Cast: Anne Watanabe, Michitaka Tsutsui, Yutaka Matsushige, Kumiko Asô, Shion Shimizu, Gaku Hamada, Kengo Kôra | Written by Miho Maruo | Based on the manga by Hinako Sugiura | Directed by Keiichi Hara
Choosing to depict an artist’s life in a form close to their own can be a tightrope walk. Miss Hokusai dares to examine the work and lives of two Japanese artists in the form of anime, but this turns out to be a natural fit: the broad brushstrokes of its principals stand in harmonious contrast to the considerably less stylised but no less lovely animation of the film. It’s a shame that this is the only aspect of the film that really strikes a chord.
Set in 19th-century Edo (later known as Tokyo), Miss Hokusai centers on talented young artist O-Ei and her father, the Hokusai of the film’s title, also a painter but with far greater success. Both parent and child are stoic and ill at ease with everyday life, which is why they invest their lives in their work. The film takes on an episodic quality as O-Ei comes of age in various ways, from navigating unwanted romantic entanglements to caring for her sickly sister and attempting to extricate herself from her father’s shadow.
It’s refreshing to see a female lead in a piece of historical fiction about artists, but unfortunately O-Ei isn’t an especially compelling character beyond being atypical in her disinterest towards eligible men or having an ordinary life. She wanders in and out of scenes with a serene, glazed look that only lifts when the animation shifts into magical realism, with clouds moving to reveal a dragon gliding between them or waves slowing to recreate a famous Japanese painting. It’s a shame more of these flourishes weren’t incorporated into Miss Hokusai, as they could have given the audience a sense of what drove O-Ei’s independence and creativity other than her father’s influence.
The film is populated with both colourful and downbeat characters, the tones mixing awkwardly with one another, and by the time the credits roll (accompanied by some frankly disheartening follow-up text) it’s unclear what we’re meant to have gained from these experiences. Other than the pleasant experience of watching a pleasingly detail-oriented animation, of course, which may well be more than enough for some.
Miss Hokusai is released in the UK on Friday 5th February.