‘Miss Hokusai’ Aims for Unorthodox Anime Bio
Adapted from the Hinako Sugiura 1980’s manga series, Miss Hokusai pursues a more episodic approach to the life story of famed Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai is most noted for his 19th century print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Director Keiichi Hara doesn’t treat this animated feature with typical narrative conventions. Instead, the film’s lens is through his daughter and fellow artist, O-Ei.
Living in 1814 Edo (present-day Tokyo), O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe) lives in the shadow of her father’s success. For those new to Hokusai, the feature immediately depicts him as one of the greats. From painting a giant dharma to nailing down intricate artistic detail on a grain of rice, Hokusai’s talent is legendary. Still, his eccentric behavior weighs down on his disconnected family. Consumed with his art, he allows his home to be cluttered. And when it’s too out of control, the family simply moves.
O-Ei deals with this every day. Everyday is a balancing act for her. Playing daughter, sister, artist and an object of affections, she still struggles to grasp her own identity. But despite being the titular character, Miss Hokusai isn’t focused on evolving her as a character. She is simply our guide through 90 minutes of loosely tied situations. She carries a sense of duality – reserved in public, though more outspoken at home. Much of the film is us taking one brushstroke at a time, gliding from one area of her life to the next.
The episodic nature may frustrate some audiences, expecting a more coherent biography. Rather we’re perpetually dancing in the wind. But it’s the smaller vignettes that open up the bigger picture in Miss Hokusai. We understand that her family unit is rather unorthodox, playing both daughter and apprentice to Hokusai. And there is a major difference between the two as the father relies more on years of experience. She, however, is driven by what come naturally in her erotica art.
The linchpin in Miss Hokusai is the relationship between O-Ei and her half-sister O-Nao. Returned to off-and-on throughout the film, the blossoming bond with her blind sister is touching. By rekindling her relationship, she takes on the parental role. One that Hokusai himself has neglected due to his passion for his career. It’s a strain for Hokusai, who refuses to deal with illness or disability. There’s a sad moment in the middle of the film where Hokusai walks down the street passing O-Ei and O-Nao without any acknowledgement.
With this slice of life approach, we never know what Miss Hokusai is about to deliver. There are plenty of teases throughout. Whether it be a confrontation with the supernatural or a same-sex experience, it’s nothing short of bit and pieces. Still, all the experiences O-Ei and Hokusai have certainly influence their style and shape them as a person. Sometimes it’s for the better. Other times it even questions their philosophical ideals.
Miss Hokusai manages to stay faithful to the Edo period and culture. Though, the choices of occasional rock music can distract from the authenticity of what director Hara is aiming for. The traditional score compensates for any tangential cues. Still, to its credit, Miss Hokusai is beautiful to behold as a traditional anime, visually mesmerizing at every turn. The atmosphere of Edo is richly designed with great detail that you’re immediately sucked back into the 19th century.
Miss Hokusai covers so much ground in so little time and structure. But despite many of its unconventional decisions, we obtain enough of a broad idea to understand her and her familial legacy through the various vignettes.