ANIME & MANGA - Review
15:00 - 30th April 2016, by David West

Miss Hokusai

Hokusai Katsushika is probably the most famous Japanese artist in history. Hokusai was one of many pen names he used throughout his career, but the focus of this feature from director Keiichi Hara is not the artist himself, but his daughter O-Ei. Little is known about her life, beyond that she was her father’s assistant and an artist of considerable talent – it is speculated that many works credited to her father may have come from her or at least have been collaborations.

Hara’s film is based upon the manga series Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai by the late Hinako Suguira, and takes an incidental approach to its subject. There’s no particular plot to speak of; instead the film dips in and out of O-Ei’s life to examine her personality and devotion to art.

The most significant subplot involves O-Ei’s younger sister O-Nao, who is blind, but the script never pulls all the various story strands together, leaving the film frayed around the edges. At times it sets up an idea but then walks away from it – another artist seems to have a crush on O-Ei, but it remains unrequited. She goes to visit a brothel, but the drunk young male prostitute – he looks like an onnagata, or female impersonator in kabuki theatre – falls asleep on her before anything can happen. The movie can feel unconsummated in the same manner unless the viewer is willing to abandon expectations of a conventional narrative.

It works best as a character study, although Hokusai himself remains an emotionally distant figure, a scruffy, unkempt man so wrapped up in the art of creation that he ignores all other concerns. O-Ei herself is better realised on screen, with a sharp wit and fierce sense of independence. As much as she admires her father’s talent, she clearly thinks he’s not much of a parent.

Miss Hokusai is a beautiful film to watch, living up to the reputation of animation studio Production I.G. Director Hara learned his craft primarily in kids’ anime like Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan, but he has a superb team around him here that includes character designer Yoshimi Itazu from The Wind Rises and art director Hiroshi Ono of Wolf Children and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Backgrounds bustle with detail, bringing 19th century Edo to vivid life. There’s a lovely shot that references Hokusai’s most famous painting, The Great Wave Of Kanagawa, and a feast of visual treats to savour in the animation. Less successful is the music. While the classical score is fitting, there are moments when loud, modern rock music punctuates the soundtrack. Hara doesn’t seem to be commenting on anything by this selection, which feels arbitrary and out of place. Mika Ninagawa’s live action film Sakuran used a modern soundtrack in a period story, but employed it consistently throughout the film, whereas the rock music in Miss Hokusai pops up so infrequently that it never feels integrated into the larger whole. Director Hara has style and flair aplenty, but lacks a coherent aesthetic approach.

Miss Hokusai is at once fascinating and frustrating. The script’s refusal to offer a conventional narrative may exasperate viewers looking for any sort of emotional resolution here – a reflection of the manga source material – but Hara’s vibrant film creates a pervasive sense of life in 19th century Edo, full of colourful characters, foremost amongst them O-Ei herself.
SCORE: 4/5
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