Even when I was a teenager anime fans were railing against the common American perception that animated films were strictly kids’ fare. Still today the company with a lock on American distribution of international animated films is GKIDS. And while they might be clear that not all their movies are for children, the name doesn’t exactly make that clear. Which in the case of Miss Hokusai is a problem, and not only because some of the material is probably a little mature for younger children. More importantly, it might turn away some grown adults who would otherwise enjoy a beautifully-rendered glimpse at the life of one of Japan’s most important artists.
Katsushika Hokusai (Matsushige Yutaka) was a ukiyo-e painter and printmaker towards the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, in the early 19th century. But the movie views his world mostly through his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei (Watanabe Anne), who lives with him as an apprentice painter in the Japanese political and cultural capital of Edo (now Tokyo). Her father was already famous for his artistic achievements both great — painting a 600-foot-tall portrait of Daruma with a mop and buckets of ink — and small — two sparrows on a single grain of rice. Everything was painting. No cooking or cleaning; they had food brought in, and if one place got too dirty they’d just pick up their brushes and chopsticks and move to another.
Hokusai also had little time for family. O-Ei may have been his daughter, but it’s almost incidental. She spends part of her time with another of his daughters — a sister or half-sister isn’t quite clear — who lives with her mother. And, ironically, little O-Nao (Shimizu Shion) is blind. It focuses O-Ei’s eyes even more keenly, in order to translate the sights of Edo to her sibling, as when she describes the delicate red sarusuberi flowers she loves, and which give the original manga its title.
Each issue of the manga is a self-contained short story. The film chooses a handful of these episodes centered around O-Ei, and through them we get a taste of life in the waning days of the shoguns. The hum of life in Edo reverberates through Hara Keiichi’s images. And these themselves pause every so often to honor Hokusai’s work, like The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
Cinema art-houses have proven fertile ground lately for documentaries and biopics about artists and other figures in the art world. Most of these subjects tend to be American or European figures, and fairly modern, the better to catch the interest of well-off American audiences who might have fancied themselves art patrons in the late 20th century. And most of the resulting movies start to sound like the same stories over and over again. Miss Hokusai departs radically from that common style, finding animation as the natural outgrowth of Hokusai’s illustrations, and preferring dreamy lyricism over factual or melodramatized accounts. I can only hope the would-be patrons don’t turn their noses up, thinking it’s only kids’ stuff.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.