Miss Hokusai doesn’t explore an artist’s plight so much as it explores a certain plight that effects every living person. O-Ei Hokusai, a great painter, lives in the shadow of her father’s accomplishments, resigned—as his daughter—to play second fiddle. The anime opens introducing not the titular “Miss” of the movie but rather the “Mister” (her father)—a famous painter in Japan during its Edo period (only a few years before the fall of the samurai). His works, big and small, are adored by the public, granting him acclaim as an artist and, more importantly, paid work. The two share a modest hut in Edo (Tokyo), a sanctuary where they create their inked master-works. Aside from one other painter, Zenjirō (a vagrant womanizer), living with them—and visits from wealthy clientele, a friendly “rival” painter, and a stray dog—the father and daughter live in relative seclusion.
Miss Hokusai is an upbeat, surreal and poignant take on the relationship between two real-life artists; exploring their roles as master and apprentice, student and teacher, and—most importantly—parent and offspring.
The most engaging aspect of Miss Hokusai is the dynamic between its titular character and her father. The father doesn’t feel either patriarchal nor demanding (as one might assume). There’s an in-built sternness to their relationship, both acknowledge the other as professionals, but there’s also an unspoken softness to their relationship as well.
An early scene demonstrates it best: O-Ei and her father, Katsushika, are painting a mural of a dragon, on a piece of paper the size of a bedsheet. Just as Katsushika adds his final touches, O-Ei—smoking a pipe—stumbles and accidentally spills some of the burning ash onto the mural. The char (a measly spec) makes a barely visible difference, but to Katsushika’s painterly eye the piece might as well have caught fire. He doesn’t scold O-Ei—instead he leaves. O-Ei accepts what needs to happen next; she has to repaint the entire mural from scratch. The wordless understanding between them isn’t built off any obvious father-daughter stereotype but something truer and oddly impersonal. The animation in these moments emphasize characters’ expressions so that they’re are easy to read, while never coming across as one-note or predictable.
O-Ei journeys through most of the film with a quiet grace. Her stern, and understanding, relationship with her father and her emotional distance to (even) close acquaintances make her seem cold, almost unlikable. The film seems to find better footing exploring how she works as a day-to-day artist in the shadow of her father. O-Ei, always perceptive and self-challenging, is at her core an artist suffering life’s growing uncertainties. Her sensual encounter with an amorphic prostitute, modeled as a geisha, expresses this sentiment best. With heavy emphasis placed on a Buddha, the film unveils the type of spiritual crises and confused sexual identity embodying O-Ei and characterizing her artistic pursuits.
The small vignettes in the film (showcasing her bizarre, expressive artwork) are not bad sequences, they’re beautiful feats of animation, incomparable in design and valiantly dreamlike in conviction. But with a story so grounded in the humanity of its characters, the otherworldly surrealism feel inversely void of that same human connection.
Miss Hokusai, satiated with odd little choices, contrasts between an almost Lynchian-approach to structure and a more conventional emotional gestures. Not every choice in Miss Hokusai works, they sometime feel incomplete—even a little messy—but the film’s strongly centralized human focus makes Hokusai’s understated tragedy one worth being told. I found myself less immersed in the showy dreamlike vignettes (animated in the style of Hokusai’s famous woodblock prints) than with the film’s exploration of the inner-turmoil that inspired Hokusai’s astonishing canvases.