GKIDS’ Animated 'Miss Hokusai' Tells a Feminist Coming-of-Age Story

The hand-drawn film opens Oct. 14 in New York and Los Angeles prior to a North American expansion.
Courtesy of Production I.G
'Miss Hokusai'

GKIDS is about to release its next film, a unique adult-skewing Miss Hokusai, which is among several independents generating buzz in this year's crowded animated feature awards race.

Opening Oct. 14 in New York and Los Angeles prior to a North American expansion, Miss Hokusai is a feminist coming-of-age story about O-Ei, the daughter and artistic collaborator of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

The hand-drawn animated film, produced by Japanese animation house Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell, A Letter to Momo) and directed by Keiichi Hara (Colorful, Summer Days with Coo) has already received several awards, including the Jury Prize at the 2015 Annecy Film Festival.

“This film is based upon a comic book entitled Sarusuberi, that was created in 1983 by a woman called Hinako Sugiura. I first discovered Sugiura’s work in my late 20s, and fell in love with her talent instantly,” Hara says through a translator. “Her dialogue lines, the way she portrays people’s feelings and her almost cinematic visual storytelling are simply amazing. I had wanted to make a film based on something from Hinako Sugiura for years [and] remain faithful in conveying her world.”

In the film, O-Ei toils diligently inside her father’s studio. Her portraits, dragons and erotic sketches — sold under the name of her father — are coveted by upper crust Lords and journeyman print makers alike. But despite her talent and fiercely independent spirit, O-Ei struggles under the domineering influence of her father and is ridiculed for lacking the life experience that she is attempting to portray in her art. The film not only portrays O-Ei’s relationship with her father but also her blind younger sister.

“It is my belief that Sugiura wanted to tell us that people back then lived, enjoyed, struggled, fell in love, grieved and died exactly as we do, and no matter how the world around us keeps changing, we have to stay true to our belief," said the director, adding that O-Ei was not afraid of being unconventional. “If you ask me, her determination has so much in common with the producer of this film, Keiko Matsushita. But also with Anne, the actress who voiced O-Ei, and who I discovered being a great fan of Sugiura’s work. Or Sheena Ringo, who wrote the powerful song for the ending credits. If you watch this film today, 30 years after the story about such a remarkable woman was conceived by another equally remarkable woman, and you find it modern, compelling and poignant, and if you feel you can relate with characters and situations, this is simply proving my point: although set at very specific geographical and historical coordinates apparently so removed from our reality, Sugiura’s work is timeless and universal.”

Katsuhiko Hokusai is best known for the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In the animation, Hara aimed to place references to his works.

“[We tried] to make them functional to the story and avoid being too invasive,” she explains. “The Great Wave is arguably the most iconic of Hokusai’s artworks, and the mostly recognized one outside of Japan, so it was a rather obvious choice, although it required a lot of work to the animator who made it. I also included a nod to the famous Hokusai Manga, a best-selling series of drawing manuals that began to be published in the year the film is set. The Giant Dharma in the opening sequence is historical, too.

“Hand-drawn animation is the technique I know best and I have been working with throughout my whole career,” Hara says. “I feel that what a human hand can do with a pencil on paper is very different from what you obtain from a computer. … Interestingly, the traditional animation production process is very similar to the kind of teamwork among specialized professionals required to produce ukiyo-e prints: draughtsman, carver, colorist ... and the publisher selected the team and took care of the marketing, like today’s producers. Perhaps modern Japanese animation studios have inherited something from Edo period’s ukiyo-e industry.”