The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is one of Japan’s most recognisable artworks, almost synonymous with the country’s history. Despite that pedigree, Miss Hokusai does not take the esteemed painter as its focus, but is about his equally talented daughter, their relationship, and the art they have created. The film becomes a testament to this love and fascination with art; many scenes contain exquisite animation, however this focus on the art and not the story can leave the audience feeling there was more to explore than what we are given.
Based on the manga Sarsuberi by Hinako Sugura, O-Ei is our titular character and the film explores the assistance she gave her father in 1814 Japan. O-Ei is the third of four daughters to Tetsuzo (Hokusai’s informal name). She leads a similar life to her father, spending her time eating, drinking and drawing, with the same talent and stubborness he has. This leads to some disagreements between the two, specifically the way each feels about youngest daughter O-Nao. The relationship between the three forms the emotional core of the film; as O-Nao is blind, her sister O-Ei guides her through the world and does her best to describe the world she loves to paint. On the other hand Tetsuzo is distant, creating the emotional conflict between them.
The film opens with O-Ei walking across a bridge as rock music thunders in the background. It’s an odd juxtaposition which jars the audience rather than highlighting the energy O-Ei has. It’s a problem that repeats throughout the film, ill-chosen thuds of guitar dulling the impact of the rest of the film.
This early scene sets up another of the film’s stranger tonal choices: clumsy toilet humour. Along the bridge she meets a friend who accidentally steps in dog faeces before he can say hi – it’s a strange attempt at humour that only gets worse as the film progresses. In a film that takes such care in emotional drama and the exquisite homages to Japanese art, it’s very perplexing to see the humour done so clumsily.
The film continues with the artists creating one work of art after another, meeting strange muses and admirers along the way. This reflects the episodic nature of the original manga, but makes the film feel somewhat disjointed, especially when the core conflict over O-Nao is focused on and handled well, but resolved so quickly that there’s no time to let anything sink in.
Miss Hokusai is a testament to Japanese art, with a strong drama at its heart that will pull audiences in. The story moves along at its own pace and while it’s never boring, it’s easy to find oneself wondering how this all fits together, if at all. Definitely one for art fans, but even casual audiences can enjoy this bizarre but beautiful journey.
Words by Sunny Ramgolam