Miss Hokusai (2015)
Based on a manga series by Hinako Sugiura, “Miss Hokusai” is a Japanese animation about the daughter of the famous Japanese painter Hokusai, Katsushika Ōi. A great artist herself, Ōi helped her father in painting, while leading a peculiar lifestyle of her own due to her work demands and her father’s eccentricities. The beautifully-drawn animation highlights some of the most memorable instances from Katsushika Ōi’s life. It becomes impressive in a way it manages to show both Ōi’s life in Edo (now Tokyo) in the 1810s, including her hopes and traumas (as told through a manga series), as well as inspiration behind Hokusai’s major artistic accomplishments, all the while remaining strangely poetic and touching.
Ōi starts her tale by saying: “There is this nutty old man. He painted a huge Dharma on a huge sheet of paper; and on the other hand, he drew a pair of sparrows on a tiny rice grain. His name is Tetsuzo. But maybe you know him as Hokusai, the painter? This nutty old man is my father”. Her father was indeed a great painter. He has the distinction to produce his most famous work at the age of seventy (and beyond), when he painted “The Great Wave”, “Fine Wind” and “The Ghost of Oiwa”. He worked in the genre Ukiyo-e, producing woodblock prints, depicting female and natural beauty in particular. In the animation, he has already turned fifty, and is shown as a rather austere man, totally absorbed in his work: eccentricity, perfection and genius, but no play, so to speak. You never feel sympathy for Hokusai in the animation, because he comes off as a real misanthrope. However, that is not that important, because the centre of attention here is his daughter, Katsushika Ōi. Despite her talent, Ōi is portrayed as a rather ordinary young woman, inexperienced with the opposite sex and eager to learn about the religious and spiritual significance of the art of painting.
What some critics called here a “disjoint plot” is actually just a different way to tell a story. “Miss Hokusai” focuses on a number of episodes from Ōi’s life, some of which are unrelated, but that does not make the picture any less effective. On the contrary, as the animation imbues aesthetics and stresses the significance of certain details in Ōi’s life, the whole story becomes more interesting as we get to know Miss Hokusai in different situations. We are only shown those life situations of Ōi which have had the biggest impact on her, such as Ōi’s spoiling of her father’s commissioned drawing of a dragon by a cigarette drop; Ōi’s visiting, what maybe, a Japanese brothel to gain “experience” in erotica to master her erotic paintings better; and her touching relationship with her disabled little sister O’Nao. In fact, it is through O’Nao that we get to glimpse the real character of Ōi. O’Nao suffers parental neglect as Hokusai does not visit her, and her insecurities make Ōi explore her own. By having O’Nao at her side, Katsushika Ōi reminisces about her own childhood with her strict father who never had time to play with her and, instead, emphasised her learning about his trade of painting.
It is fascinating to see how some famous paintings by Hokusai and his daughter came about. There are attempts to show the historical background behind such a masterpiece as “The Great Wave”, and some of Hokusai’s paintings of goblins and ghosts. The nineteenth century Edo, steeped in superstition, rates fantastical paintings high, and Katsushika Ōi with her father visit “geishas” who perform ghost rituals to capture the spirits for paintings (there is a belief that paintings have magical qualities and can come to life). Here, the animation is suddenly all about fantasy and magic, depicting astral projection-like séances, which later gave inspiration for famous paintings. Despite the fantastical elements in “Miss Hokusai”, the film is perceived as realistic, because such magic is as part of the Japanese tradition and spirituality as Shinto shrines and statues of foxes.
Even Hokusai and Katsushika Ōi’s erotic paintings are referenced in the film, without, of course, showing any. The point here is that our heroine is criticised for her paintings of erotica. Locals say these paintings of hers are “cold” and lack sensuality. Her father, the great Hokusai, thinks it because his daughter lacks sexual experience. Katsushika Ōi tries to remedy this by going to a brothel, but she also experiences her own sexual awakening, which is vividly portrayed. She likes the man Iwakubo Hatsugoro, and perceives the aroma of his skin as the two walk side by side. There is also a talk in the film about such a fantastical thing as the neck of a woman stretching, the meaning of which might be lost to some because, in Japan, the nape of a woman’s neck is considered to be the most sensual part of her, and is often stressed by powder to demonstrate beauty.
As many other animations done in the same fashion, for example, see “Only Yesterday” (1991) and “Wolf Children” (2012), “Miss Hokusai” is often about the slow taking in of the beautiful scenery, with its characters taking delight in playing with water and snow, and in gazing up at the blossoming cherry trees. After all, Hokusai painted a number of winter landscapes, and his other work features ocean waves, mountains and cherry trees. Here, the exploration is done through the character of O’Nao. As this little girl is blind, we are taken along for a ride, exploring the environment through touch and sound alone, and there is plenty of such experience in this film. There are many very tender and touching scenes involving the little girl showing curiosity as she makes her contact with snow, water and flowers.
Exquisitely presented, meaningful and often touching, “Miss Hokusai” fascinates in a way it presents a daily life in Japan in the 1810s and the coming to being of Hokusai’s artistic masterpieces. The narrative of this animation seems strange, and it is frustrating that some episodes are underdeveloped, such as Katsushika Ōi’s romantic relationship. However, the compensation here is the colourful beauty and idiosyncrasy of each scene, all done to reflect Hokusai and his daughter’s great legacy in virtuosity, boldness and elegance of their art. 8/10