The episodic, lithe, and reflective manga series, Miss Hokusai was first published in 1983. Though its run was short – the title ran for fewer than five brief years – the Japanese comic was heralded for its look at family dynamics and artistic culture in the Edo period (specifically that of 1814). While Hinako Sugiura, the creator of the weekly, passed away in 2005, the series saw reprints before its eventual adaptation into a ninety-minute anime film by Keiichi Hara.
Here, 1800s Japan is touched by cerulean blue waters, arching bridges, and ink spattered papers. The respected Hokusai, a street artist surrounded by tufts of trash and pockets of graying hair, spends his days turning brushstrokes into dragons. His daughter, O-Ei sits in the wings, pensively puffing on pipes, and scouring her father’s work as tobacco embers flutter like errant flower petals in the breeze. It’s a scene of quiet understanding and repressed tension. To provide levity, the family dog, a portly pup with fish eyes and the posture of a bearskin rug, plops down nearby.
Early in the film, we are shown that O-Ei, under a whirlwind of duress and paint splotched cheeks, is also a talented but overlooked artist. She shirks attention, zips ink across paper, and sits, like a hissing fuse, around gobs of crumpled up projects and tethered paintings. Hokusai is quiet and observant. O-Ei is a humming motor of bottled up frustration.
For its multilayered, sometimes erudite, table-setting of family and culture, “Miss Hokusai” is relatively placid. The film’s characters stand, idly, on bustling bridges and underneath the snow-stacked arms of monolithic trees. Patter across pathways and sit, amicably, near discarded bottles of sake. Hara’s film is an existential woodcarving of ideology and métier, and yet there is nothing really at stake. Nothing truly said. When something of note does transpire, the tonal shifts are more confused than confident.
Though “Miss Hokusai” doesn’t touch on symbolism or story as deftly as one would expect, the animation is warmly staccato and the colors are awash in reverie. When necessary, contemporary Japan bleeds into the emotional narrative by providing a sonic splash of electric guitars in a time where woodblock prints, kabuki actors, and geisha were popularized fixtures. At its worst, Hara’s film feels like a still life painting of a loading screen. At its best, “Miss Hokusai”, opening today at Ken Cinema, is not only a tale about history and family, but the splintered binding that holds them together.