Woodblock Print by Numbers : A Miss Hokusai Film Review

In my first full review in nearly a year, I look at another film from director Keiichi Hara. Miss Hokusai is no Shin-chan, but she might be just as brash.

Title: 百日紅 Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai)
Original airing: May 9, 2015
Studio: Production I.G
Director: Keiichi Hara
Duration: 90 min
Genres: Historical, Drama, Supernatural
Source: 百日紅 (Sarusuberi) Manga by Hinako Sugiura (1983)

Where I watched: Netflix

Watch the trailer here

Brief Synopsis and First Impressions

As all of Edo flocks to see the work of the revered painter Hokusai, his daughter O-Ei toils diligently inside his studio. Her masterful portraits, dragons and erotic sketches – sold under the name of her father – are coveted by upper crust Lords and journeyman print makers alike. Shy and reserved in public, in the studio O-Ei is as brash and uninhibited as her father, smoking a pipe while sketching drawings that would make contemporary Japanese ladies blush. But despite this fiercely independent spirit, O-Ei struggles under the domineering influence of her father and is ridiculed for lacking the life experience that she is attempting to portray in her art.

Summary via: GKIDS

I had my eye on Miss Hokusai since watching Colorful last year, given that I found the director’s work in the latter to be interesting and wanted to see how it translated to his other films. But with a different studio at the helm and different subject matter, I wondered if it would be too dissimilar to make a valid comparison (though scriptwriter Miho Maruo did also do the screenplay for Colorful). Either way, I looked forward to watching it so I could add to the small number of films I’ve reviewed on this blog.

The other main draws were the fact that this was historically based film relating to one of Japan’s most prolific and well known artists, Hokusai. An anime film exploring part of a famous artist’s life set against the waning years of the Edo period, which is a fascinating time on its own, sounded like it was right up my alley.

Though this film did end up straying somewhat from my expectations, it offered a unique glimpse into the lives of some late Edo era artists whose seemingly abstract thoughts and motivations were surprisingly familiar.


Story

Image of O-ei sitting in front of a large canvas with crumpled sketches all around her

The film is introduced by the titular character, Katsushika O-Ei, as she walks amid the busy streets of early 19th century Edo (now, Tokyo). She explains the artistic antics of a “crazy old man” named Katsushika Tetsuzo and reveals that this man, whom the viewer might recognize as Hokusai, is also her father. Living with him in a small apartment and spending their days working on paintings and woodblock prints, she explains that with two paintbrushes and four chopsticks they’ll get by anywhere.

This sentiment is portrayed true to life as Hokusai and his daughter were said to have moved to 90 different houses, abandoning a place when it became unlivable since they never did any housework. With around 35,000 works to Hokusai’s name, it is also rumored that O-Ei contributed to many of his pieces and may have produced several of them herself.

For some background: The ukiyo-e genre which Hokusai is known for came out of the rapid economic growth of Edo during the 17th century. It was a time when the merchant class was able to take full advantage of the wealth being poured into the city by the nobility, leading to the rise of kabuki theatre and pleasure districts as popular forms of entertainment. Painters like Hokusai broke from the traditional subjects of Heian era painters to capture this new environment, and their work found popularity among the wealthier class.

Image of Zenjiro blowing a candle with his nose next to real life caricatures of him drawn by Hokusai
Or maybe they just drew funny faces of each other.

With this base the story could take several directions. It might have focused on their art and how O-Ei went uncredited for much of the work attributed to Hokusai. It could have also been a story about struggling to come into her own under her father’s name. Even a look at the cultural changes in this period that shaped that era’s artistic movement would have proven an interesting topic. These paths would be right at home in a traditional film, but this one aims to accomplish something else.

What Miss Hokusai opts for is a more intimate look at O-Ei’s life without focusing on any one aspect. Her differences with her father, brief flirtations with romance, and her relationship with her family receive just as much focus as her challenges in establish herself as an artist. There is no overarching story or specific problem that needs to be solved, or a clearly defined theme that other anime films might go for. The film feels like a true slice of life, offering glimpses of all the earlier mentioned topics through moments in O-Ei’s life during this time.

While this film might be framed like a biopic, it focuses on a specific period around 1814 rather than a comprehensive look at her life. A lot of artistic license is also taken given the limited historical record available on O-Ei. Additionally, many of the events of the film are like one-shot stories that don’t provide a historical account so much as recounting anecdotes about O-Ei and others. This results in a very loosely accurate overview of a year of her life with the experiences dramatized for interest. Even in this though, the film doesn’t seem to follow a consistent pace as it jumps from one event to the next in a manner that feels disjointed from a classical storytelling point of view.

Image of O-Ei turning away from Hatsugoro to hide the ink on her face
Historically significant moments, like when O-Ei tried to hide the ink stain on her face

The feature most resembling a consistent thread is the part of O-Ei’s younger sister, O-Nao. Left with her mother after Hokusai’s divorce, O-Nao’s only link to her father is through talking to her sister about him during her visits. Being born blind left her unable to relate to Hokusai’s work, and his absent participation in her life acts as another point of tension between her father and O-Ei. Some of the more memorable scenes also involve O-Ei trying to express their surroundings to O-Nao, who struggles to otherwise feel connected to the world around her.

Aside from these more human stories, the film explores some light mystical elements involved in the creation and consumption of art in this era. Buddhist myth and old Chinese legends are referenced in several places, and on more than one occasion the characters set out to investigate a supernatural event related to art. These add some flavor to the ideas being expressed through the film, but ultimately don’t tie back strongly to any particular theme.


Characters

Image of O-Ei sketching a courtesan while Hokusai and his student wait in the background

Miss Hokusai works with a relatively small cast that allows for distinct personalities and purpose. It also offers some familiarity for viewers who are well versed in Japanese art by using several historical ukiyo-e painters. Like with any historical fiction this adds some sense of realism to the story, but recognition of the names is not required to enjoy these characters who feel natural and interesting on their own. While it is difficult to determine how effective they are in telling the story given the film’s nontraditional approach, they are nevertheless suitable vehicles to experience the story alongside.

The main draw is Katsushika O-Ei herself, providing the film’s narration and serving as the one element which ties it all together. She represents a strong break from women of the time by being unwed, living with her divorced father, and painting erotic art that became popular in this period. Owing to her considerable technical merit, she is often dismissive of other artists whom she feels are less talented, and is stubborn in her opinions. This, however, masks an insecurity in both her personal and professional life that she tries to overcome with limited success. It’s through her point of view that we’re introduced to the other characters, and her impression of them shapes much of the viewer’s own feelings.

Image of O-Ei glancing at Hokusai and Zenjiro as they follow behind her
Not pictured: O-Ei being impressed.

This applies to no one more than her father, Hokusai, who appears both mundane and sagely all at once in this film’s portrayal. While O-Ei is for the most part impressed by his legacy, her close relationship with him reveals his flaws when they clash with her own ideals. His inability to be professional in his work and his nature as a generally poor caretaker and father contrast against his brilliant imagination and keen empathy with the world around him. Hokusai comes off as fickle and undisciplined yet incredibly driven at the same time. Likewise, his relationship with his daughters has a complexity that adds depth to his character.

While he tirelessly guides O-Ei through lessons and chiding, his attention toward his blind daughter O-Nao is very sparse. O-Ei’s interactions with her in place of her father reveal a reserved but curious character who serves a dual purpose. The lack of attention O-Nao receives from Hokusai is an important story point regarding the sort of life the painter chose to lead and its effect on the people around him. At the same time, her detachment from his world (both because they live separately, and because she cannot see his art) gives O-Ei a reason to step away from the studio to spend time with her. As the person to whom O-Ei shows the most care and affection, O-Nao provides a vital human side to a story otherwise dominated by art.

A few other characters like Utagawa Kuninao and Ikeda Zenjirō provide some flavor and mild plot movement without overshadowing O-Ei. Their addition is nice for the historical perspective, as mentioned earlier, but also they offer some humor to offset Hokusai and O-Ei’s more serious personalities. Real life contributions to the ukiyo-e genre aside, they passively challenge O-Ei for being able to capture something special in their paintings despite being technically weaker.


Art & Animation

Image of a finished painting of a dragon on the floor of the studio

As a relatively modern Production I.G work, there isn’t much to complain about with the presentation of this film. The content isn’t overly demanding from an animation standpoint but this gives the visuals freedom to be lively and rich with character. Sparingly using CG art, the film maintains a beautifully consistent atmosphere amid a variety of settings that lends well to their subject matter and tone.

A wide color palette and grounded character designs combine to provide something that’s visually entertaining without feeling too flashy for the time period. Light and shadow are carefully used to reproduce a time that relied on candles and lamps, and the art in general just feels right in any given scene. Hara’s love for wide scenery shots as seen in Colorful find their place once again to represent the bustling city Edo became.

Wide shot of a wooden bridge connecting two sides of Edo over a river
Can you spot O-Ei on the bridge?

The characters are drawn in a more realistic style as is often the case with Production I.G work. In an era where variations in style and fashion were few, the characters still feel unique and recognizable thanks to the animators’ attention to detail. Their expressiveness further adds to their personas, as even O-Nao’s dull eyes reveal much about her thoughts at any given moment. Little things like O-Ei’s pout also add a nice touch, since there are anecdotal records that Hokusai liked to tease her about her jutting lower lip.

As a film centered around art, it also achieves some interesting scenes where the paintings are concerned. On top of reproducing several of Hokusai’s paintings onscreen, the film uses them for much more than a flat piece of work. Whether illustrating the artists actually working on them or expressing the creative process, the pieces take on a sort of surreal quality that work with the mood of the scenes they appear in.

Reproduction of Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanegawa with O-Ei and O-Nao in the boat
Or two sisters’ shared imagination recreating Hokusai’s most famous print.

Of particular note are scenes in which the paintings come to life in some way, either as artistic imagination or hallucination on the part of their audience. The same can be said of the mystical sequences, which often employ CGI for their greater dynamism. These work to break up otherwise mundane sequences with some variety in art style, but don’t linger long enough to feel jarring. On the contrary, their visual distinction makes these sequences stand out to help viewers appreciate the artistic vision.


Music & Sound

Image of O-Nao turning her head toward a boat as she hears it float beneath the bridge

There is something of a division when it comes to how well the music was executed in this film. Most agree that the normal classical orchestral tracks hit their mark, reflecting their scenes with quiet somberness and sweeping grandeur alike. It’s where this film strays that garners a lot of criticism. For example, right at the beginning, sight and sound clash as an electric guitar accompanies a walk across a bridge. This happens a few times in the film, with varying intensity, including a J-rock inspired ending song.

Some find this kind of music a poor fit for the subject, but this isn’t unusual for the director. Hara used harsher electric guitar riffs in Colorful as a backdrop for drastic character moments, and his choice to include them in this film seems to follow the same logic. Rather than feeling like a break in immersion, their contrast with the traditional sound we expect from period pieces can suggest just how offbeat Miss Hokusai is, both as film and as a character. Hara commented on this himself, explaining that the manga author was influenced by 70’s era American and British rock. He further had this to say about the musical choices:

“Having O-Ei walking the streets of early 19th century Edo at the sound of electric guitar was also a way to warn the audience that this is not your typical period drama.”

Source: ANN interview

Sound is often underappreciated in anime, but this one has many opportunities to shine thanks to O-Nao’s inclusion. Being blind leaves ambient sound as one of the few ways she can have sensory interaction with the world, and while this film does a good job with it throughout, it’s especially noticeable in her scenes. People on the streets, insects flitting by, and the lilting sound of passing music makes the environments feel alive rather than the static backdrops they are in many films.

This was the first voice acting role for both its leads, showing Hara’s proclivity for casting live-action actors for his films. Anne Watanabe (daughter of actor Ken Watanabe) plays O-Ei, and captures just the right amount of haughtiness to really sell her character. Yutaka Matsushige (Yoshino from Ring and Rasen) similarly does a great job with Hokusai, making him sound perpetually gruff yet far from one note in his emotions. Netflix didn’t have the English dub available for me to sample, but given my appreciation of Erica Lindbeck I doubt I would have been disappointed by her version of O-Ei.


Overall Appeal

Image of O-Ei watching a blazing fire amid a crowd of people

Reaching across a fairly wide range of topics and covering a number of disparate themes, Miss Hokusai touches upon many subjects common for a historical piece while exploring ideas of more modern work. Religion, superstition, and culture find their place alongside issues of identity, sexuality, and family dysfunction. At times it seems like it tries to achieve too much, yet the film’s subtle exploration of these topics allows it to cover them all without coming off as overbearing or heavy handed.

Rather than an overall theme, it’s O-Ei’s character moments that really leave more of an impression by the end of the film. Striving to make a name for herself in a mostly male dominated occupation, suffering criticism from her father, trying to balance family and work, and being perplexed by the challenges of romance are problems for the modern woman. Indeed, O-Ei feels very modern, pressured by her life in and out of the art studio but never faltering in pursuit of her goals. She’s brilliant, yet terribly unrefined, and it’s fascinating to see how this dictates her motivations and actions.

Patience for the narrative structure (or lack thereof) may be required to appreciate any of this, though. For better or worse, Hara chooses to follow the style of Hinako Sugiura’s manga, which was itself framed as a series of vignettes (many not even about O-Ei) rather than an overarching narrative. These stories are certainly interesting on their own, but do sometimes suffer due to their brevity. Viewers can be left wanting to know more about a particular story point or plot thread, only to have it pass by too quickly with the next one having little to do with what came before.

Image of a courtesan's spirit returning to her body
Like what this face ghost even is.

The film’s most prevalent thread, O-Ei’s relationship with her sister, is spared some of this but isn’t completely immune either. Their warm bond is a relatable plot element that carries throughout the film and allows for some of its sweetest moments. Not only does it hit the necessary emotional chords, but does so without the melodrama that many anime tend to go for. Hokusai’s reasons for avoiding O-Nao also represent the greatest split between him and O-Ei, but this too feels underdeveloped by the time the film ends.

There is added potential enjoyment though, depending on how much you know about Hokusai and the period he lived in. The many references to historical figures and art work are sure to catch the discerning eye, as several of Hokusai’s works are on display in this film. At the very least, it encourages even those who are less acquainted to learn about his and O-Ei’s art. Whether it’s painted on paper or reproduced in the scenery, this film is something of an homage to their work.


Summary and Recommendations

Miss Hokusai takes a unique look at the famous Hokusai and his oft over-looked daughter, O-Ei. As opinionated and quirky as any great artists tend to be, their daily lives and professional endeavors come off as something of a historical slice of life that captures much about the time period they lived in.

Though it looks like a biopic, and vaguely acts like one, the film is more like a series of vignettes in the style of its original manga. It’s narrated by O-Ei and follows her through several episodes of her life in 1814, covering her challenges as an artist, a daughter, and a woman in a rapidly changing era.

The stubborn and critical O-Ei makes an interesting duo with the sagely Hokusai, behaving more like master and apprentice than father and daughter. Though some artistic liberties are taken with their personas, they nevertheless capture the essence of their real life counterparts. Many of the characters alongside O-Ei and Hokusai were real ukiyo-e painters as well, lending some familiarity for fans of their work.

Beautifully drawn and deftly animated, the film is a delight to look at. It faithfully captures Tokyo as it might have looked 200 years ago, but presents the characters and their surroundings with a captivating style. The music is likewise evocative, though some of the more striking electric guitar tracks might feel like an odd fit.

The disjointed feeling of the story may be a turn off for viewers acclimated to a more rigid structure, and the lack of character development can leave some wondering what to take away from the film. Those patient enough to ward off their concerns may find the imagination, warmth, and pathos of these artists to be worthwhile.

As one of the few anime films about pre-Bakumatsu Japan that isn’t about samurais, this film can be enjoyed for the historical perspective it provides as well as the almost poetic portrayal of its characters as they experience the gentle dramas of their everyday life.

Watch if you:
Know or are curious about Hokusai
Enjoy a ‘collected stories’ format
Like slice of life

Don’t watch if you:
Greatly prefer a focused story
Are bored by art as a subject
Need a clear takeaway message


My Rating

Despite the unconventional approach, there is a lot to enjoy win this one. My rating is 4.5 out of 5 O-Eis.

Image of 4 and a half O-Ei portraits


Final Thoughts

As is my normal custom with reviews, I do a bit of research to see what points stick out in other critics’ minds so I might provide my own take on them. In doing so for this film, I was surprised by a couple of things. The first was that most of the reviews weren’t from anime fans, but from professional film critics or magazine columnists. The second was that, aside from the music, most of the dissatisfaction these critics expressed was with the film’s structure.

I mention this bit of background because anime reviewers, myself included, also tend to base critique around the principles of classical film and theater norms. An anime might be considered “good” if it has an engaging story with a logical progression of events, a well defined problem that must be overcome, and characters that develop clearly over time. Flaws in these criteria become reasons to knock points off a rating or otherwise disparage the anime’s quality in a way that uses semi-scholarly ‘analysis’ to mask short sighted and formulaic opinions.

But the problem is that Freytag’s pyramid and the three-act structure aren’t the only ways to tell a story, and are too limited a criteria for something as variable and limitless as anime. Slice of life tends to break this convention often, and this could be a reason why people who dislike the genre feel like it’s ‘about nothing.’ Those that do enjoy it likely find entertainment in the anime’s other aspects and value them accordingly.

Miss Hokusai certainly doesn’t follow traditional story norms, but where it shines is in using the historical drama format to show how life is much the same no matter the era. O-Ei’s problems and her relationship with her father speak to feelings of inadequacy, family dysfunction, and struggling to establish one’s place amid competing influences. Whether or not these feelings are personally relatable to you, they feel real, and watching them play out was no less interesting for me than in any other drama.

Our own lives don’t have a central problem to overcome or a single lesson to learn. They’re more like this film – a series of events that stand out in our minds and shape who we are, even if they might not relate directly to one another. It’s valid to want your fiction to go beyond real life (Miss Hokusai certainly still does), or feel that it needs a more coherent structure, but I would encourage people to think outside that box.

Hara puts the sentiment quite well himself in that same interview I quoted earlier:

“I think there’s something more than success stories and happy endings out there. I like movies that stay with you while depicting bitterness and hardship. Those are the feelings we all experience, and try to overcome while we live our life. Those are the stories that made me grow as a filmmaker. I hope this movie will trigger something in your heart, and stay with you for a little while.”

Source: ANN interview


More Reviews

A picture is worth a thousand words, but so is a thousand more words*. If you want to read more about Miss Hokusai, check out these great posts.

*Word count not verified and is strictly for the purpose of a bad joke.

“Miss Hokusai” Review by dbmoviesblog
A succinct favorable review from someone who writes about cinema. I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who isn’t primarily an anime blogger, and I enjoyed the way they described the movie’s characters and events.

Podcast: Miss Hokusai Retrospective by joseinextdoor
An entertaining podcast featuring Dee and another blogger I like to read from I Have a Heroine Problem. This one does have spoilers, but their discussion is a lot of fun if you’ve seen the movie. Check it out and let them know what you think.

Miss Hokusai Film Review by Lulu Mendl
Another movie reviewer that highlights a lot of the common criticisms of this film. I didn’t agree with Lulu on this one, but the review clearly outlines what they liked and disliked about the film.


For more from me, you can find my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows. As always, thank you for reading.

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11 thoughts on “Woodblock Print by Numbers : A Miss Hokusai Film Review

Add yours

  1. Ah, I’ve missed Weekend Otaku longform reviews.

    This movie sounds great! I’m all into movies about artists and slice of life. It’s interesting you should mention the difference in story telling mediums, because I’ve been talking about that recently with a friend who has been getting back into anime. Sometimes, you have to look at whether or not something is Western or Eastern influenced, and realize if that may be why you may not like something: because of your cultural background, you may not be able to identify with a certain story element simply because you just didn’t grow up exposed to the thematic references in the media. Doesn’t mean the show is bad, but sometimes you just have to realize that may be the reason why you don’t like something.

    As always, wonderful review Weekend! Like I said, I’m adding it to my list of must watches, especially since it has a blind character in it~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crystal, you always manage to make my day.

      I’m glad to hear you enjoy and look forward to these reviews. They take forever to write and don’t seem to generate much discussion (so I’ve been trying other things for about a year), but the longform ones always feel rewarding to finish and there’s a small number of people like you who really enjoy them. I’ll try to get more of these out!

      Eastern vs Western themes are always interesting to think about. I know many an anime fan that gets really worked up about things that don’t resonate with western audiences well. That’s why I always try to point out what an anime does right, because chances are that someone will like it based on those reasons.

      I hope you do get to see this one but you might have to find the blu ray for an English dub because Netflix doesn’t have it. It’s really beautiful either way and I think you will enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, that’s a really high rating. I knew of the famous Hokusai painting, but wasn’t aware that there was an anime movie on it!! By the way, your joke at the end was pretty funny.

    This film does sound like it’s for me except for the slice-of-life part. I’m not a slice-of-life fan but it sounds like a great movie. Awesome post, WeekendOtaku!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for checking this out, and I’m glad you liked the joke!

      I liked this movie a lot, but your mileage may vary based on your patience with how they present the story. I call it slice of life for lack of a better way to describe it because it shows these little slices of O-Ei’s life. It’s not a slice of life the way that something like Lucky Star or K-On is.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This film totally eluded me!
    Anime portraying the biography of known real life characters is something I am interested in, though I have not yet seen any of them.
    Unfortunately I don’t have any knowledge of Hokusai either, so I can’t do much to discuss possible themes.
    *
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful review as well as other posts on the film! I’ll kiv the others for when I watch the movie. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! No worries if you can’t discuss it in any great detail. I appreciate your comment all the same. This is my favorite part of blogging so I am glad you wanted to comment even if you haven’t seen the movie. I hope you get to soon!

      I would personally love to see more actual history depicted in anime. Biographies/biopics as anime or any animated form have the potential to really push the imagination and build around the themes of a story in an interesting way that live action often can’t. It’s hard to accurately capture the real life person in such cases, but if the tradeoff is an engaging story and beautiful presentation, I think I’ll take it.

      I have a side question since I know you commented on the YLIA episode/theme discussions but this is the first time I saw you chime in on one of my reviews: I write these to be as spoiler free as I can so that readers are still encouraged to watch. Since you have yet to see the film, how did you find this review? Do you feel like there were any spoilers, and did it generate more interest to watch? I look forward to your honest feedback either way 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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