By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Exotic beauty and supernatural magic grace Production IG’s animated biopic, Miss Hokusai. Based on the manga of the same name by Hinako Sugiura, this film follows the narrative style and simply offers moments of this artist’s life in Edo-period Japan. With it now on video, I can start studying it more in-depth. My only disappointment is that the home release does not come with a lot of bonus material. A feature-length documentary about the making of this film is provided. I was craving more, especially when this anime explores an important time in Japan’s art history.
This look into the life of O-Ei (Anne Watanabe), daughter of revered painter Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige), is very gentle and bittersweet. The plot looks at much of her life from her perspective as she shows how fiercely independent she is. Though she works as an assistant in her father’s studio, she often finishes what he can not finish when he’s being drunk (which is rare) or acting irresponsibly.
For artists wanting to look at why these Ukiyo-e works are majestic, I particularly liked the dialogue (I saw the subtitled version) explaining how the brush can invoke portals to other worlds. You have to be careful when painting a work featuring demons. At least with one work O-Ei made, real spirits came to haunt the residence. No title is offered for this work, but according to the soundtrack, it’s simply known as “The Cursed Picture of Hell.” When the work is retrieved, her father observed that because Hope was not offered, that’s why they visited. A simple detail was added and the evil left. However, there’s more to life in Edo period Japan because the Shinto life is not everywhere.
O-Ei’s life gets explored in short expository pieces than as a whole. To make sense of it requires either multiple viewings, reading the original manga or look into scholarly works about her to provide the missing puzzle pieces. While I liked the symbolic connections, especially in why she chooses to watch life pass her by on a bridge, at least for her blind younger sister, O-Nao, it’s a place to engage all her remaining senses.
Life in the conclave of artists (which includes two other individuals) is nonchalant, and one feeling anyone searching for biographical information about is in the fact that Hokusai did not pay much attention to his family for part of his career. This film shows him generally ignoring them because he is very focused on his art. This film suggests Hokusai took credit for much of the work O-Ei made, and while her talent is undeniable, to see which work is hers versus her father’s requires taking a notebook into the movie theatre to scratch notes on or to buy the video and hit the pause button.
While there are some parts of this biopic to like, there are other elements which were distracting. I prefer period music to complement this film, and instead, most of the instruments included piano, violin and electric guitar. I’m also fairly sure the title track “Sarusuberi -Miss Hokusai-” took cues from “Workin for a Livin'” and that does not help make this movie shine.
While seeing the spiritual power of the works like “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” come alive is great, that’s not enough when the anecdotal perspective (even fictionalised) is not explored deeply enough in other works like “Cranes from Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing” and “Shunga,” from Pining for Love. While laughs are offered in terms of how some erotica got developed, perhaps Hokusai was just a dirty old man (technically, he claims all that work was by one of his assistants).
3½ Stars out of 5