Miss Hokusai (2016) by Keiichi Hara
Review by Zach Dennis
Does great art come from within or do our own experiences in life dictate our skills?
This is the central question posed in Miss Hokusai, a simple and often sweet tale from director Keiichi Hara. While it is implied that Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist and ukiyo-e painter, is the central character of the story, the film delves more into the internal and external strife of his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei, and her quest to become a renowned artist.
For Western audiences, Miss Hokusai will resonate aesthetically because it shares many similarities with the works of Studio Ghibli in how they shape the characters. The animation is tame and balances cartoon and lifelike well, but also allows for the more fantastical elements to work their way into the story.
For the most part, that style works for the story, which has drastic shifts from being a quiet exploration into the family dynamics of the Hokusai family — namely the father and O-Ei — and how his passion for painting has driven a wedge in between the different faces to some supernatural elements that transforms the Japanese artist into an almost Sherlock Holmes-esque detective.
Mr. Hokusai lives for art and this is displayed in our first introduction to him when he dazzles audiences by painting a large portrait on one hand and shifting to painting birds on a grain of rice on the other. The act may be lavish and somewhat of a tall tale, but it is indicative of a man who lives for the challenge of the craft.
For most of the film, it becomes clear that he lacks any sense of connection to the real world. It isn’t clear if he and his wife are officially separated, but she lives in a different home while he sleeps and works in a shack along with O-Ei and a fellow wannabe painter named Zenjiro.
Hokusai lives like a god, peering over his subjects and passing judgements and observations whether they ask for them or not. In many scenes, he sits stoically and tosses out opinions and observations as Zenjiro and others speak around him.
He seems to feel like he is working in another realm entirely, which makes it ironic when he says over and over again that O-Ei lacks a connection to the real world when in reality, it seems like he is the one suffering from that diagnosis.
In contrast, O-Ei observes the bustling life in 1814 Edo (which would become Tokyo) and spends time with her younger sister, O-Nao, who lives away from them due to the loss of her sight. In the moments with O-Nao, it becomes clear that O-Ei is being actively involved in the present as she allows her sister to engage with the world around her.
In one scene, O-Ei observes as O-Nao plays with a boy in the snow and she is taken back to a memory of her own childhood with her father. During the present, she allows O-Nao to engage with the boy and the two laugh and play, which contrasts with her own memory of a one-sided snowball fight with her father that ends in him yelling at her and putting her back to work drawing.
It would seem that the biggest takeaway from Miss Hokusai is the lesson of interacting with the world around you and how it influences making good art, but the film never seems to tie the lesson together. It has moments that affirm the thesis, but backs off abruptly and leads into something more disconnected.
Maybe in this way, it shares qualities with Hokusai — it engages in moments, but pulls away when something becomes more “real.”
While the animation style may be reminiscent to Studio Ghibli, this is where the two separate as the famous Japanese studio works expertly to blend fantasy and realism into a fully realized and satisfactory story while Miss Hokusai seems to be biting off more than it can chew and leaving out small parts to aid in tying story beats together.
Miss Hokusai has beautiful elements, and a lead character that is engaging and interesting, but I’m not sure it painted a full picture. Regardless, the tale is never dull and becomes an almost Sherlock Holmes-esque story at times as Hokusai plays genius detective of supernatural art. It is fun and light, but never seems to carry the weight it has the ability to.
Maybe again, this means it has more in line with its subject than it wanted to let on.