Miss Hokusai, a film about the lives of two 19th century Japanese artists, deserves to be recognized as a work of art itself. The film is a slice-of-life anime based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sigiura, which in turn was inspired by the real-life artist Katsushika Hokusai and the relationship he may have had with his daughters, O-Ei and O-Nao. Director Keiichi Hara is obviously inspired by the artists (including Sigiura herself), as well as the beauty and quiet progressiveness of Edo just before it was changed to Tokyo. The inspiration lends itself to a film of brilliant characterization, with many images that are pleasing to the eye (much like Mr. Turner or The Wind Rises).
As for the plot, Virginia Woolf posited a thought experiment in her revolutionary A Room of One’s Own. She wondered what would happen if Shakespeare had a sister that was equally as talented as he was. Would she be as successful? Even today, as Woolf was trying to tell us, that sister probably would not have been as successful due to not being a man.
Miss Hokusai follows a similar line of reasoning. What if Mr. Hokusai, a famous and successful painter, had a daughter that was just as talented (if not more so) than her father? O-Ei is such a painter, often filling in for her deadbeat dad and painting what he would ultimately be credited for so that he will not get harmed by patrons who expect results. Like Big Eyes, a man is taking credit for paintings that he didn’t create, yet he is also instructing his daughter in some valid artistic techniques. The dilemma was not resolved with a court case featuring Christoph Waltz, nor would it be resolved in 19th century Japan, for reasons that have much to do with the love and subservience that was expected at that time.
That’s not to say that O-Ei isn’t rebellious. She’s not afraid to call anyone out for their idiocy and negligence. Her scenes with her blind sister, O-Nao, are charming to watch since she lets herself be vulnerable, loving, and caring (she won’t allow her would-be suitor to see this side of her, and for good reason). I also appreciated that O-Nao’s blindness was not her dominant characteristic. O-Nao is depicted as being an adventurous, mischievous soul who is afraid that she will go to hell because she is unable to fulfill the functions of a good housewife. Mr. Hokusai neglects O-Nao, though it’s partly out of fear of supposed weakness (the film does an excellent and rare job of deconstructing notions of disability and infirmity that were already outdated in the 19th century). It could be said that, in time, the fact that both daughters witness their father’s shortcomings makes them realize they can be their own individuals and succeed on their own terms.
I cannot praise this film enough. It simply refuses to take the easy way out or to tell a cliché story. Yes, there may be a suitor that lusts after our protagonist, but O-Ei has a few tricks and identity crises up her sleeve that make things more interesting. Yes, her daddy may take credit for her work, but, as mentioned previously, he also has lessons to teach and maybe needs help himself. If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Hokusai appears to be separated from his wife (rather happily, I might add), a concept that Western society had yet to conceptualize well into the 1960s. As a period piece, the film does not fall into the trap of, ‘well, things will get better in a few hundred years,’ but instead lends its characters modern agency and freedom and has them grapple with issues that are relevant today, almost 200 years after the period depicted in the film.
finally, I would be remiss not to mention the visual pleasures of the film. The dog is so cute and is alone worth the price of admission. He burrows into things, peeks out of other things, and mirrors emotions the characters are experiencing. The mix of magic and spirituality with the mundane everyday reality of Edo is well done. Even when gazing into the water from a bridge, you know that something unexplainable is just around the corner.
Miss Hokusai has inspired me to learn more about that period and culture, and I will definitely be watching this film again with those important in my life.