RELEASE: 25 April 2016
FROM: Anime Limited
FORMAT: DVD & Blu-ray
PRICE (RRP): £17.99 (DVD), £19.99 (Blu-ray), £59.99 (Collector’s Edition)
AGE RATING: 12
This review was originally published in MyM Magazine. Subscribe here.
Set in Edo in the early 19th century, Production I.G movie Miss Hokusai is as sound a film about art and artists as you’re likely to find, animated or live action. It tells the story of O-Ei, the 20-something daughter of great ukiyo-e
painter Katsushika Hokusai (although she calls him “Tetsuzo” throughout; the man had more names than a phone directory).
A talented artist in her own right, O-Ei and her scruffy, workaholic dad live together in comfortable squalor in a tiny house littered with drawings and crumpled paper – “We don’t cook. We don’t clean. It gets too dirty, we move.” Her mother has already transferred to pastures new and more salubrious; her blind little sister O-Nao left in the care of nuns.
Adapted from a manga by the late Hinako Sugiura, director Keiichi Hara (Colorful) brings the hustle and bustle of
Edo to life through a series of vignettes. Not only do we meet the floating world staples – courtesans, samurai, street peddlers and, of course, painters – but popular print subjects such as yokai and dragons find their way into the narrative too.
While Miss Hokusai may not be the most plot-driven of movies, it’s by no means formless or lacking in theme. The father-daughter relationship between O-Ei and Hokusai is delicately handled, as is the reluctance of these two consummate observers of humanity to fully engage with the nitty-gritty, emotional aspects of life themselves.
For O-Ei, it’s the romantic side of her nature that she’s unwilling to face up to; a prolific sketcher of erotica, she retreats inside herself whenever any of the handsome, eligible artists who flock to her father make a pass. Meanwhile, Hokusai goes out of his way to avoid his other daughter O-Nao, whose illness is a constant reminder of his own mortality.
In some ways, O-Ei is the ideal protagonist for a historical drama, in that we only know the broad strokes of her life – leaving both manga author and film maker free to fill in the gaps. Sporting big ol’ eyebrows, a perma-pouty lower lip and – frequently – a pipe, she’s a main character we can believe in; goodhearted, grouchy and thoroughly independent.
O-Ei also possesses the crowning virtue of not behaving as if she’s in a historical drama. Although its snapshots of Edo life are peppered with detail – loose-living samurai Zenjiro Ikeda and gauche, likeable Kuninao Utagawa were both real ukiyo-e artists, for example – Miss Hokusai wears its learning lightly; it never feels like you’re being bludgeoned with a history book. The guitar rock that bookends the film’s soundtrack also reminds us that for the characters, 19th century Edo is a modern metropolis, not some picturesque stage set.
As expected of Production I.G, Miss Hokusai looks the part as well. The animation may lack Ghibli lavishness, but Hokusai wouldn’t have much to moan about when it comes to capturing his world, whether it’s the bustle of a busy bridge or a winter’s walk in the snow. There are also nods to the famous “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” and the “Great Daruma”, his 600ft-long portrait created using a broom and buckets of ink, while the closing scene gives us a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Edo’s transformation into present day Tokyo.
Some films make an immediate impression, blasting out a fanfare of flashy set pieces and bombastic action, only to shrink once the rush wears off. Miss Hokusai is the opposite – understated and nuanced, it’s a film that repays re-watching and improves with time.
Review by Dave Axbey