Anime Limited picked some high quality Japanese cinema for their MCM Loves Anime event and the opening title was no exception. Coming from the much respected Production I.G., Miss Hokusai is a pseudo-canonical story concerned with the daughter of the famous Japanese painter.
In the tradition of many Japanese films, there is less so a story and more character conflicts. O-Ei is the central character, a fiery young woman who has inherited her father’s talent and love of art but is regarded by the wider world as little more than his assistant. The film chronicles their interactions with contemporaries, clients and relatives.
The heart of the film lies in how realistically human the characters are. From the introduction you might expect a wish fulfilment tale about the pay-off to following your dreams but what we instead get is a look at a portion of these people’s lives from a far less judgemental stance. In fact an element I feel shines through (as probably should be expected given the kind of people needed to make an animated movie) is the attitude of artists. The characters of course discuss technique and critique one another but even beyond that these feel like artists, with all the focus and frustration that entails.
O-Ei is endearing as her determination to prove herself as an artist is not all consuming. The other larger factor of her time sees her frequently take care of her sick, blind sister for whom she holds great affection. In fact while not talking down to the character given her condition the film does utilise it to directly link visuals to some of Hokusai’s greatest works. Aside from her desire to surpass him artistically, this presents O-Ei’s biggest conflict with her father as for his own reasons he has little contact with the younger child. As always one should be careful buying in too much to suggested motivations and ‘facts’ when watching a drama based on real historical figures but the film does well at exploring the paradox of how someone acclaimed for visually documenting life might be the most ill equipped to face it.
Most of the comedy is provided by male artists studying under Hokusai, though probably the film’s biggest laughs come from a sequence in which O-Ei, attempting to address criticisms of her erotica work, goes to a brothel.
One of the stranger elements of the story is the involvement of supposedly supernatural powers. In most cases these could be argued to be metaphors for the power of art in influencing human perception, especially in an era lacking the experiences of television, internet and indeed movies. But at least one occasion is treated as a no-question case of paranormal involvement. Perhaps it’s meant to be a sign of how at the time people genuinely believed there were supernatural creatures co-inhabiting the world but these are odd tangents for a film concerned with artists who discuss the struggle to be aware of and emulate proven reality.
The vocal cast all perform admirably, with Anne Watanabe taking the lead to provide O-Ei with a no nonsense edge but signs of naivety behind some of her more misplaced bluster. Yutaka Matsushige also embodies a tone for Hokusai befitting a position of informed experience but also his own imperfections in need of addressing.
The film is beautiful to look at, showcasing the beauty of ancient Japan and its culture. Delicious visuals are of course a trademark of Production I.G. but the classical Japanese setting with its ornate clothes, clear skyline and excursions into the art Hokusai and his peers were producing present a sumptuous treat.
I was really charmed by Miss Hokusai. If you need some kind of ultimate victory to be satisfied with a narrative you may be disappointed. But if you can accept that life is more accurately a collection of experiences and interactions I think you’ll be quite taken by it. Again, the historical accuracy of the story is questionable but what it has to say about art and human nature is meaningful. With Anime Limited planning a UK home media release for 2016, this is one I strongly recommend keeping an eye on.