“There is this nutty old man. He painted a huge Dharma on a huge piece 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? That nutty old man, is my father”
-Opening lines to “Miss Hokusai” (2015)
It’s not everyday I feel unusually underwhelmed by a Japanese animated feature film, especially one produced by such a high profile studio such as Production I.G, known for cult classics like Ghost in the Shell (1995), Eden of the East(2009), and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (2003), a few of my personal favourites. It’s also surprisingly underwhelming considering that this film is in essence, a historical art-drama which following the track record of this genre in animation, it’s usually always been well handled and executed, with a level and maturity expected from more art haus films.
The premise for this movie is rife with potential for emotional nuances. Sort of the calm slice of life atmosphere that I’ve come to have guilty pleasure for in my viewings. Not that I should feel guilty for it mind you. The set up is simple, based on the Japanese historical manga series, Miss Hokusai (百日紅 Sarusuberi) written and illustrated by Hinako Sugiura – it tells the story of Katsushika Ōi, who worked in the shadow of her father, the infamous Ukiyo-e artist and printmaker, Hokusai. The film adaptation of this manga was released in 2015 and directed by Keiichi Hara, who is a surprising choice, considering that despite his long track record in the industry, directing animated films since 1984, they were all geared more towards children – the Crayon Shin Chan series is of particular note. This in comparison feels like a very adult film.
**Spoilers begin here
The film’s opening lines hark at the eccentric-ism of Hokusai’s persona and the dynamic that O-ei has with her father; a snarky attitude towards him and snap back into praise. She lives with him under the same roof as father-daughter and fellow painters, both choosing to live their lives entirely with “two paintbrushes and four chopsticks” as she would say. They would rather just paint all day, never cooking or cleaning and move away once living conditions became too unbearable. It’s a fresh peek into not just the artistry of Japanese Ukiyo-e but the lifestyle that they led as well. Scenes in their homes and work spaces are often adorned in dust, trash and moldy leftovers. Cementing the attitude this father and daughter duo had towards their work and craft. Scenes like this were a favourite of mine, a love letter to the art of being an artist, reminding me of the long nights and days I would also shamefully go without cleaning up, or sleeping or sometimes even to eat all in the name of making works. The visitors to their space don’t address the messiness of their home and workspace, which further solidifies the idea that this is an admirable and eccentric trait – celebrated in a weird way.
In the opening sequence, the film’s choice for using a rock anthem seems misplaced, and gives the film a sort of 1980’s sitcom-esq vibe. It didn’t sit well with me, and even more so when it was played again during an intense scene O-Ei has as she is running towards her beloved younger sister, O-Nao. It’s jarring, and feels so out of place, neither inspirational or fitting with the time and place of the era. Which is weird since all the other tracks in the film emulates this much better sticking to traditional instruments or even using them in accents where they would otherwise not be present.
The pacing and format of the film closely resembles the manga, opting to corroborate a bunch of different stories together to paint a picture of who these characters are as people, rather than a strict linear story from start to end. Only a handful of thread points have a coherent narrative but even left me bored and detached from feeling any sense of closure after the end of the film and credits rolled. The film takes place at the moment when O-Ei reaches adulthood, while her father, aged about fifty, is already a recognized artist and master in Japan. Each section of the story introduces new characters, some just fading out halfway through the movie which gives it the lack of development and closure many of them need, since their role in the story is neither to move things along or to develop the relationship between O-Ei and her father. Most times, these characters are just, there.
Buddhism, demons, ghosts and Japanese Folklore. The film highlights these ideas and themes through their depiction in paintings. In one part, a woman hallucinates demons and monsters because of a lack of ‘closure’ in O-Ei’s painting depicting hell. In another, the Gods are taller than the mountains and take no heed as they trample on mortals who praise them. And even in another, as Hokusai tells the story of a dragon that he swears he’s seen before above the clouds, a gust of wind burgeons on in the cold night of O-Ei’s painting of the dragon. All these instances are animated in an air suggesting that all these are in fact, ‘real’ and interweaved into the film, lending itself to mysticism, though more as just visual interest and a celebration of Japanese culture than a means to an end.
The animation is good enough for what it is, and the emotions portrayed by the characters on screen are diverse and sensitive enough that as the viewer we are able to see and feel what these characters are going through, though the general background cast takes a back seat – faces are not drawn fully or appropriately at times. There are little to no action sequences or scenes that require big fluid movement in the cast, which makes sense of course – most moments are quiet and contemplative in this drama film.
The stylized design characters on screen feels very ‘modern’ if I could say that. It obviously took inspiration from the manga in the character design department, but chooses to leave behind the free-hand drawn style and charm that would have made the film much stronger and experimental. Bright colours and crisp lines forces a jarring juxtaposition from the loose, organic and even dainty drawings that O-Ei and her father paints, with the art from the manga more closely resembling the type of ukiyo-e art painted in the 17th century Edo period.
Speaking of which, the film pays an obvious homage to Hokusai, the man himself ( and equally as much to his daughter O-Ei) Carefully and painstakingly trying to capture the essences in his drawing. They could have easily done a simplified or more ‘animated’ version of the painting purely as a signifier but chose to stay true to the artist and art in itself. A wonderful choice!
As for the titular character herself, “Miss Hokusai”, a.k.a O-Ei, I loved everything about her characterization. coming off as a no nonsense young woman, who bears her father’s talent and affinity for eccentric-ism, she is dedicated to her craft but also naive at the same time. Showing signs of vulnerability especially when it comes to experiences in love of a romantic nature, love for her sister and love for her craft. She is unapologetic for her stubbornness, being a well known painter for Courtesans and erotic art alike. She truly was an empowering, I would even say, feminist artist for her time. Going against the grain of society and opting to live her life as a painter, even if many or most of her works go on to be unaccredited. Her character goes through some minor development and changes, but nothing to the level of grandeur that you might expect. More on that in a bit.
“A Japanese women’s role in their society was being a loyal maid wife, as well as an obedient mother. There had no entitlement and were given no choice or opinion in the men they would marry, whether they wanted children or even what house they lived in. A woman’s role was simple as they were forbidden to be thoroughly educated. They completed house hold chores and nurtured the children until they were grown. Many woman during the Edo Period were entertainers and theatre dancers to the hierarchy including the Tokugawa family that ruled during this period. The woman who were further down the social order had no real roles in society at this time either, but instead spent most days being a housewife and mother.”
-From Life of Woman Japan
So if I thought the animation was decent, if the music was alright, the characterization of O-Ei as fantastic and the homages to Hokusai as breathtaking, what was wrong with it? I think the main issue I have with the film is that, every section or short story of the film is highlighted and then and moved on as quickly as it was introduced, bearing little to no consequences and is never addressed again. To give an example,
Near the beginning of the film, O-Ei, meets a man on the bridge which based on her reaction, we are led to believe she has a crush for. He is given a name and face (which even as I write this now I cannot remember, don’t worry he is not important), but is seen another time where he shows his concern towards her for walking in the rain alone, then as O-Ei pushes him aside for his off remark, is seen one last time towards the end of the film walking into an art show with another woman. I’m not sure what is the historical significance of this guy but his entire character dynamic with O-Ei feels flat and unnecessary, as she neither grows from this experience with this man, or develops a plot thread surrounding him.
There are many instances like this in the film. I believe all these short appearing characters are meant to emphasize on the extensiveness of the world and cast they are in but leads to falling flat because everything and nothing is focused on.
The one and only solid story that stays from start to end is regarding O-Ei’s relationship with her younger sister O-Nao. Despite the death of her younger sister at the end, the sentimentality of the scene feels forced, as the music swells and things are hyped up for the impending passing of O-Nao, it didn’t sell me on the moment and tragedy of her death because the film already insinuated the notion that none of the threading plot lines matter. In essence, the characters don’t develop or stay, why should I be invested? This sort of narration style would have been better as a full 12 episode series, and less so in film, when the majority of time is taken to constantly introduce new characters or stories that don’t go anywhere and barely reveal more about O-Ei and Hokusai than we already know, we have a problem.
So it stands as underwhelming because nothing seems to be developing or ‘happening’ in this movie. The subtlety of characters growing are lost completely in one off moments and then never addressed again, leaving me with a feeling of “incompleteness”. Ironic, seeing as how Hokusai in the film seems to say that as painters we need to always make sure we “give some closure to the work”. The animation, homages and love towards O-Ei and Hokusai as artists are apparent, but as an animated film? It feels lackluster.
**You can watch “Miss Hokusai” (2015) on Netflix in the original Japanese or English Dub