18th-early 19th century who also authored the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
However this film chooses to focus on his daughter O-Ei, about whom little is known therefore director Keiichi Hara has chosen the manga by Hinako Sugiura as his source material. Set in Edo (today known as Tokyo) circa 1814 during the Tokugawa period, Hokusai is an artist of great repute and commensurate demand, painting giant portraits or tiny designs on a grain of rice.
A father of four daughters, only the 23 year-old O-Ei lives with Hokusai, while his youngest, the blind O-Nao, whom he rarely visits, lives with her mother. Like her father O-Ei is a talented artist and while she does not have his recognition or reputation she does have his eye for art. Unlike her father, O-Ei is feisty and outspoken and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is a blow to Zenjirō Ikeda, a young artist following Hokusai as his disciple with an eye for O-Ei.
There isn’t much of an overarching story here, rather an episodic look into the daily lives of this talented father and daughter dichotomy. Because the history of O-Ei remains undocumented Sugiura, and the film’s screenwriter Miho Maruo, has taken many liberties in creating one for her, which to their credit do feel very plausible but remain open to scepticism and scrutiny from dedicated historians.
Where this leeway is taken for granted comes during scenes revolving around the fantasy stories built around supernatural curses brought about by shoddy paintings. Akin to the series Mushi-Shi, Hokusai is able to cure spooked patrons with a swish of his paint brush – including a Geisha whose face tries to escape at night and another woman troubled by demons from a painting O-Ei did which had “loose ends”.
During the Edo period such flights of fancy would be readily believed and no doubt passed on a folklore but to modern eyes, it is a case of credibility being stretch the for sake of a nice visual twist. If we are being honest, it doesn’t need such excessive affectations as the gentle mood and comfortable period setting is enough of a hook for the audience.
The most precious moments are found when O-Ei is with O-Nao. While out and about, the elder sister describes everything the youngster cannot see, even drawing a rough shape on her palm to allow her the chance to create her own visual interpretation. One scene employs the aforementioned Great Wave painting of their father’s, when they take a gentle boat ride which O-Ei describes the waters in majestic terms.
A later scenario set during the winter is equally charming and Ghibli-esque (come on, you have to expect at least one Ghibli comparison) in which O-Nao and a young boy play in the snow. It is such an innocent set up and full of uncomplicated whimsy as the blind girl shares in the wonder of falling snow courtesy of the mischievous boy.
However this thread is no continued and the boy is never seen again, highlighting the issue of making a film out of individual chapters rather than a complete story. Also suffering in that respect is the character development, with Hokusai – referred to as Tetsuzo here – barely progressing beyond the gruff, temperamental artist we meet in the beginning.
O-Ei fares little better, in that she later begins to embrace the possibility of being courted by Ikeda but bottles out at the last minute, perhaps for his sake as much as her own. Because O-Ei is such an unknown quantity Hara presents her as an enigmatic figure, with sharp and dignified features, bewitching eyes and a posture which is straight yet still delicately female.
Keiichi Hara is known for the TV shows Crayon Shin-Chan and Doraeman, with Miss Hokusai marking something of a departure for him whilst explaining the episodic nature of the script. However he presents us with a gently paced outing that flows quite nicely in spite of the non-sequential narrative, with healthy splashes of levity and poignant introspection for a fully rounded experience.
Production IG handle the animation duties and bring the past to life through their lovingly detailed replication of 19th century Edo, from the landmarks and architecture, to the clothing and hairstyles, also taking in the reproductions of Hosukai’s paintings. The only questionable decision is the anachronistic rock ‘n’ roll track which accompanies O-Ei’s on screen debut – just baffling.
What one takes away from this film will depend on the individual. We certainly don’t actually learn much about either O-Ei or Hokusai, but as a primer for investigating the later this serves us well. Because the script is rooted in conjecture and fiction, we are left to embrace a rather romantic idea of who O-Ei might have been, something the character’s design and the historical setting plays a significant part in.
Even if we come away from this film none the wiser about the title character, Miss Hokusai offers us the chance to spend 90 minutes fully immersed in Edo period Japan with a fascinating characters as our guides, as we delve into a part of Asian history often overlooked in anime.
Charming, visually delightful and always enchanting, allow yourself to be whisked back in time with this curiously evocative tribute to an unsung legend.
Japanese 2.0 DTS HD: Master Audio
Japanese 5.1 DTS HD: Master Audio
French 2.0 DTS HD: Master Audio
French 5.1 DTS HD: Master Audio
English and French Subtitles
Dual-Format Collectors Edition
- Collector’s Edition Packaging
- 120 minute making of Documentary
- Special Interview with Director Keiichi Hara
- Art Cards
- Art book
Rating – ****
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