This artful portrayal of the life of one of Japan’s unsung creative heroines has problems with form matching content. As this is not a biopic, more of a family drama, the hope would be that a compelling narrative would have the capacity to convey within it the important cultural and artistic weight of these historical figures. While there are touching moments, the areas of the film focusing on the Edo period artistic scene do not melt seamlessly into the storyline.
They are two aspects, not a cohesive whole.
‘Tetsuzo’ (as he is referred to informally in the film), or Katsushika Hokusai is the father of the titular character. He was a prolific multi-textual artist in his day and was well-respected. He would have been well-rewarded too but spurned money – as we see in the film he lives hermetically, take-out boxes strewn throughout his studio-cum-living quarters. He influenced some of the great European Expressionists and Art Noveau exponents. Van Gogh and Monet both had large collections of his work and his art even inspired the composer Debussy. This historical significance is sublimated in order to explore (through conjecture) the life of his daughter, who interestingly is widely accepted to have collaborated on many of his works, but it was thought unnecessary to credit her formally due to the relative obscurity of female artists at the time.
This biographical angle to the story is reminiscent of Tim Burton’s true-to-life tale Big Eyes about Margaret and Walter Keane, a story about the ‘validity’ of female artists and where talent didn’t necessarily mean saleable artwork. While the interpersonal story just happened to be particularly dramatic, the trajectory exploring the art itself, and the people behind it, intersected, and were compelling on both fronts for that reason.
It is a shame that we neither have a deeper exploration of how the actual art functioned in the dramatised reality of 1814 Japan or the wider significance of the main characters inside that world; neither do the familial moments in the Hokusai family provide enough sustenance to make the focus on the personality of ‘O-Ei/Miss Hokusai’ arresting for the whole 90 minutes.
It was a brave decision for director Keiichi Hara to focus on the unusually truculent personal life of O-Ei and indeed her father. It is gratifying on many occasions. The story is adapted from the Manga comic Sarusuberi however many of the most touching scenes are original ones or expansions of smaller vignettes. Miss Hokusai’s younger sister, O-Nao, is blind, and their sorority shows a softer side to an otherwise spiky, rude young artist. There is a sequence on the river, with O-Nao’s hand trailing through the waves which is beautifully uplifted by a great score by Harumi Fuuki. Another magical moment is, as the seasons change and snow falls, O-Nao is excited by the sound of the drifts falling from nearby trees. A young boy throws snowballs to dislodge more of it and plays with the girl who otherwise lives in placid seclusion for her health.
O-Nao is the emotional anchor. She is shunned and perhaps feared by her father while having moments of intense joy with her sister. The reason behind Tetsuko’s refusal to visit his blind daughter is the most intriguing, unspoken aspect of the piece. However, it is conspicuous in its disappointing inconclusiveness.
Japanese animation always sits in the shadow of Studio Ghibli and the Miyazaki/Takahata partnership. In fact, many of the animators have worked on recent Ghibli projects such as The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The two very different period settings for these titles may have been good practise for the team as they create a bustling, modern feeling early 19th Century Tokyo, an effect especially aided with the vivid electric guitar opening title sequence. As ever, the element of the spiritual runs through the city and the wooden sandals, tatami mats and traditional robes transport the viewer to another world.
If anything, Miss Hokusai’s biggest failing is its subtlety. Too much is intimated, or backgrounded. The brash, grating behaviour of the Hokusai father-daughter are so much to the fore without really delving into why they might be like this. It’s an interesting watch, but it could either have done with going all-in with the nuclear family dynamic, or the other way and looking at the art that made the people, rather than the people who made the art. While the actual animation is something to behold, it cannot simply redeem the under-par cinematic experience the narrative creates.
Review By George Meixner