Have you ever seen a movie that you really liked but struggled to explain why? I kind of feel that way about the recent Japanese film Miss Hokusai. It’s a unique film that I enjoyed, but I admit will not be for everyone.
Based on a historical manga, Miss Hokusai tells the story of a woman in 1814 Edo (modern day Tokyo) named O-Ei. She is the daughter of a famous painter named Hokusai and strives to be up to his standards as an artist in her own right. The film then takes us through little vignettes about her life. It is very ‘day in the life’ type of story without a strong overarching narrative. Some people will undoubtedly find it boring, but I was engaged enough in the characters and artistry to enjoy it.
Several nice segments involve O-Ei’s interactions with her blind sister. She introduces her to snow, and the sisters have a really sweet relationship. It’s also interesting to see how their father, a master painter, deals with having a blind daughter.
Some of the vignettes share the myth and inspiration behind Hokusai’s most famous paintings like this one of a wave you will probably recognize. That was neat to see. It was cool to literally dive into the backstory of iconic works of Japanese art.
It was also innovative to get into the head of an artist like O-Ei and her father. She is constantly trying to get inspiration to go from being good to great at her art. Her father is also strict and does not accept anything less than perfection in her paintings.
At one point, O-ei figures that she wants to paint in a different, less traditional way than her father. But this is difficult because her life experience is simple and naive for the type of passion she wants to convey. She tries to gain experience, but it ends up being more awkward than anything else.
The animation in Miss Hokusai is beautiful, and I particularly liked the segments diving into the artwork. This is sometimes part of a dream sequence or storytelling montage, but it is always gorgeous.
However, there are some problems with Miss Hokusai that hold it back from being a masterpiece. I have been to Japan, taken a Japanese politics class in college, seen anime, read quite a bit on Japan, and yet I was still confused by some parts of the movie. There are certain customs particularly at the geisha house that I am unfamiliar with and were confusing. The movie doesn’t really try to make itself accessible for Western audiences like a Studio Ghibli film might.
Still, it was inspiring to see O-ei grow as an artist and dive into the art. The animation and the sound design are stunning in each scene. It draws the viewer in, making it feel tactile and real. The music was actually quite modern at times, which I thought was an interesting choice.
I also loved the message about the risk of creating great art. You put a piece of your soul into your art and sometimes that bewitches, curses, beguiles, and even seduces the viewer. Either way, art is a way of life and a part of the core identity for O-ei and her father.
Like I said, Miss Hokusai is not going to be for everyone, but if you can handle the episodic non-linear plot, then I would give it a shot. It’s a beautiful exploration into the heart of an artist that I think you will enjoy. I’m certainly glad I saw it.
Miss Hokusai is opening this weekend, and if you can find it, definitely check it out.
It is a film for adults because of scenes spent with the geishas; although, nothing is too explicit, mostly implied. Some of the paintings are also mature in nature.
Edited by: Kelly Conley