MISS HOKUSAI (2016) review
written by: Miho Maruo
produced by: Keiko Matsushita and Asako Nishikawa
directed by: Keiichi Hara
rated: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual situations and images)
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: October 14, 2016 (limited)
Keiichi Hara’s new animated feature “Miss Hokusai”, an adaptation of the manga series of the same name from Hinako Sugiura, started out on the wrong foot with me. Hara sets up when and where we are – in Edo (which would eventually be called Tokyo) during the summer of 1814 – and who we’re following, a young woman named O-Ei Hokusai, who was the daughter of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, mostly known for his recognizable print The Great Wave off Kanagawa as well as various erotic art, known as shunga, but then, right as we follow her across Ryogoku Bridge over the Sumida River, I start to hear a classic rock guitar riff that sounds like “Taking Care of Business” from Canadian rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Not even ten minutes into the film and I’m thinking something is off here.
That jarring classic rock riff also caps off the film, and while in between we are treated to beautiful 2D animation that introduces us to fascinating characters, the way the story is told is a bit of a let down. Still, there’s no doubt the movie has a unique storytelling approach. Although, the story here includes a famous artist in Katsushika Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige, “Ringu”), the focus is on his daughter, O-Ei (Anne Watanabe), who serves as the story’s narrator, which is an interesting and unique point-of-view, being a child of a renown artist of a certain time period as well as a young Japanese woman in a culture where females aren’t as valued as males. O-Ei is also an artist as well, working in the shadow of her father and often winds up finishing commissions what he doesn’t complete without him or his clients knowing.
In this story, written by Miho Maruo (who wrote “Colorful” the 2010 animated feature, also from Hara), Katshushika is now in his mid-fifties and has built a reputation for living in squalor, surrounding by garbage and junk, along with unfinished and work-in-progress art; often demanding a fortune for artwork he would often be unmotivated to finish. At the time, he was known for being able to work with a wide range of sizes, like a giant-size Bodhidharma on a 180 square meter sheet of paper or painting a pair of sparrows on a tiny grain of rice. He was also known for being irritable, sarcastic and prone to overcharging for work he would likely never finish. “Miss Hokusai” tells how she would often pain in place of him, finishing his work, so they would get paid, “We’re father and daughter; with two brushes and four chopsticks, I guess we can always manage, one way or another.”
While she is just as talented and stubborn Ei-O, who most take on much of the responsibilities her father neglects. That includes looking after her blind younger sister, O-Na (Shion Shimizu), who has a preoccupation with going to Hell, for some reason. Ei-O often takes O-Na to the heavily trafficked Ryogkoku Bridge, her favorite place to be, where she can feel the vibrations and take in the smells of the peasants, samurai, townsmen, merchants, nobles and courtesans.
Without a doubt the visuals, which come from the anime studio, Production I.G. (responsible for “Ghost in the Shell” and “A Letter to Momo”), are expressive and often artfully breathtaking. This alone makes Hara’s film captivating, but the substance and narrative structure is left wanting. Who these characters are winds up falling to the wayside for discussions on art technique or philosophy. That can be very interesting like when a surreal sequence where Katsushika describes how his is often taken over by his artistic process, succumbing to an out-of-body experience where his hands leave his body and wander through the world, eager to touch and feel what is beyond reach. It’s a cool and trippy sequence, but it almost feels like it’s part of another movie entirely, similar to the scene where we watch as O-Ei takes a trip to a brothel, out of curiosity. Some of these scenes serve to confirm the difference between the father/daughter approach to art, hers being more meticulous and deliberate – but it also confirms how there are some odd tonal choices occurring here.
From what I gleaned, the goal of “Miss Hokusai” is to tell a perhaps untold tale. One of a daughter who assisted a master artist throughout her entire life without credit. The film does that, but not much more. “Miss Hokusai” educated and informed me, but it also found me losing interest throughout.
“Miss Hokusai” is presented in Japanese with English subtitles and in English-language dub. In Chicago, both versions are playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I can only attest to the Japanese with English subtitles version, which is generally the more preferred version, since English-dubbed is usually quite jarring and distracting.