O-Ei is the beautiful, strong-willed daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, the ukiyo-e master made famous in the western world thanks to his often-copied woodblock print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. O-Ei and her father live and work in a single room in the city that will one day be called Tokyo and their art is their only focus – they don’t clean, they don’t tidy, and if their surroundings get too dirty they simply move on to somewhere else.
It is the Edo period, and O-Ei is an anachronism. Outside her father’s studio, she is the polite, demure young lady that Japanese society expects. Inside, she smokes a pipe, isn’t afraid to express her feelings, and works hard at perfecting her own art. Her speciality are erotic drawings and portraits of the courtesans who ply their trade behind the paper screens of Yoshiwara, the red light district.
Hokusai isn’t an easy man to like. Even O-Ei describes him as a ‘nut’ and a ‘cry-baby’, but although the words they exchange are few the love and respect they feel for each other is palpable. What isn’t so easy to forgive is Hokusai’s apparent neglect of his youngest daughter O-Nao, who was born blind and lives with their mother in another part of the city. It is the bond between O-Ei and her younger sibling which gives Miss Hokusai some of its most memorable moments, especially a sequence when the two sisters go walking through the snow and a young boy playfully lures O-Nao into a snowball fight. It’s a beautiful scene that would have been perfect if this were a live-action film, but is made even more powerful by some extraordinary animation.
But this isn’t really a biopic – so little is known about O-Ei’s actual life that the filmmakers have taken the barebones of history and woven a fantastic story around them: while Miss Hokusai is a film about many things – love and art especially – it also, very occasionally, takes a nod towards the supernatural: after O-Ei accidentally ruins her father’s dragon painting, and he refuses to begin another, she shoos him outside and paints the dragon herself, while a ‘real’ dragon whips sinuously through the clouds above their house… and then there is the possessed courtesan, whose face takes on a life of its own while she lies sleeping… and a demonic painting that terrorises its owner until Hokusai arrives to put everything right with just a subtle brushstroke.
The animation isn’t as flashy as a Studio Ghibli production but nor does it need to be. Director Keiichi Hara and his team haven’t wasted time filling in every detail, which means the details they do focus upon are even more impressive – the breeze fluttering a banner, the beautifully observed way O-Ei yawns in her sleep, her mouth trembling, the manner in which O-Ei tucks a flower into the sleeve of O-Nao’s kimono for safekeeping. Miho Maruo’s screenplay is equally as subtle, with a psychological depth we don’t usually find in even the best animation, and includes some lovely flashes of humour – the scene when the young artist Hatsugoro clumsily attempts to declare his love to O-Ei and ends up buying a potted plant instead is wonderful.
Miss Hokusai proves that animation, a genre normally reserved for children and fantasy worlds, is an art form that’s not only capable of telling grown-up stories but – when the right subject presents itself – can tell that story better than any other category of cinema. Miss Hokusai is a masterpiece and this will be, without a doubt, one of the standout releases of the year.
MISS HOKUSAI / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: KEIICHI HARA / SCREENPLAY: MIHO MARUO / STARRING: ANNE WATANABE, SHION SHIMIZU, YUTAKA MATSUSHIGE / RELEASE DATE: 25TH APRIL