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Miss Hokusai Screening Review

Date: 2016 February 01 13:43

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Whether I'm reviewing or not, when I go in to watch a new feature film, I try to read up on it as little as possible. With Miss Hokusai, I had only seen the short Japanese trailer (on purpose, so I wouldn't understand everything), and later skimmed the first few paragraphs of the production notes, handed to me when I walked into the screening. What I was expecting was something of a behind-the-scenes, biographical approach to Katsushika Hokusai's life, through his daughter's eyes. But instead I got something a little different.

Full Story

It's the year 1814 and we zoom towards the scenic Ryogoku Bridge in Edo, Japan. We're introduced to 'Miss Hokusai', the famed artist's daughter O-Ei. Unlike your usual fair of young, female anime protagonists, O-Ei comes across as more antagonist - miserable and unfriendly. We follow on to meet her atypical family: her quiet mother, her even quieter father and her sweet little sister. Her famed artist father is Katsushika Hokusai himself. He is a reserved and stern man, now in his 50s and quite well known in Japan at this time. O-Ei acts as his art assistant, often saving the day when that unexpected deadline looms a little too closely. This sounds like a warming father-daughter relationship, but it is far from picture perfect.

Miss Hokusai

While Hokusai himself comes across as the calm and collected artist, O-Ei comes across as cynical and sometimes even scary. This shows mostly towards another resident artist/student of Hokusai's, the drunk Zenjiro. All three artists have their own interests, work ethics and art styles. As we're drawn into their daily lives, I'm amused watching their conflicting personalities in the tiny, cluttered environment that is Hokusai's home. While O-Ei doesn't refer to Hokusai as her dad, Zenjiro rolls in drunk from Edo's red light district) there are also ghosts from paintings to be discovered. But before feeling like a chapter from Ghostbusters, we come to understand the importance of how Hokusai (and art in general) affects the mind.

Miss Hokusai

Being a practising artist myself, I could relate to all the quirks and qualms that come with producing art, let alone something worthy enough to call "your art". Hokusai refers to his daughter being a little too proud of her work, so with that, she won't become a "real artist". Zenjiro on the other hand, can't "see" the world around him, so with that, he won't become a "real artist" either. Whatever being a real artist may mean to you, these opinions come from a man who, in an opening scene, humbly throws away hours of work after it is spoilt by a smidgen of cigarette ash. Historically, Hokusai once wrote that "none of my works done before my seventieth is really worth counting". The man was a perfectionist, a character trait you will truly grasp with this movie.

Miss Hokusai

Going back to who we're following throughout the film, Hokusai's daughter O-Ei has a little sister, O-Nao. Despite O-Ei's cold first impression, O-Nao is the apple of her eye. There are several elements in the story that bring out the warmth in her character, all worth watching for. But what I found most endearing was O-Ei's understanding of the world around us. O-Nao was unfortunately born blind, so we're not only taken on an artistic journey, but also on a compassionate one, which without doubt, would open your "eyes".

Miss Hokusai

To top it off, Production I.G. renders Edo Japan perfectly, from the frumpy clothes to the clunky gallop of clogs. The animation is as beautiful as you would expect from the same studio behind Blood: The Last Vampire and that one animated scene in Kill Bill. Every frame flows like silk, seamlessly into the next, you can almost feel the drop of each kimono, the brushstroke against each sheet of paper, but without being overdone. The movie even seems 'traditional' in a sense. Throughout I felt like I was literally being transported back in time and watching a 90’s anime! For me, the only reminders that this was a modern anime were the 3D bits, which were subtle. That and the interesting choice of having a heavy rocking opening/closing soundtrack (by the wonderful rock/jazz musician, Sheena Ringo).

Miss Hokusai

And for fans of Hokusai's work, there are moments where his style is effortlessly blended into random scenes. These moments are a touching, understated homage to his work, so brief that if you blink, you'll miss them.

What I found most captivating about this film is the underlying message of seeing the world through eyes other than those you see with, as well as that decision-making in producing a piece, the creative process. Miss Hokusai is a mere snapshot of Hokusai's mundane life through his daughter's eyes, which felt like it ended too soon and left me wanting so much more.

But as an afterthought, after being taken through that fleeting, clutter-creating art process, the "mindfulness", the subtle homages to Hokusai's art style, and then finally coming to the film's moreish aftertaste... I am left sitting humbly, reminded of our mortality and the ever-passing of life itself. Perhaps that was its point.

Rating: 9/10

Miss Hokusai is screening around the country as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016. The JFTFP website lists all the venues showing the film.

If you can't catch it in the cinema Miss Hokusai will be released on 31st March 2016 on DVD, Blu-ray and Collector's Edition Blu-ray by Anime Limited.

If you're curious to know more about who Miss Hokusai really was, you'll be interested in our article Katsushika O-Ei - The Real Miss Hokusai.

Source: Otaku News
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