In 1814 Japan, we focus on O-Ei, one of the daughters of the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai (of 36 Views of Mount Fuji and the iconic The Great Wave, which is visually referenced in the film.) O-Ei is herself a skilled artist who collaborates with her father (she often finishes paintings he started), and we see her experience the joys (and exasperations) of family life while developing some of the yearnings of young womanhood.
When I looked up the actual O-Ei's bio on Wiki, I wondered if the film hadn't added a few years to her young womanhood, judging by her appearance; one possible date for her birth would only make her 14 in the year the film is set in, which I do NOT believe; another date would make her 18, which is somewhat more believable, but she looks early 20s to me, even in the severe women's costume of that age.
But the film's re-creation of that age is extraordinary, not just in the look of its Edo, but even more in its immersion in the beliefs of a traditional society, where the boundary between the world of spirits and dreams, versus the everyday world of experience, is paper-thin and easily breached; where slithering dragons may be beheld among the swirling dark clouds of a thunderstorm, and where what we would call out-of-body experiences, while not common, are available for viewing if you know the right person to ask. Perhaps even in the U.S. we're not that far temporally removed from such beliefs; one side of my own family came from West Virginia mountain folk, and when I was young I heard many stories of family members witnessing "tokens", their term for visitations by the spirits of the very-recently deceased (or sometimes even the soon-to-be-deceased), and you might even see a bit of that in Miss Hokusai as well.
O-Ei herself is a demonstration of a different truth: in ANY age, artists are just eccentric, and don't live like other people. I won't say more, except that she lives with her dad (who's called Tetsuzo here), and there are various artist hangers-on who frequently drop by, and occasionally stay with the Hokusais for indefinite periods. O-Ei seems more than a bit cold and reserved; to the extent that she ever gets emotional, it's over her younger sister, Nao, and her father's avoidance of that younger sister. Nao was born blind, and is pretty fragile to boot. O-Ei can open up to Nao in a way she can't with anyone else, and since Nao is her joy, she harbors some not-so-silent anger at Tetsuzo; we learn that Tetsuzo shuns the child (and has left her in the care of another daughter) because of his own fear of infirmity (and its frequent companion in those days, death.) If there is a central dramatic theme in the film, it's this. Nao may not be historical- the Wiki article mentions no sister with that name- but she does give structure to what would otherwise be a series of vignettes, albeit rather interesting ones. (For example, Tetsuzo has to "fix" a painting that O-Ei has left "incomplete" at one point, a resolution that left a smile on my face.) O-Ei has her suitors, of course- there's a triangle going on in which a guy named Kuninao would like to get to know her better, but SHE has a slow-burn thing for a more dignified fellow named Hatsugoro. (Remember, except over Nao, and her dad's reaction to Nao, O-Ei rarely gets overtly emotional.) She's been a little slow to mature in this department, though. Her dad says she draws women better than HE does, (which the real Katsushika did in fact say about her), but she's not so good with depicting men, and not good at all at drawing erotica. (Quite a bit of Japanese erotica still survives, and since it was obviously popular, I'm sure it helped pay the artists' bills.) In fact, her erotica gets compared unfavorably to that of another long-term houseguest named Kenjiro, who O-Ei regards as just a hack. At least a couple of people in the film (INCLUDING her father) attribute her lack of skill at this to her lack of "experience", so to improve her art she goes to a brothel to acquire "experience", but as with so much else in her life THIS doesn't turn out like she expected EITHER. Again, I'm never sure how much is fact and how much fiction in the film, but the experiences we see O-Ei have do dovetail nicely with her later REAL history, though that could be just clever contrivance.
The only real complaint I have with the show is its occasional use of (and when they appear, jarring) rock riffs. They spoil the movie's masterful suspension of disbelief, but fortunately they're only used sparingly.
I watched Miss Hokusai at the multiplex on a Sunday afternoon, and was dismayed that my wife and I were the ONLY people in the theater, despite the very good reviews (and a few awards) the film has gotten. Again, I'm reminded that anime, ESPECIALLY anime aimed at an adult audience, is still very much a tiny "niche" market in the U.S., except for a few well-known (and highly promoted) properties. It's really sad when a film THIS good gets neglected.
In the reviews of the film on Metacritic one critic said "As much as I wanted to be transported to the world of Miss Hokusai, it felt more like an analytical examination of the period..." I wonder if he saw the same film I did. I found the film, as I said, totally immersive; I haven't encountered such an UN-detached depiction of a period's worldview since the book by Elizabeth Marshall Thompson, Reindeer Moon, in which the heroine, a young woman of the Paleolithic era, spends the latter part of the novel in the body of an animal, because her people believed that's where human spirits went after death. It sounds odd from someone with some scientific training, but maybe we DID lose a chunk of our humanity when we started to sneer at such beliefs. I would certainly say that we DID lose much of our ability to appreciate the art of the past IN THE CONTEXT IN WHICH IT WAS CREATED. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: No nudity or violence, but there are some scary scenes and adult themes, including sexuality and death.
Version(s) Viewed: Theatrical Release
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Miss Hokusai © 2015 Production I.G.
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