Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The great Hokusai has already achieved a sturdy reputation as a talented, if somewhat temperamental artist. But even though Hokusai himself receives all the fame, his daughter O-Ei harbors great talent of her own, and works diligently to follow in her father's footsteps. But painting by itself cannot tell the story of a life - lives are composed of countless days, days of laughter and sorrow and boredom and joy. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, O-Ei and her father live out these days, navigating the hustle and bustle of Edo as best they can.
The great painter Hokusai is one of the most famous and internationally renowned artists in Japanese history. Responsible for works as recognized as The Great Wave off Kanigawa (itself an element of the vastly influential 36 Views of Mount Fuji) and The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, his work was lauded through Japan's Tokugawa era and beyond. His tale would likely be a strange and compelling one, but this is not his story. This is the story of his daughter - the titular Miss Hokusai, known as O-Ei, who lives and paints alongside her esteemed father.
As Miss Hokusai's director readily admits, records of O-Ei's life aren't nearly clear enough to construct any sort of historically accurate biopic. Instead, Miss Hokusai is, in his words, “a sequence of moments in the life of a bunch of very eccentric people.” Don't expect a clear narrative from Miss Hokusai, or any sort of moral conclusion. Miss Hokusai celebrates life at the pace it happens, and as either a character study or sequence of absorbing vignettes, it absolutely soars.
O-Ei herself is one of Miss Hokusai's most compelling strengths. Her personality and contradictory actions reflect both her own fierce personality and her place within the shadow of her father's reputation. O-Ei is blunt, arrogant, shy, passionate, and deeply dedicated to her own singular passions. This isn't the story of how O-Ei grows into herself - as a twenty-something woman with a stable career and a theoretically enriching home life, she doesn't really have much growing to do. Instead, Miss Hokusai is largely dedicated to bringing her daily experiences to life, painting a lively portrait of 1800s Edo along the way.
Miss Hokusai proceeds as a series of loosely connected vignettes, following the trials of O-Ei and her companions across the four seasons of one tumultuous year. Grounded sequences focused on professional trials or O-Ei's relationship with her frail sister are garnished with fantastical embellishments, moments that make you wonder if paintings truly can summon demons, or if dragons must be captured in ink in the moments before they vanish. The overall effect vividly conveys O-Ei's life as she experiences it - a mixture of mundane problems, baffling social requirements, and occasional moments of staggering beauty.
It helps greatly that Miss Hokusai's vision of Edo is such a convincing place. The streets of early Tokyo are alive with bustle and detail, each new vignette promising a closer look at the reality of street vendors, or the secrets of courtesans. Miss Hokusai isn't an ostentatiously beautiful film, but its eye for detail is commendable, and the film's seasonal focus facilitates gorgeous setpieces like a summer sunset or a walk along a snow-covered riverbank. The animation is likewise suited to the material - the character acting here isn't ostentatious, and there's not that much ambitious camerawork, but the principal characters are still marvelously expressive. Even though O-Ei is a woman of few words, she speaks volumes with a precisely disappointed eyebrow, or an impromptu flushed cheek.
It's an odd quirk of circumstance that in spite of capturing such a precise vision of 1800s Edo, Miss Hokusai still feels like a perfectly contemporary drama. Part of this comes down to O-Ei herself. Living with her father as a self-supporting adult, her circumstances and personality feel entirely modern and relatable. She prides herself on self-sufficiency, cares little for appearances, and is perfectly willing to tell people she finds them stupid or boring. O-Ei is charming in a perfectly, almost conspicuously modern way.
It also helps that O-Ei's problems are such universal ones. How families interact, the trials of romance, feeling uncertain about your professional career - all of her concerns are timeless dilemmas, and they resolve either with universally applicable sentiments or with no conclusion at all. Many of Miss Hokusai's vignettes are content simply to end, having established no more than the warm love between O-Ei and her sister, or the understandable insecurity of the elder Hokusai's understudy. Life doesn't always have a moral, but that doesn't mean we can't draw meaning from its passage.
Miss Hokusai's soundtrack echoes its anachronistic tone. The film opens with bawdy guitar tracks, and frequently contrasts its dramatic peaks with ostentatiously modern instrumentation. The overall effect emphasizes O-Ei's recurring sense of displacement in her world, and also helps make Edo feel that much more accessible. I occasionally felt the soundtrack fell out of joint with the film's dramatic tone (in particular, one theoretically tragic segment was played against an awkwardly anthemic rock track), but overall feel its bold choices were successful ones. The dub is equally strong, with Erica Lindbeck offering an excellent take on O-Ei's subdued persona and Richard Epcar perfectly capturing Hokusai's mix of fatigue, pride, and deeply buried familial love.
Miss Hokusai comes in a standard bluray slipcase with both DVD and bluray discs. There are no physical extras, but the disc includes a pretty monumental special feature - “The Making of Miss Hokusai,” a lengthy documentary dedicated to the film's creation. The documentary includes interviews with key staff, including significant commentary by the director, and a deep dive into the Production I.G. environment where Miss Hokusai was conceived. General explanations of processes like character design are interspersed with specific reflections on Miss Hokusai's design choices, along with copious footage of everyday meetings and artistic discussions from throughout the production process. There's even a brief biography of Hinako Sugiura, Miss Hokusai's original creator. It's a welcome and uniquely illustrative inclusion, a great find for anyone interested in the production side of anime. Aside from that, disc extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a few coming attraction commercials.
Overall, I'd recommend Miss Hokusai to anyone willing to entertain something a little strange, a little subtle, and a little disenchanted with ideas like “plot” or “conflict.” Miss Hokusai offers a variety of ordeals, but its overall goal is the construction of a lived moment, vivid memories shared with a consistently engaging host. There are sad moments and happy moments and moments of ethereal wonder, and all of them spin together to conjure a full, living world. O-Ei's story is just one life like many others, but Miss Hokusai demonstrates that any life is a journey well worth celebrating.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ The film's unique structure offers a compelling glimpse into both 1800s Edo and some very compelling characters. O-Ei herself is a terrific lead.
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