O-Ei is the daughter of the renowned Edo-era artist Katsushika Hokusai, who is probably most famous in the West for his iconic woodblock print 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa'. She lives and works with her father and assists him with his painting, while studying hard to develop her own artistic style. They live in the city of Edo (now called Tokyo) which is – quite literally – a floating world on the edge of change: in a few more years the Shoguns and Samurai will be gone but, for now, this is a medieval society where a woman like O-Ei – free-thinking and outspoken – is an anachronism, forced to stand aside and watch, frustrated, while her less-talented male counterparts receive the lucrative publishing deals and secure all the glory.
O-Ei’s father is a great man, consumed by his art. O-Ei's mother and much younger sister, Onao, who has been blind since birth, live a short distance away. O-Ei visits them often, but Katsushika rarely does. Onao thinks her father is ashamed of her blindness but the truth is much more complex - although on one level Katsushika can be considered an awful father, it’s clear that he cannot cope with the guilt he feels regarding his small daughter’s condition and that is most likely why he chooses to stay away. In one heartbreaking scene, O-Ei walks with her little sister along the street while their father passes by wordlessly on the other side. But it is clear, when Onao falls ill and Katsushika paints her a deity to ward off the evil spirits, how much he truly cares for the little girl. The bond between O-Ei and her father is even more palpable. He respects her and relies upon her, and even though she describes him as a ‘crazy artist’ and they barely exchange a word of affection, it is clear from the opening moments of the film how deeply they actually care for each other.
In fact, this is what makes Miss Hokusai such a wonderful experience – it is an enormously touching story that could have been told in any medium, but as an animation it seamlessly combines the realism of O-Ei’s everyday world and the challenges she endures (including an awkward trip to a brothel, after she’s told her erotic paintings lack the truthfulness that could make her art great) with occasional detours into supernatural fantasy (a possessed concubine, a dragon that materialises out of storm clouds, a demonic painting that O-Ei’s father is called upon to exorcise) which sit perfectly side by side with each other in a way that a live-action/special effects mash-up never could. The sequences between O-Ei and Onao are especially lovely, particularly a scene when Onao plays with a sighted boy in the snow that runs every emotion from joy to laughter to shock and sadness and back again that few films of any genre are ever able to achieve. This is much more than a biopic with fantasy elements. This is a film about the transcendence of art, the endurance of the human spirit and the fallibility and survival of the human heart.
With Hinako Sugiura’s historical manga ‘Sarusuberi’ as his inspiration, director Keiichi Hara and screenwriter Miho Maruo have pared down the episodic source material to create a work that is truly magical: must-see storytelling at its finest.
MISS HOKUSAI / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: KEIICHI HARA / SCREENPLAY: MIHO MARUO / STARRING: ANNE WATANABE, SHION SHIMIZU, YUTAKA MATSUSHIGE / RELEASE DATE: 5TH FEBRUARY