Miss Hokusai, now out on DVD and Blu-ray, is a film that is notable as much for its own meta-history as it is for the story depicted within. From Production I.G., the anime studio responsible for the beloved Ghost in the Shell series, and award-winning director Keiichi Hara, Miss Hokusai presents the true story of the prolific Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (also known as Tetsuzo) and his lesser known but just as talented daughter O-Ei. Though the film doesn’t adhere to any sort of traditional plot structure – which can make the pacing feel rather slow and disjointed – it offers compelling character portraits of a historical figure who rightfully deserve a larger spotlight.
Hokusai was a Japanese painter who was active towards the end of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), producing woodblock prints, brush paintings, illustrated books and more. He is also responsible for a 15-volume collection of manga, which served more as an assortment of sketches than as a precursor to modern-day Japanese comic books. Nevertheless, his paintings inspired the creation of a manga series by Hinako Sugiura, whose early research into the lifestyle of the Edo period led her to Hokusai’s works – as well as that of his daughter, O-Ei. Sugiura, like her heroine, operated in a male-dominated industry, and Miss Hokusai (adapted by a female screenwriter, Miho Maruo, who also worked with Hara on Colorful), does a wonderful job of both exploring and honoring this tension.
O-Ei (voiced by Erica Lindbeck in the English-language version) opens and closes Miss Hokusai by discussing her more famous father. “In this city,” she begins, “there lives a crazy old man…” She describes his paintings with deference and the man himself with ambivalence; it is clear they connect through painting and little else. “With two brushes and four chopsticks we can get by,” she tells her mother dismissively. “We always have.” Yet it is O-Ei that we are immediately drawn to. She walks along the city of Edo (soon to be renamed Tokyo) dressed in the same cultural garb as everyone else, but the unapologetic rock music in the background signals her devil-may-care, rebellious streak.
Hokusai himself (voiced by Richard Epcar) is gruff, standoffish and egotistical, and his apprentice Zenjiro Ikeda (Ezra Weisz) is buffoonish and slavish. O-Ei, on the other hand, is a fascinating young woman: though she acts properly enough in public, her own brusqueness is shocking and exhilarating, given her status as a young maiden in 1814 Japan. She smokes unapologetically as she paints (often, erotic art), and when a customer berates her father for not having a commission done, she unsympathetically dismisses him and tells him to come back the next day – after which she, ever the diligent artist, stays up all night to complete it. True to her irascible nature, she throws all three men (her father, his apprentice, and a newcomer attempting to win her affections by mansplaining how to draw a dragon while lurking over her shoulder as she works) out of the house for the night because of their distracting squabbling.
But her demeanor shifts instantly whenever she spends time with her blind little sister, O-Nau. With O-Nau, O-Ei is gentle, caring and unfailingly kind. O-Ei takes a delighted O-Nau to a bustling bridge in Edo (which opens and closes the movie), as the two sisters take in the scents and sounds of townspeople hawking hot peppers and dumplings in a vivid portrayal of city life. Afterwards, they go for an adventurous boat ride, joyous music swelling in the background, as O-Ei describes the setting for O-Nau to imagine. The scene ends on a high with an homage to Hokusai’s most famous print, “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa,” a copy of which, incidentally, is hanging on the wall right behind me as I write.
As far as animation goes, Production I.G. is surpassed in vibrancy and liveliness by the more popular Studio Ghibli, but the production style fits in with Miss Hokusai’s adult-centered character study rather than the glittering supernatural fantasies that characterize Studio Ghibli’s films. The excerpt from the “Making of Miss Hokusai” documentary, the one bonus feature that accompanies the film on DVD and Blu-ray, is similarly workmanlike, providing a glimpse at the ins and outs of what goes into creating an animated film without adding much glitz or glamor. Still, the untold story of Miss Hokusai is treated with respect and imbued with alluring complexity, while the city of Edo comes enchantingly to life. As revealed in the documentary, director Hara wrote in an impassioned letter to the family of Miss Hokusai manga creator Sugiura while soliciting permission to adapt her work into a film: “I believe that not only the appeal of Edo, but the beauty and tragedy of life will capture people’s hearts.” Through various forms of art, the tale of Hokusai and his daughter does just that.