Potential moviegoers for whom the word “anime” conjures up images of adolescent power fantasies or bizarre erotica involving tentacles can allay their concerns. Miss Hokusai is not that kind of film. It’s a thoughtful and touching evocation of the artistic temperament, a pastoral elegy eulogizing a bygone time and place that may not have been simpler than the modern world but was decidedly more beautiful.
Whether they realize it or not, most viewers are familiar with the works of Edo-period painter Katsushika Hokusai, most notably his woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” one of the most frequently reproduced pieces of Japanese art in history. Despite Hokusai’s fame, this film focuses instead on his daughter O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe), Hokusai’s assistant until his death and an accomplished artist in her own right. The true masterstroke of Miss Hokusai is it allows O-Ei to provide a lens into her father’s work while placing the narrative emphasis on her own story and, in doing so, to portray a strong female protagonist whose defining character traits entail more than simply her gender and profession.
This level of sensitivity almost certainly stems from the work of female screenwriter Miho Maruo and the female creator of the manga on which the film is based, Hinako Sugiura. By fleshing out O-Ei’s character beyond her relationship with her famous father, the writers have developed a profoundly compelling and nuanced depictions of femininity in a patriarchal culture. O-Ei is a woman surrounded by men as a result of both her professional and societal context, but she is never portrayed as a character whose decisions are driven by the men in her life. Instead, she is presented as a complex and fully formed human being whose circumstances are an outgrowth of her character, rather than the inverse. It’s almost unspeakably refreshing to see a film that understands women as more than simply the object of masculine thinking. Although men feature prominently in the narrative, there is no question as to where the story’s emphasis has been rightly placed.
Clearly influenced by the works of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, director Keiichi Hara has accomplished an act of tremendous technical and artistic virtuosity, eschewing computer-generated animation in favor of painstakingly hand-rendered cels that imbue the animation with a warmth and texture complimenting its subject from an aesthetic standpoint. (It’s likely that the garishly computer-rendered scene of modern Tokyo in the final frames of the film is intended as a direct commentary on the modern move away from traditional animation techniques.)
Miss Hokusai represents a rare conjunction of form and function, a film about an artist that is a beautiful work of art in its own right. The film evokes the artistic process of both Hokusai and O-Ei, bringing their paintings to metaphorical life through a narrative conceit in which their works are created with the aid of a sort of spiritual second sight. The result is a movie that allows the audience to appreciate these artists for their aesthetic merit while glimpsing an externalization of the internal landscape experienced by the artists themselves. As such, Miss Hokusai is a film that should appeal not only to fans of anime but to fans of beautiful filmmaking in general. PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual situations and images.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.