Miss Hokusai is a 2015 anime film adaptation of the historical manga of the same name, and directed by Keiichi Hara. The film tells the story of Katsushika Oi, a 19th century Japanese painter who lived in the shadow of her more famous father, Hokusai, who was also a painter (famous for his iconic painting The Great Wave of Kanagawa). The film has received some strong acclaim, and was even nominated for the Japanese Academy Award for Best Animation. But is Miss Hokusai the next anime masterpiece?
Miss Hokusai is a rare instance where I felt it strongly succeeded in terms of emotion, but often stumbled in narrative. That may sound a bit odd, since you would expect strong emotion would stem from strong storytelling. But Miss Hokusai is an episodic film, with most of its events feeling self contained, and unfortunately, some of its pieces don’t always come together.
As stated, the basic premise is about the young painter Katsushika being in her father’s shadow. She lives with her father, who teaches her in painting. The two of them are regularly joined by one of Hokusai’s other pupils, Zenjirou (who is often drunk, and his less imaginative outlook on life makes him a frequent target of ridicule by Hokusai). Meanwhile, Katsushika has a kid sister named Onao who is blind and sickly, and lives with their mother.
The film has a lot of fun with its focus on painters, with many situations seeing the trio of artists encounter various people and events with with seemingly supernatural results. Katsushika is tasked with painting the image of a dragon, for example, and a storm cloud resembling a dragon soon emerges in the sky. Similarly, the trio meets up with a woman who claims her neck extends when she sleeps. Sure enough, when she invites them to see the event occur, her neck spawns a ghostly image that’s only held back by a net around the woman’s sleeping quarters. Both Katsushika and Hokusai can see the ghostly image in its entirely, while the less imaginative Zenjirou can only see its imprint on the net.
Miss Hokusai often toys with the idea of whether or not these supernatural events are actually happening, or if it’s merely interpreting these situations through the eyes of artists. The film’s status as a biopic may make it lean towards the latter, but because it’s animated, the fantasy aspects aren’t off the table.
These interpretive elements are one of the film’s strong suits, as are the more emotional moments. As you might expect, the core relationship in the film is between Katsushika and Hokusai, with Hokusai’s obsession with painting often leading to a distant connection with his daughter. But both of their relationships with Onao provide the film’s strongest emotional moments.
Katsushika loves her sister, and often explains the world that Onao cannot see to her. Hokusai’s relationship with his younger daughter is a bit more complicated. He rarely visits Onao, which at first makes him seem cold and uncaring, though his reasons are more rooted in weakness than coldheartedness, making him a pretty complex figure.
On the downside of things, while the film hits many of the right emotional notes, the episodic nature of the film doesn’t always work, and a number of scenes and events only end up feeling like they have no real purpose with the characters’ developments. Perhaps the worst side effect of Miss Hokusai’s episodic format is that it doesn’t have any real ending. After reaching an emotional high point, the film goes on for a few more minutes, and then just kind of ends. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t know at which point in Katsushika’s life to end the story, but the ending just feels abrupt.
It should be noted that Miss Hokusai is quite the beautifully animated film. The character designs look unique, their movements are fluid, and many of the backgrounds are truly striking. While western animation studios have largely given up on traditional animation, it’s always great to see anime features like this, which remind us just how beautiful the traditional method can be.
Miss Hokusai features an interesting soundtrack. Much of its music sounds classically Japanese, but it’s often contrasted with rock and roll. The contrast usually works, and gives the soundtrack a unique personality, though there are also times where the juxtaposition in musical styles clashes with the tone of the scene.
Miss Hokusai is ultimately a great film for its strong emotional moments and character development, as well as its terrific animation, but the inconsistency in its narrative does prevent it from reaching the heights it could have. It’s a beauty in both animation and themes, but if the story were a little less shaky, it may have been an anime classic.