Random DVD Review: Miss Hokusai

What’s more disconcerting - the ultra-focused eyes, or those Eyebrows of Mass Destruction?
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Well, that woman sure has eyebrows, I thought as I saw the main character’s image on the box. And boy, she sure knows how to wield them, I thought after watching this thoroughly odd movie. Based on a historical manga by Hinako Sugiura, it relates a collection of disparate vignettes in the life of Katsushika Oi (O-Ei), a twenty-something painter who lives with (and somewhat under the shadow of) her renowned and eccentric father Tetsuzo (also known as Katsushika Hokusai). Hokusai was later famed internationally as the Japanese artist responsible the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, of which arguably the best known is The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The movie is set in the city of Edo (Tokyo) in 1814, when Hokusai himself would have been around 54 years old.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Japanese art should recognise the image that this scene references.
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Don’t go into this film expecting any kind of plot progression, or much in the way of character development. It’s a sequence of disparate slice-of-Edo-life episodes only tenuously stitched together with an anachronistic heavy guitar rock soundtrack and some weird fantastical touches. Although Hokusai himself was quite famous during his lifetime, very little information is recorded about his daughter, so I suspect most of the story is entirely make-believe. It should not be taken as a true historical account - more a loose historical whimsy.

Our first glimpse of Miss Hokusai herself - not exactly a typical anime heroine
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Hokusai is painted as an obsessive yet sometimes lazy man who does what he feels like doing and ignores family responsibilities and social niceties. All her cares about is his paintings. He is estranged from his (second?) wife and rarely visits her or his blind youngest daughter (O-Nao - O-Ei’s half-sister). It is implied this is because of her blindness. Any time that Hokusai spent with O-Ei in her childhood was with the intention of teaching her to paint. He would not engage with her in any other way, not even to throw snowballs, as one flashback illustrates. He cannot teach O-Nao to paint, so he lives as if she does not exist. Under his tutelage, O-Ei has also become an accomplished painter. She lives with her father in a succession of cramped filthy houses (they never bother to clean - just move on when a house becomes unlivable), despite her stepmother’s offer of alternative accommodation.

The artist Hokusai himself - eccentric and obsessive
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Hokusai mostly makes O-Ei paint and sell works of erotica - perhaps not what we in the modern day might imagine as porn, but it filled the same niche in Edo period society. Although she is technically very adept at drawing figures, she is aware that she lacks passion - perhaps due to her lack of experience in the ways of love. He’s not above her doing his work for him either - in one episode, O-Ei accidentally damages a dragon painting as Hokusai is about to complete it. He scores through it and refuses to re-do it. As the deadline is the next day, O-Ei resolves to do it herself. In order to draw a dragon, apparently one much capture its likeness as it appears before you - it cannot be drawn from memory. Then begins the first of several odd fantasy interludes where a dragon descends over the house in a storm and O-Ei, like a woman possessed, feverishly scribbles away.

O-Ei’s dragon
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In the middle of the film are a few truly bizarre vignettes, where for some reason Hokusai is asked to help solve issues of supernatural origin. Perhaps it explained why he did this, but I didn’t catch it if that’s the case. The film drifts from one plotline to the next in an odd, hazy fashion, much like a waking dream, filled with opaque dream logic. Take one instance where Hokusai, his assistant and O-Ei visit a haughty geisha. Hokusai tells a tall story about an out-of-body experience involving his hands becoming like smoke and stretching far away from his body. The geisha has a similar affliction - every night she has what looks to be a seizure, and then an astral projection of her head floats up from her body and is hemmed in only by the netting around her bed. I have no idea what the point of this sequence was in the grand scheme of the story, but I suppose it was interesting.

Spoooooky stuff. You thought this was a biopic? It unexpectedly turns into Edo-period Ghostbusters.
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Another episode concerns one of O-Ei’s paintings that has become cursed and driven the woman buyer insane. She had painted a scene from Buddhist hell of various unfortunates being tortured. Hokusai’s solution is to “finish” the painting for her - she’d not added a figure of the Buddha into the painting to provide hope, therefore the painting had become cursed. With Hokusai’s addition of the missing part, the curse is dispelled.

Haunted image
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O-Ei’s nature is not too dissimilar to her father’s. She has inherited a good degree of his social awkwardness and this shows in her inability to engage well with the opposite sex. Normally not one to shy from offering an opinion, no matter how it would make her look, she is flummoxed and blushing when faced with the attentions of her father’s handsome colleague and rival. The only time we see her even remotely interested in her appearance is when she tries to hide the ink smudges on her face from him, and then later when she hopes to attend the theatre with him she puts make-up on beforehand. To her disappointment she glimpses him attending the performance with another woman and throws away her ticket in disgust.

O-Ei’s investigation into the mysteries of physical love don’t go according to plan.
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One of the funniest scenes is after she is told that she needs experience to improve her understanding of a depiction of erotica, she visits a brothel and meets an extremely camp male prostitute. He shows out his previous male customer and winces as he rubs his bottom in discomfort. No guessing what sort of services he’d been offering before, then. O-Ei is freaked out but is dragged upstairs and made to change out of her clothes and the prostitute tries (very unsuccessfully) to woo her, before falling asleep on her. O-Ei’s expressions during this embarrassment were hilarious. During this scene there is a short diversion where we witness what would happen if Buddha came back as a Kaiju. Such a weird film.

Buddha Kaiju!
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The emotional core of the film involves the relationship between O-Ei and her younger half-sister O-Nao. O-Nao was born blind and unlike her father, O-Ei dotes on her younger sibling. She takes her on outings, buys her sweets and clearly loves her a great deal. O-Nao has other afflictions though, and even a trip outside to play in the snow is too much for her body to handle. In one upsetting scene, O-Ei carries her sister down the street and Hokusai walks past, ignoring them both. O-Ei can’t bring herself to tell O-Nao that he is there, though she does ask her if she’d like to see her father.

O-Nao, younger sister to O-Ei. Although blind, she is a contented soul who misses her inattentive father.
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Only once O-Nao becomes dangerously unwell can O-Ei convince her father to visit, of course after that the fate that befalls all unwell anime children occurs and Miss Hokusai serves up a little pathos and tragedy to counteract all the otherwise fluffy oddness. This was not a film which touched me in a deep emotional way, but I did really like the little kid.

The warm relationship between O-Ei and O-Nao forms the emotional backbone of the film
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I don’t think this is a film I’d go back to again. I’m glad I saw it, but it was too unfocused, too episodic and I’m unsure what its purpose was. There was no emotional resolution, no overall message that I could gain from it. It just sort of... ends. I would imagine most viewers tiring of it before the end of its relatively short 93 minutes. The presumably accurate depiction of 19th-century Japan was interesting, and some unobtrusive CGI backgrounds helped with the immersion. The characters were well drawn and funny, with quite atypical (for anime) designs. Give that wee dog a film of his own though - he was a delight in every scene.

Behold the wee dog: true star of the show.
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Director: Keiichi Hara (Production I.G.)

Japanese cinematic release: 9th May 2015

UK DVD/Blu-ray release: 14th Nov. 2016

Distributor: All the Anime

Format: PAL Region 2

Run Time: 93 minutes

Language: Japanese with English subtitles

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