Reviewby Mike Toole, Oct 14th 2016
Centuries after his death, the famous artist Hokusai remains the standard-bearer for Japanese fine art. But Hokusai had a daughter who was a noted artist herself—Katsushika O-ei, who served as his assistant and collaborator on some of his most famous works. As she comes into her own as an artist in 1800s Edo, O-ei fights for recognition from her peers, works to satisfy her demanding and irascible father, and tries her hardest to keep her fragile family together.
If you've ever just happened across a Japanese painting, a piece of fine art on canvas, you probably didn't see Tomioka Tessai's “Two Divinities Dancing” or Hasegawa Tohaku's “Irises.” Nope, what you saw was most likely something by an artist named Taito, aka Gakyou Roujin Manji, aka Katsushika Hokusai. You know that famous ‘waves crashing’ deal? Of course you do, that's a piece every bit as famous as Van Gogh's “Starry Night” and Munch's “The Scream” and Magritte's “The Son of Man” and that one lady that Leonardo da Vinci painted. Hokusai created that (original title: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”), as part of a series celebrating a domestic travel boom, and highlighting his own interest in Mt. Fuji. It's not actually a painting, though, but rather a stunningly elaborate ukiyo-e woodblock print. See, it made sense for Hokusai to produce the artwork this way, because at the time he was really starting to get popular and lots of people would want a copy.
That was the story with Hokusai. He wasn't just renowned amongst connoisseurs of art, he also drew comics, pornography, and even advertisements. “Kanagawa” cemented his status as one of Japan's leading fine artists, but he didn't let it go to his head-- as Keiichi Hara's film Miss Hokusai opens, the artist, in late middle age, is working diligently at a humble machiya, just wrapping up an elaborate painting of a dragon when his kid wrecks it. Hara's got an interesting angle, one that uses a 1980s biographical manga as its source; instead of telling the story of Hokusai, he reframes the legendary artist in the context of his own progeny. Specifically, we learn not so much about Hokusai himself in this film, but about his daughter, O-ei.
O-ei tries to explain the mishap with the painting to the patron's secretary, who's pretty mad that his boss's prize likely won't be delivered on time. She tries to be direct; “It was finished, but then it was ruined,” she ruefully declaims. Her dad is a little more philosophical. “Soon as I finished it,” he grumbles, “it flew away!” From this, we learn more and more about O-ei, who flits about this movie wearing the exact same beetling, perpetually unimpressed look that her father has, which itself looks to be copied straight from one of Hokusai's grouchy old man-era self-portraits. She tends the studio with her dad's other assistant, a schlubby former samurai named Zenjirou. Zenijoru seems to find her fascinating, but the feeling isn't mutual.
O-ei's got some problems. She worries about her father, depicted here as a surly middle-aged fellow who enjoys cruising around Edo, eating and drinking and playing parlor games with his buddies. She also worries about her distant mother, who's separated from dad, and worries even more about her ailing little sister. O-ei is the glue holding the Hokusai family together, but she's gotten a bit stretched and brittle. At the same time, her artistic acumen is formidable; her dad, who comes across as a pretty stern critic, is still moderately impressed with her painting game. His grumbling, pointed critiques of her projects make him seem more like a charmingly terse baseball or boxing coach than a master artist.
All of this unfolds over the relentlessly colorful, metropolitan backdrop of Edo, Japan's old capital, in 1814, during a time prior to the Meiji Restoration when the streets were packed with travelers, scholars, townies, and plenty of aimless goofballs with disused swords and ragged topknots. O-ei frequently cruises these streets on errands and social calls. During one, she accompanies her father on a business meeting, deftly coming to terms with a noted Oiran who wants her portrait painted by the famous man. During another, she bumps into her dad's old assistant, Hatsugoro, whom she transparently pines after.
This is a neat detail, because Hatsugoro is actually Hokkei, a man that history identifies as Hokusai's most accomplished protégé and a great artist in his own right. It slowly becomes evident that O-ei isn't just doggedly refining her artwork to satisfy her ambition and please her father, but also to catch the sophisticated, gregarious Hokkei's interest. Director Hara effectively depicts O-ei as a painter who's just as skilled as her famous parent, but plagued by doubts. Her peers chalk it all up to inexperience, which makes O-ei fret even more—what's she missing? Is there some final step that'll make her a great artist?
Throughout Miss Hokusai, key details of O-ei's story are reinforced by callbacks to Hokusai's famous works—there are repeating motifs of crashing waves and birds in flight, and tantalizing glimpses of Mt. Fuji in the distance. As the film progresses, imagery related to dad's works (including an impressive but really twee, on-the-nose depiction of the wave off Kanagawa) are scattered across the film, becoming more vivid as pieces from his later career creep in; this is another neat detail, because while only a handful of pieces are credited to O-ei alone, it's assumed by scholars that she helped her father out an awful lot late in his life, which is when some of his best work was done.
Miss Hokusai is directed by Keiichi Hara, who, as director of a long, noisy parade of Crayon Shin-chan movies, is well-suited to the task of depicting a striking, technicolor Edo. Hara is also no stranger to biopics, having directed a live-action film based on the life of filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita just a few years back. As vital as his steady, experienced hand is, just as important is Yoshimi Itazu, whose work as character designer is exemplary – Miss Hokusai's characters are at once startlingly vivid and charmingly cartoonish, and always interesting to look at. The movie is finished up with a catchy but somewhat distracting contemporary soundtrack.
Not a whole lot is known about Katsushika O-ei. We know about her apprenticeship, and about her importance to her father's success later in his career, and these things are charmingly recreated in the picture. But we don't know a lot about her personal life, or about why her only marriage fell apart within a year. Miss Hokusai skips over this stuff; it presents an intriguing figure without trying to draw conclusions, which is both admirable and falls slightly short. As the film closes, I was left wondering if it would all really be wrapped up after the credits.
I am still glad and grateful that Miss Hokusai got made. These days, it's often simpler to create an animated film as a spinoff of existing TV anime, but Production I.G does not take the easy path. It's also challenging not to draw parallels between this and the film Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai, an earlier Production I.G effort which seemed to meld classroom lectures with crazy, kinetic folk music and a dynamite depiction of the swordsman's duel with Kojiro Sasaki. Miss Hokusai isn't as straight-up weird as Musashi, but it tries for a similar result, looking to put a new spin on some accepted history. It doesn't have the snap and vivid excitement of Hokusai's best artistic works, but it's still worth lingering over.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B
+ Visually lush and refined; a fun way to experience Hokusai's works from a new perspective
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