'Miss Hokusai' ('Sarusuberi: Misu Hokusai'): Film Review

Courtesy of Production I.G
An episodic but extremely rich anime.

Keiichi Hara ('Colorful') directed this anime version of Hinako Sugiura's original manga about the life of Edo-era painter Hokusai and his daughter, O-Ei.

As the title suggests, the protagonist of the animated film Miss Hokusai is the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, arguably Japan’s most famous artist from the late Edo period (if his name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, his woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa might). Adapted from the episodic manga Sarusuberi by the late Hinako Sugiura, this film adaptation, directed by Keiichi Hara (Colorful), is similarly anecdotal as it explores subjects as varied as the power of art, the search for the sublime, O-Ei Hokusai’s coming-of-age as a young woman and artist in her own right and the relationship of O-Ei and her famous father with O-Nao, O-Ei’s blind kid sister. Classy festival material, this gorgeously conceived feature has been touring the circuit since its release in Japan in May, with recent stops including the Annecy and Fantasia festivals.

The film opens in 1814 in the sprawling city of Edo (later renamed Tokyo), during the summer. O-Ei (voice of Anne Watanabe, daughter of actor Ken) introduces her father (Yutaka Matsushige) as a “crazy artist,” a reference to his later nickname, “the old man mad about art”. One day he might be painting something gigantic on 120 tatamis (a reference to Hokusai’s Great Daruma, said to have been 600 feet long) and the next day draw a miniature on a grain of rice.

O-Ei lives with her father but isn’t just his assistant but an established artist in her own right on which her Dad relies. In an early sequence, one of Hokusai’s almost-finished commissions literally goes up in smoke and O-Ei has to work alone all through the night to “tame the dragon in the sky” -- potently visualized on-screen -- to make sure they don’t miss their deadline the next day.

Western audiences might be slightly taken aback by the film’s kaleidoscopic approach to narrative, with the film exploring different themes and characters in loosely connected scenes, with the only constant the presence of the title character. The film’s rather matter-of-fact approach to sex might also raise some eyebrows, with Hokusai himself suggesting that his daughter’s erotic tableaux aren’t up to snuff because she doesn’t know what she’s painting; the women are decent but the men are copied from her father’s work.

If some anime films also feature more painterly details in the backdrops, especially when depicting nature, what feels new here is the attention to details such as the glow of light sources, including candles and lanterns, that are warmer and more realistically detailed than usual. Occasional references to Hokusai’s own works could logically be expected, some of them in gorgeous, ink drawing-like black and white, but what’s more surprising is the film’s richly conceived awareness of all the senses, including smell, taste (food is featured throughout; though father and daughter don’t cook, they do eat), touch -- such as putting one’s hand in the water of the river on a sunny day or feeling the difference on one’s skin when moving from the shadow into the sunlight -- and, especially, hearing. The presence of O-Ei’s kid sister, O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), who is blind and thus needs to rely more on her other senses, is largely responsible for this, with the gorgeous visuals complimented by a richly evocative soundscape.

One of the film’s most gorgeously rendered and poignant interludes is a scene, reportedly not in the original manga, which features the two sisters’ outing to the snow-covered countryside (the four seasons help structure the otherwise loosely connected material). O-Nao starts playing with a local boy, who realizes she can’t see him, and launches snowballs into the trees, causing small avalanches to drop from the branches to the ground. The way in which the film renders how O-Nao seems to be hearing and feeling the experience is a small poetic wonder.

An episode involving a ghostly depiction of hell and another involving a religious painting in a brothel suggest not only how artworks were consumed in the Edo period but also suggests the power of art and how it relates to people’s personal experiences. Artists need to transcend their own selves to try and reach for the sublime, though Hara suggests that their capacity to do just that in their art doesn’t make them infallible as humans. Quite the contrary, as Hokusai is a terrible father to O-Nao, for example, seemingly embarrassed that a painter could have fathered a blind child. That an anime film can explore such complex subjects so beautifully in what’s nominally an artist’s biopic is a blessing in itself.

Production companies: Production I.G, Dandelion Animation Studio

Cast: Anne Watanabe, Yutaka Matsushige, Danshun Tatekawa, Gaku Hamada, Jun Miho, Kengo Kora, Kumiko Asou, Michitaka Tsutsui, Shion Shimizu

Director: Keiichi Hara

Screenplay: Miho Maruo, screenplay based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura

Director of photography: Koji Tanaka

Production designer: Hiroshi Ohno

Editor: Shigeru Nishiyama

Music: Harumi Fuuki

No rating, 93 minutes

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