Miss Hokusai is based on the life and times of an artist who went by Tetsuzo Hokusai during the twilight of the Edo era in Japan. The film is set during the 18th century, right before Japan transitioned into the Meiji era. Miss Hokusai doesn’t quite deliver a biographical account of the eccentric artist, but rather places the spotlight on his daughter O-Ei, hence the title of the film.
Tetsuzo was particularly known for his erotic illustrations, and this aspect often comes up during the course of the film in amusing ways. However, for the film to focus on the daughter as the protagonist, instead of the famed artist himself, might seem a little strange at first, but that’s exactly what draws the viewer in. History may remember Tesuko more, but this film champions the unsung hero that is his daughter. If Tetsuzo had a rock and anchor that allowed him to accomplish the things he needed, then his daughter O-Ei was surely it. Obviously, the film takes several creative liberties with the historical source material, but it’s all done in a way that it never once feels like it diverts too much from realism. In fact, the lives of the characters is portrayed in such an ordinary manner that you can’t help but find it convincing, and even relatable. If there’s one thing that Miss Hokusai does better than its contemporaries, it’s that it reminds us how life feels like a boring slog to nearly everyone, with occasional moments of brilliance, but more importantly how sometimes things are far more meaningful in hindsight than they are at the time.
Miss Hokusai takes place through the eyes of O-Ei, with all the perceptions and events dictated by her. Tetsuzo being the eccentric artist that he is, finds himself so obsessed with his work that he’s become isolated from his family. His wife separated from him, his youngest daughter was born blind and suffers from a terminal illness, and he lives rather poorly in a tiny house with very little regard for his health or life balance. Drawing seems to be his one and only priority, and that’s where O-Ei steps in to basically clean up his mess. She is the one who ensures that her father eats properly, occasionally takes breaks, and engages in normal activities. More importantly, however, is her role as the pillar that somehow keeps the disjointed Hokusai family together. Thanks to her, Tetsuzo has some form of contact with his estranged wife, and also has some presence in the life of his youngest daughter. It becomes pretty clear that Tetsuzo is simply afraid to be the model husband and father, or rather he has no faith in his ability to handle the responsibilities that come with being a family man. O-Ei essentially picks up the slack, in particular she dedicates much of her time raising and nurturing her blind sister.
O-Ei however is far from being just a caretaker of her father, as she also studies under him to became a formidable artist in her own right. In fact, when it comes to the business of publishing and artistic projects, O-Ei and her father are basically a team, joined by another lazy apprentice of sorts who ends up being like an annoying brother to O-Ei. As an artist, O-Ei is a perfectionist who takes after the style of her father, but lacks the same intuition and instinct which often frustrates her (and the criticisms from her father don’t help matters). In one amusing scene we see O-Ei engage the services of a prostitute in hopes that the experience will help improve her erotic artwork.
O-Ei, Miss Hokusai herself, has a unique charm about her that’s evident from the very moment you’re introduced to her. For one thing her design is a complete departure from the typical anime mould of female designs. In fact, she’s probably one of the more down to earth and real looking female designs you’ll ever see in the medium. There is nothing glamorous about her appearance, she has thick eyebrows and a dry expression, but she is still charmingly pretty in her own special way. It’s nice to see beauty that isn’t based on the stereotypical doll-like aesthetics like it is with most anime women. She is also one tough lady with street smarts, she has a strong business sense and can handle herself in any situation. She is a person of few words too and yet she can be quite outspoken when the time is right, but more importantly her facial expressions are worth a thousand words on their own. She may have a tough exterior, but she knows how to dial it back and bring out her tender side when spending time with her little sister. It’s also amusing to see her get visibly nervous around this one particular man she fancies. O-Ei is a classy down to earth lady, and you can’t help but wish you’d meet more people like her in your own life.
The appeal of Miss Hokusai is basically following the life and times of O-Ei, but the actual plot itself is a series of random and disjointed events, all intended to show various facets of the titular character. In that sense, Miss Hokusai feels like it lacks purpose other than demonstrating its protagonist. The events are ordinary, some more interesting than others, but the way the film ends is so unceremonious that at first you’re not sure what to take away from it. There is no real conclusion as the film simply ends, and there’s no real plot devices, structure, or pacing to it all. The uneventful and unceremonious nature of the story told feels a bit off-putting, but honestly it’s a reflection of how life really is: a story that is greater than the sum of its parts.
As a production Miss Hokusai does very little wrong as the animation, unique character designs, and the overall quality pretty much echoes what we’ve come to expect from Production I.G. The music is one of the more interesting aspects, as it’s quite refreshing to hear rock and roll instrumentals being used as insert music in an anime taking place during the 18th century. It’s a mismatch that actually ends up being just right (a bit like Samurai Champloo in that regard). It’s all these little touches that helps Miss Hokusai stand out even more.
When O-Ei lead her seemingly ordinary 18th century life, engaged in the unconventional (especially for a woman back then) profession of drawing erotica, I doubt she ever really understood or realised her place in the grand scheme of things. Yet, centuries later a film by Production I.G highlighting her obscure life is now playing in theatres. Which goes to show, sometimes you just can’t see the impact of your existence while you’re alive. O-Ei might not have enjoyed the fame or fortune in her own time, nor did she ever really appreciate her own talents, but in 2015 her seemingly obscure and ordinary existence has led to the creation of a memorable anime character.
Miss Hokusai is playing at the Japan Film Festival.