Film Review: Miss Hokusai

A gorgeous animated tale of love, family and art set during Japan’s Edo period.
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For decades now, Studio Ghibli has dominated the world of hand-drawn animation imported into our country from Japan, so when something comes out of Japan as good as Miss Hokusai, you have to take serious notice. Directed by Keiichi Hara (Colorful)and produced by Production I.G. (Ghosts in the Shell), the film takes a piece of Japan’s artistic history and imbues it with equal amounts of comedy, romance and fantasy.

Hokusai was one of Japan’s most celebrated artists during the country’s Edo period (late 18th and early 19th century) with works that were cherished across Asia and Europe. As we learn in Hara’s work of historic fiction, it’s Hokusa’s daughter O-Ei (voiced by Anne Higashide) who is slaving over her drawing board in the studio to keep a roof over their heads. 

With uncombed hair and dressed fairly shabbily, O-Ei is not your typical anime heroine, as she is clearly put upon by her father’s behavior and having to live in poverty even though his artwork is so greatly in demand. By the time we meet O-Ei, she has given up trying to win over her father’s love and affection, as she often finds herself having to finish his work when he’s off drinking or womanizing. O-Ei also has a significantly younger half-sister, O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), a blind girl she visits frequently to make up for their father’s negligence. 

From the opening scene of O-ei walking across a bridge teeming with vendors and entertainers, it’s obvious Hara is going to give us a view into a portion of this era in Japan that isn’t about samurai or swordfights. She also takes what might have been a fairly simple story and expands it into a film that mixes tones and genres to help keep things engaging. During one moment, O-Ei and her father might be visiting a courtesan possessed by spirits, in another O-Ei might be dismissing the interest of a love-struck co-worker or pining after a far more rugged suitor.

There are times when Miss Hokusai feels episodic, almost to a fault, since the film jumps between O-Ei’s encounters with her various male admirers, some more charming and handsome than others, and dealing with her father’s business. Constantly chided by her father for her inability to fully capture the erotica she paints, O-Ei slips out to a brothel to gain some experience with an overly frisky cross-dressing courtesan.

Countering this lasciviousness is a lovely scene where her blind sister plays in the snow with another child, and we finally get to see both of them happier than we’ve seen before. As is often the case in Japanese anime, there’s also an adorable scene-stealing dog to keep things light.

Either way, this is not an animated film for younger kids, partially due to the nature of the artwork (more suggestive than graphic). Some parts of the story might be better appreciated by slightly more mature anime fans, who should appreciate the results of the filmmakers’ efforts. Miss Hokusai is just a gorgeous piece of animated storytelling that’s far and above what we normally get here in the States.

Click here for cast and crew information.