Art, erotica, girl power, and parent-child relationships—Miss Hokusai ought to have everything going for it. Set in the Japanese capital city of Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 19th Century, it depicts the life of famed painter Katsushika Hokusai, and his daughter, O-Ei, also a talented artist, who spends her days completing deadlines for her unreliable father. O-Ei was an actual historical person whose excellent work was almost entirely submerged in her father’s career, and it’s always exciting to discover an “unknown” woman artist.
This would have been a fascinating story for a live-action film. But as an offering from the popular Japanese animation studio, Production I.G (Ghost In the Shell), it’s an odd mix of gorgeous, painterly vistas and lovely glimpses of historical and cultural traditions, with jarring modern rock music, cornball dialogue, and inane slapstick comedy. (To be fair, I saw a version dubbed into English. It’s possible that the Japanese-language version, with English subtitles—both versions are playing at the Del Mar—might work better.)
Directed by Keiichi Hara, inspired by Hinako Sugiura’s manga comic Sarusuberi, the movie revolves around O-Ei (voice of Erica Lindbeck in the dubbed version), who lives with her slovenly, obsessed father. He has no vices, she tells us, he doesn’t drink or smoke—all he does is paint. She paints too, and when her dad can’t complete a commission on time, she’s expected to fill in for him—without credit. This makes O-Ei perpetually fed up and rankled, so she’s not a character we ever exactly warm up to. We see her smoking a pipe and sketching erotic drawings (the elder Hokusai was famed for his erotica as well as his iconic land and seascapes), but neither of these pastimes gives her character much extra dimension.
But O-Ei does soften up around her blind younger sister, O-Nao. The sisters’ mother is estranged from their father, and while O-Nao had been living with their mother in another part of town, she is now in the care of a house of Catholic nuns, where O-Ei visits her often and takes her out on excursions around the city. (There might have been an opportunity here to comment on Western influence creeping in, but the film doesn’t take it, except to note that O-Nao is now afraid of “stacking rocks” in Hell.) Still, the sisters’ relationship is very tender. The scenes involving one of Hokusai’s patrons, a beauteous courtesan, are also skillfully, artfully appealing.
The plot goes off on a lot of weird tangents. There’s Hokusai’s apprentice, a drunken ex-Samurai used for tedious comic relief, and his buddy, another young apprentice, making painfully gauche attempts to ingratiate himself with the profoundly uninterested O-Ei. It’s interesting that one of the brothel geishas turns out to be male, but not much is done with that character. When her father says she’s “too naive” to draw men properly, O-Ei visits the brothel, but her game plan is not clear, before or during her encounter, and that subplot soon disappears from the movie.
I’ve never been a big fan of Japanese anime, the stylized look of characters with big, round eyes and minimal onscreen movement. Miss Hokusai is most impressive, visually, when its static—the giant wave that rises up under the sisters’ boat (a recreation of the famous Hokusai image, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”); a sparrow in a tree full of blossoms; a white winter landscape dotted with touches of red. The supernatural elements are also well-done: a dragon that grows out of storm clouds; Hokusai’s dream of his hands flying around the world; the courtesan’s nightmares fueled by a painting of Heaven and Hell.
Cultural traditions are nicely rendered, from bamboo houses with their sliding, paper screen doors, and street vendors hawking their wares, to festivals and their rituals. But the overall tone is so uneven, and that blaring rock soundtrack so intrusive, the artistry of Miss Hokusai gets lost in translation.
**1/2 (out of four)
Directed by Keiichi Hara. A GKids release. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.