Based on a historical fiction manga series, Miss Hokusai is an animated feature film as unconventional as its title character O-Ei, the daughter of the renowned Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Miss Hokusai blends a realistic portrayal of Edo-period Japan with suggestions of strange, otherworldly forces just outside our field of view, mixing these elements together with intriguingly enigmatic characterization and outstanding animation. The final result is as visually stunning and provocative as the artwork and the artists that inspired the movie.
The source manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura followed the life of O-Ei working in the studio of her father, presenting her life in chapters that aren’t necessarily connected to each other. The movie mirrors this structure, although the movie’s main plot pillar is the relationship between O-Ei and her younger sister O-Nao, who is seemingly spurned by her father for being blind and in poor health. The movie gambles big by making O-Ei extremely prickly, aloof, and unapproachable, stopping just short of making her unsympathetic. Her sardonic and tart-tongued perspective can make her enormously appealing to modern audiences, even as it pushes people around her away. Her attitude is partially genetic, since her father is largely the same way; and partially due to circumstance, since she is fully aware of women’s second-class status in Edo-era Japan and also seems rather ambivalent about the family business. While she is a talented artist in her own right, she can never escape from under her famous father’s shadow, and this seems to rankle her even as she is willing to benefit from the association. Like her father, she is more than willing to flaunt convention, especially in the artistic world. O-Ei’s emotional distance from almost everyone around her does make it a little harder to connect to the movie on an emotional level, since it keeps the audience away from her as much as it keeps the people in her life at arm’s length. The small but subtle difference is that the movie finds ways to ensure we can understand and sympathize with her emotional reserve, largely through her own voiceover narration and her relationship with O-Nao. Without that context, the people around her simply can’t understand or interact meaningfully with her (with the exceptions of O-Nao and arguably her father).
In many ways, O-Ei’s unconventional sensibilities infuse the movie as a whole. Like the manga, the movie is a series of vignettes connected only by the central character. I think this is something that is easier to do in print than in film, since Miss Hokusai has a strange, drifting sense of pacing that can be a little off-putting at first. While most modern movies establish a goal and then set out for it with great determination, Miss Hokusai wanders anywhere it finds interesting and drops plotlines suddenly, only to revisit them later at a whim. On occasion, this sends it off in strange, magical directions, as in an early sequence where a dragon flies through the clouds overhead, seemingly drawn by O-Ei’s efforts to paint a dragon. There are a number of times when paranormal influence seems at play, and often it’s only O-Ei, her father, and a limited number of other artists who can see these otherworldly elements. It’s an interesting and extremely effective way to communicate how artists can see the world differently than the average person, while also giving the movie opportunities for some truly impressive visual sequences.
Of course, with animation handled by the powerhouse anime studio Production I.G., it is no surprise that the movie is an absolutely beautiful production. Miss Hokusai was directed by Keiichi Hara, who is a major fan of the manga and of its creator (who passed away of cancer at the tragically young age of 46 in 2005). His affection shows through in every lovely detail and his intent to stay as true to the manga as he could. The city of Edo is depicted in its bustling glory, with the filmmaker’s intent eye for detail making the city into a lively and completely credible location that’s as much a character as any of its denizens. There is also a beautiful sequence in the middle of the movie as O-Ei and O-Nao visit a garden in wintertime, which is as lovely as it is poignant. Period artistic style is occasionally emulated in the movie, most notably when O-Ei and O-Nao drift on a river boat ride into their father’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa print, though I find it a slight missed opportunity that the movie doesn’t explore further in that direction. The movie’s soundtrack is also willing to flout conventions the way its lead character will, as it makes clear when it accompanies O-Ei’s opening stroll through the city with hard rock electric guitar riffs.
GKIDS has released Miss Hokusai in an excellent DVD/Blu-ray combo pack that also includes a cross-platform digital copy. The high-definition presentation is outstanding, with the movie’s stunning visuals reproduced in crisp 1080p resolution. The movie comes with both the original Japanese soundtrack and an English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and while I find the latter to present excellent performances of a solid translation, it also really seems like this movie should be experienced in its native language. In addition to trailers, the Blu-ray includes a lengthy “Making of” featurette that even runs 30 minutes longer than the movie. When most anime releases in America get little more than textless opening and closing credits and a handful of commentary tracks, it’s wonderful to see an in-depth bonus like this one.
Miss Hokusai is a beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking movie that I find I admire tremendously even if I’m not entirely sure how much I liked it. However, Miss Hokusai is willing to be as fiercely unapproachable and independent as its title character, demanding that you approach on its terms and perfectly willing to pass you by if you don’t. It’s a brave choice that should be rewarded in a world of movies that insist on reviving past glories over and over and focus-grouped into mediocrity. The mere fact that it is willing to risk being unlikable may be one of the things I like the most about it.