O-ei Hokusai is a proper young lady, but she can draw dragons and courtesans just as well as any man. She is her father’s daughter, after all. He would be Katsushika Hokusai. Even if you do not know his name, you will recognize his most famous work: The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. It turns out his daughter wasn’t just a chip off the wood-cut block. She was frequently an uncredited collaborator. Yet, she is never bitter, but rather pleasingly assertive and altogether charming in Keiichi Hara’s anime adaptation of Hinako Sugiura’s manga Miss Hokusai (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
Katsushika Hokusai is a remarkable artist, but he is also arrogant and aloof. His daughter O-ei is pretty much the only other person he ever spares a thought for. Unfortunately, that includes Miss Hokusai’s little sister, O-nai, who lost her sight while still an infant and now lives a largely cloistered existence with her mother. O-ei is a protective and encouraging sister, but their father barely acknowledges the sickly younger sibling. She would force him to confront the kind of reality he tries to avoid. O-ei makes no secret of her disappointment in the shallow old man, but she stays in his untidy house, because of his respect for her talent and her independence.
It seems like this is the year of the tearjerker at NYAFF. If She Remembers, He Forgets and If Cats Disappeared from the World haven’t completely wrecked you yet, Miss Hokusai should pretty much finish you off. It is tragic (in a way we can see coming like a Kanagawa tidal wave), but wonderfully elegant. The protagonist is also worthy role model, who speaks her mind and calls it like she sees it, but is always deeply compassionate and humanistic. Her relationship with the innocent yet somewhat angst-ridden O-nai is rendered with such sensitivity, it will just tear your heart out.
In between the tear-jerking, Hara takes us on a slightly ribald tour of early Nineteenth Century Edo. As seen from O-ei’s perspective, it looks like quite a fun town. Apparently, erotica was the bread-and-butter of many artists of that period, including Miss Hokusai, who is not bashful when it comes to commissions from courtesans. Nor does screenwriter Miho Mauro’s adaptation shy away from gender role hypocrisies. Frankly, in many ways, the film feels downright Victorian, but it has a wonderfully honest and potent relationship at its center.
Miss Hokusai comes from the great animation studio Production I.G, but it is worlds removed from their signature franchises, such as Psycho-Pass and Ghost in the Shell, following more in-line with their endearing Letter to Momo (helmed by Hiroyuki Okiura). The film has such a rich, sophisticated vibe, viewers walking in blind could easily be convinced it is vintage Studio Ghibli or Don Bluth immediately post-Disney. It is just an exquisitely lovely, emotionally mature film that is deeply satisfying precisely because of the sadness in its soul. Very highly recommended for all audiences, Miss Hokusai screens this Sunday afternoon (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.