Keiichi Hara brings his astonishing and unique animation style to the story of the beguiling daughter of one of Japan’s great artists.
Miss Hokusai (2015)
Directed by Keiichi Hara
Voiced by An (Anne) Watanabe, Yutaka Matsushige, Gaku Hamada, Kengo Kora and Jun Miho
Screenplay by Miho Maruo, based on the manga by Hinako Sugiura
The untold story of Master Hokusai’s daughter O-Ei: a lively portrayal of a free-spirited, utterly outspoken and highly talented woman unfolds through the changing seasons.
“A treat for anime buffs and Japanese culture fans alike.”
Miss Hokusai is the story of O-Ei. She is the little-known daughter of famed ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Hokusai, creator of some of Japan’s most iconic and recognizable images, including The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa. The film premiered at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival in August and won three awards, including the Satoshi Kon Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
Miss Hokusai is based on the manga series Sarusuberi by artist and Edo period specialist Hinako Sugiura. Published between 1983 and 1987, the manga has gained cult status for its vivid portrayal of O-Ei. Her story has also been told in Canadian author Katherine Govier’s excellent novel, The Ghost Brush. This time it is director Keiichi Hara’s turn to assist in O-Ei’s rescue from obscurity.
The year is 1814 and we are introduced to Tetsuzo—Hokusai being his nom de plume—in his mid-fifties. Already successful, with clients all over Japan, he has little interest in money and the trappings of success. Cranky and contemptuous, he works tirelessly from his chaotic home studio, creating astonishing pieces of art—from a massive sumi-e brush painting on a 180-square-metre-wide sheet of paper to a pair of sparrows painted on a single rice grain. The third of Hokusai’s four daughters, O-Ei (portrayed by Anne Watanabe, daughter of The Last Samurai’s Ken Watanabe) is an outspoken 23-year-old and the inheritor of her father’s artistic gifts and stubbornness. She shares his home and serves as his assistant, often completing or redoing works for him.
Miss Hokusai eschews any kind of linear narrative structure and instead presents a collection of sketches that delineate O-Ei’s early development as an artist and a woman. When we first meet O-Ei she is striding confidently across the teeming Ryogoku Bridge to the accompaniment of a modern electric guitar solo—which, it turns out, is an oddly appropriate soundtrack for this exceptional young woman. She is a captivating character: unsophisticated, naïve, petulant and fearless. Her lively eyes shine beneath a heavy brow inherited from her father and she speaks in buoyant cadences. In one scene, O-Ei and her father are called upon by a client experiencing freakish nightmares induced by one of the master’s paintings depicting hell. In another, O-Ei visits a prostitute in the pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara in a quest to experience the sensuality that is missing in her“pillow pictures.” These sequences are clearly aimed at adult sensibilities; this is not children’s anime. O-Ei also has a soft side and the scenes in which she cares for her blind, semi-abandoned sister O-Nao are the most moving of the film.
The other star of the film is Hara’s animation. Lacking the bright fluidity of Studio Ghibli’s work, he gives us instead a vividly textured visual and aural tapestry, rich in historical detail and witty allusions to Hokusai’s work. Working with chief animator Yoshimi Itazu and background artist Hiroshi Ohno, Hara creates a striking collision of traditional hand-drawn animation and computer-generated graphics.
Miss Hokusai is mature, unsentimental and startlingly beautiful. Lovers of traditional Japanese culture and anime fans alike will find much to enjoy.
Miss Hokusai’s Toronto premiere is scheduled for the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival in November.
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