MISS HOKUSAI (Japan 2014-2015) ***
Directed by Keiichi Hara
Starring: Yutaka Matsushige, Anne Watanabe, Erica Lindbeck
Review by Gilbert Seah
The Japanese animated feature MISS HOKUSAI is set in 1814 in Edo,where peasants, samurai, merchants, nobles, artists, and courtesans live together in apparent harmony. It is also just the time that marked the end of the samurai era when Edo was renamed Tokyo – an important period for the Japanese, that unfolds here for the education of the westerners.
The artist is the film’s subject.
Accomplished artist Tetsuzo spends his days creating astounding works, from a giant Dharma portrayed on a 180-metre-wide sheet of paper to a pair of sparrows painted on a single grain of rice. Short-tempered and with no interest for saké or money, he (Hokusai) would charge a fortune for any job he is unwilling to undertake. But it is his daughter, O-Ei who is sane and completes the work her father leaves unfinished.
As all of Edo flocks to see the work of the revered painter Hokusai, the artist’s daughter O-Ei toils inside his studio, creating masterful portraits and erotic sketches that — sold under her father’s name — are coveted by aristocrats and journeyman printmakers alike. Shy and reserved in public, in the studio O-Ei is brash and uninhibited, but despite this fiercely independent spirit she 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. This film is her story (the young woman behind one of history’s most famous artists) and it shows her coming-of-age in a precarious and difficult situation.
Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, MISS HOKUSAI is carefully crafted animation, similar to the type Ghibli Studio produces. The animation is impressive especially during the fire and water (very difficult to animate) scenes but the film lacks dramatic drive. The characters often appear just coasting around, like the objects of a painting. The fact that a lot of mythical elements are introduced does not help the film’s credibility either.
The film was first screened during the Real Asian film festival in Toronto in 2015 and is finally getting a screening run at the TIFF Bell Lighbox. There are two versions – I saw it in the original subtitled version. The other is the inferior dubbed version.
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