Miss Hokusai doesn’t explore the artist’s plight so much as it explores the plight that effects every living person. Ōi Hokusai, a great painter, lives in the shadow of her father’s accomplishments, resigned—as his daughter—to play second fiddle. The anime opens introducing not the titular “Miss” of the movie but rather Katsushika Hokusai (her father)—a famous painter in Japan during its Edo period (only a few years before the fall of the samurai). His works, big and small, are adored by the public, granting him acclaim as an artist and paid work as a painter. The two share a modest hut in Edo (Tokyo), a sanctuary where they create their inked master-works. Aside from one other painter, Zenjirō (a vagrant womanizer), living with them—and visits from wealthy clientele, a friendly “rival” painter, and a stray dog—the two live in relative seclusion.
Miss Hokusai is an upbeat, surreal and poignant take on the relationship between two real-life artists; exploring their roles as master and apprentice, student and teacher, and—most importantly—father and daughter.
The most interesting aspect of Hokusai is the dynamic between Ōi and her father—who comes across as neither patriarchal nor demanding. There’s an in-built sternness to their relationship, both acknowledge the other as professionals, but there’s also an unspoken softness to them as well. An early scene demonstrates it best: Ōi and her father, Katsushika, are painting a mural of a dragon, on a piece of paper the size of a bedsheet. Just as Katsushika adds his final touches, Ōi—smoking a pipe—stumbles and accidentally spills some of the smoking ash onto the mural. The char (a little black dot) makes a barely visible difference, but to Katsushika’s painterly eye the piece is irrevocably ruined. He doesn’t scold Ōi—instead, he paints a stripe across the mural and walks out of the room. Ōi accepts what needs to happen next; she has to repaint the entire mural from scratch. The wordless understanding between them is interesting as it’s not built off any obvious father-daughter characteristics but something deeper and passionately impersonal. The animation in moments like these emphasize characters’ expressions so that they’re are easy to read, while never coming across as one-note or predictable.
There’s no ornate cultural injustice visible at the core of Miss Hokusai, or any type of political undercurrent at a play—Miss Hokusai is an individual drama, relating Ōi quietness to the film’s other colorful characters in a bold (never boring) low-key tempo. O-Ei conducts most of the film with a quiet grace. Her stern, and understanding, relationship with her father, her almost alienating coldness to (even) close acquaintances, and her motherly kindness to her blind little sister. Miss Hokusai seems to find more potent groundwork exploring how the artist operates, day-to-day, than it finds in exploring her actual art. We see her as always perceptive and self-challenging, as enigmatic and, like most great artists, feeling a great deal of pain. Her visit to an amorphic prostitute, modeled as a geisha, first feels like one of the more unnecessarily bizarre choices in the movie—but the scene in and of itself, with the strong pan-sexual innuendo and its reference to Buddha, unveils the type of existential crises and confused (sexual) identity embodying Ōi’s paintings. She possesses an identity of infinite uniqueness but it’s blurred, hunkered down in the shadow of her father’s fame.
The small vignettes (showcasing her bizarre artwork) are not bad sequences, they’re beautiful feats of animation, incomparable in design and valiantly dreamlike in conviction. But with a story so grounded in the humanity of its characters, the otherworldly surrealism feel inversely void of that same human connection.
Miss Hokusai, satiated with odd little choices, contrasts between an almost Lynchian-approach to structure and a more conventional, life-affirming approach to emotional gestures. Not every choice in Miss Hokusai works, they sometime feel incomplete—even a little messy—but the film’s strongly centralized human nub holds a simple and lucid power, weaving enough deeply felt, fundamental goodness and compassionate integrity to conquer even its wildest and most undisciplined ideas. The offbeat pacing of Miss Hokusai is perhaps the film’s outlining characteristic—anime fan or not it’ll certainly test those not accustomed (or privy) to anthological styles of filmmaking. I found myself less immersed in the dreamlike vignettes (punctuated like interpretive shorts) than I did with Hokusai’s real-life mundanities which inspired her great works of art.