Aside from classic Disney, I’ve never been one for animated feature films. But the fact that Miss Hokusai was summarized to be about the uncredited artist behind the work of one of Japan’s most famous artists—who also happened to be the artist’s daughter—caught my attention and I’m so glad it did because Miss Hokusai is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, animated or not.
O-Ei is the daughter of temperamental and emotionally distant, yet wildly talented artist Tetsuzo (who later went on to be known as Katsushika Hokusai). Having the ability to paint massive illustrations on sheets of paper to delicate and indicate drawings on a grain of rice, Tetsuzo is renowned in 1814 Edo (which is what Tokyo used to be called). However, Tetsuzo’s stubbornness and pickiness in what he himself wants to paint ends up resulting in O-Ei—who is equally, if not more, talented than her father—doing the paintings, which Tetsuzo claims as his own. It’s not done in a malicious way, but rather it’s a bizarre understanding between father and daughter while O-Ei attempts to establish and secure her own career as an artist.
Miss Hokusai is a slice of O-Ei’s life, one that has been ignored or forgotten over the years thanks to her father’s overbearing influence in the art world. We see O-Ei as both a compliment and adversary to Tetsuzo and also see how her willingness to be emotional and social while still refusing to do anything she doesn’t want to is a better combination for not only a human being, but an artist as well. Unlike Tetsuzo, O-Ei is close with her mother as well as her younger sister, who has been blind since birth. Tetsuzo is unable to deal with sickness of any sort and thus avoids contact with his younger daughter at all costs, but O-Ei regularly seeks her out to spend days with her, showing her the world through touch, words and her own eyes.
The movie equally focuses on O-Ei’s struggle to be a better artist as well as the artist her father expects her to be, while still maintaining close ties with the family and culture from which she often draws inspiration. She is bold, unapproachable and shielded, yet still open, free and with an abundance of love to share. She’s far more complicated than you would expect an animated character to be, but it’s refreshing to watch her story and forge that you’re watching an animated woman.
The flawless illustrations and the tiny details that throw the viewer into the depths of 17th century Japan are stunning and awe-inspiring. The dialogue is sharp and funny, but carefully present when necessary and never seems to be too much or too little. It all combines to give the audience a delicate, accurate and nostalgic glance into vintage Japanese life and culture. It hooks you from the opening narration to the closing and will leave you thinking about it and its characters for hours after.
Miss Hokusai is a beautiful tribute to a woman forgotten by history, but it’s also a perfect way to begin your education about O-Ei, a.k.a. Katsushika Oi.
Miss Hokusai screens are part of this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival and will play on November 7, 2015 at 9pm at AGO Jackman Hall.