Thursday, October 04, 2018

JFFSF ’18: Kurara, The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter

O-ei Katsushika did her best to follow in the footsteps of her father, the celebrated Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika (generally referred to as just plain “Hokusai”). That meant she also produced her share of erotic art. Even famous artists had to take what work was available during the late Edo period. Father and daughter became close collaborators after age slowed his hands, but she still eventually developed her own style. Following the exceptional anime feature, Miss Hokusai, O-ei Katsushika gets another, more traditional live-action bio-treatment in Taku Kato’s television film Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter (trailer here), which screens (free of charge, but tickets still required) during the 2018 Japanese Film Festival of San Francisco.

After three years of marriage, O-ei divorced her husband and moved back in with her parents. Her mother is still embarrassed and scandalized, but her father was always totally fine with it. He appreciates her passion and budding talent, but maybe he is not as encouraging as he ought to be. Regardless, he quickly relies on her to finish important commissions once he gets bored with them. Even after a stroke, he remains the best Ukiyo-e artist of the day, but he will need the help of his daughter and his friend, novelist Kyokutei Bakin (also seen a supporting character in Kakekomi).

However, the focus falls squarely on O-ei, her fascination with color and her lifelong love for Zenjiro Ikeda, known professionally as Keisai Eisen. Her interest is reciprocated, but alas, Ikeda/Eisen is often married or otherwise attached to other women.

Miko Omori’s adaptation of Makate Asai’s biographical novel is respectful and largely conventional, but it is still pleasant to spend time with it (especially for free). Kato is particularly adept at dramatizing moments of artistic inspiration on the screen. He also provides some nice historical context with non-fiction wraps-around featuring lead actress Aoi Miyazaki interviewing art historians and visiting a major Hokusai retrospective at the British Museum.

Miyazaki is terrific as O-ei, fully fleshing out both her prickliness and her vulnerability. (Obviously, she was cast for her talent and fame, because the references to O-ei’s supposed plainness do not fit her striking presence.) She also develops some rather sweetly touching chemistry with Ryuhei Matsuda’s roguish Ikeda. Plus, old man Hokusai’s image fares much better with Kyozo Nagatsuka’s gruff but complex performance this time around than it did with the distant, arrogant figure in Keiichi Hara’s animated film.

Fittingly, there are many bright colors in Kurara, but Kato also dramatically establishes arbitrary perils of life in 1840s Edo. The period production details are also first-rate, especially by TV movie standards. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Japanese culture and history, Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter screens this Saturday (12/6) at noon (free tickets required), as part of this year’s JFFSF.