Miss Hokusai is an unusual biopic for a number of reasons beyond the most obvious, the fact that it’s animated. For one thing, its title character is not a major historic figure, but rather existed adjacent to one. Katsushika O-Ei, who lived in Edo (now Tokyo) during the 1800s, was the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, an artist so famous that he was and remains known mainly by a mononym. (His iconic works include “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” and “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.”) And yet the film isn’t quite about O-Ei, either, though she is the main character. Writer Miho Maruo adapted the script from a 1980s manga series by Hinako Sugiura, and the story manifests as a sequence of loosely connected incidents with O-Ei at their center. Actual biographical material is minimal — indeed, where history is either silent or inconvenient to what it wants to do, the movie freely invents. Out of these episodes, director Keiichi Hara shapes Miss Hokusai less as a portrait of any one person than as a portrait of a particular time and place, how we in the present relate to that time, and how art bridges the gap.
This is made evident by the opening, in which O-Ei narrates to the viewer how her father is known as “a nutty old man” who has both painted a 600-foot-high portrait of a monk and drawn two sparrows on a grain of rice. The focus is less on Hokusai than it is on his crowds of admirers, a cross-section of Edo’s citizens. After this expository introduction, electric guitars thrum onto the soundtrack and O-Ei tells us that what she loves is to walk the busy bridge at the center of the city and watch people go by. The “camera” pulls back to show the full scope of the hustle and bustle. Though technology has evolved, many aspects of urban life remain unchanged since the advent of the city as we know it. The film’s final shot is a dissolve from a view of Edo to a matching view of Tokyo in the present (again, with contemporary music in the background). Much of the film consists of conversations among O-Ei, Tetsuzo (Hokusai, stripped even further of reverence through the use of his real name), and their coterie of fellow artists about the demands of their industry and the nature of good craft.
Both Hokusai and O-Ei were masters of ukiyo-e, a style of painting and woodblock printmaking that first emerged in Japan around the turn of the 17th century and flourished in the 19th with the accomplishments of artists like Hokusai. Ukiyo translates to “floating world,” and was originally a Buddhist referent to the “world of sorrow” — how the material world cannot offer anything of ultimate satisfaction (dukkha is the original Sanskrit term for the concept). In Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), however, ukiyo took on a new meaning. Robust economic growth created a middle class in the country for the first time, and members of this group (called chōnin) experienced unprecedented freedom to indulge pleasures like theater, art, and geisha. Ukiyo no longer meant struggling with the spiritual shallowness of ephemeral pursuits, but instead luxuriating in them. Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) both depicted scenes of this society and was a tremendously popular product within it.
Miss Hokusai uses its vignettes to explore multiple corners of 19th-century Japan’s middle class, as Hokusai is commissioned to create pieces for various denizens of Edo. The period in which they live bears the name of this city for a reason: this is where ukiyo thrived. With the exception of a few dream and fantasy sequences, the film’s art does not seek to imitate the aesthetics of ukiyo-e — the subdued, relatively realistic style instead reinforces a modern-day viewer’s identification with the characters. “This life is nothing special, but we’re enjoying it,” O-Ei says in her voiceover narration, articulating a beautifully humane and hedonistic defiance of religious prohibitions against the simple pleasures to be found in urban mischief and idleness. Indeed, O-Ei’s biggest problem in the movie is that growing up in relative comfort has sheltered her from the harsher realities of the world — which her father believes weakens her art. The leisure of the chōnin life gives us enviable opportunity to experience art, but, paradoxically, less of the perspective from hardship or suffering that might help us appreciate it. Miss Hokusai suggests that we could stand to benefit from that kind of introspective mindset.
Hokusai stands out in the film’s version of Edo for his ability to think more critically. Though he’s not imbued with a supernaturally perceptive view of the world — as often happens in biopics about great artists — he does get to proselytize on the transcendent, ineffable aspects of creation, expressed via an astounding dream sequence in which he feels his hands detach from his body and roam about the world. When he is called upon to help a woman suffering from nightmares because of a picture of Hell that her husband bought from his studio, his solution is abstract yet effective: He simply paints a Buddha into the landscape of torments, offering symbolic hope of redemption. The woman’s mind is set at ease. In the floating world, free from the basic tenets of survival our brains evolved for, we find meaning for life in unlikely places. And if we can’t find any special meaning, well, we can still enjoy ourselves.
Miss Hokusai is currently playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York and Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles. It opens at theaters across the US on October 21.