MISS HOKUSAI is an ambitious and visually sumptuous anime interpretation of the Edo period historical manga _Sarusuberi_, written/illustrated by Hinako Sugiura. The film is a brilliant exercise in the Japanese Buddhist concept of "everyday suchness."
When you look at a centuries old Japanese painting of a young girl in a garden, staring into a bamboo aquarium containing goldfish and bare accouterments, you may think you know what you see, but can you really see what the artist experienced in order to create that painting, let alone the ideas underlying the images?
I'm told that the manga source material is disconnectedly episodic in nature and that it's a real stretch to claim that there is any main character therein, even though the historical figure Katsushika Hokusai pops up repeatedly early in the series.
Hokusai's most famous historical work is a woodblock print series, yet, for the entirety of MISS HOKUSAI, we never see him work on a single woodblock. We only see Hokusai paint. Does that mean director Hara, screenwriter Maruo and ProductionIG are messing with us? Far from it. The elder Hokusai is not the point of this story.
The Edo period is a time when chronic illness turns to death in the blink of an eye.
Even though Hokusai pays little attention to healthy living, he is highly adverse to spending time with his terminally ill youngest daughter, for fear of catching something that might prevent him from living to be 100. For reasons known only to him, Hokusai believes he will achieve artistic mastery at that nice round age.
It's a daring move to make Hokusai's older daughter, Katsushika O-Ei, the seemingly central character of MISS HOKUSAI. Yes, she is in nearly every frame of the film, beautifully and sparingly drawn. Yes, MISS HOKUSAI is a feminist tale, too.
O-Ei is the chosen vehicle for telling the anime's story which is larger than just her. She, too, is a rather accomplished painter. Later in the manga series, O-Ei grows more prominent, without becoming central. Don't expect anything from O-Ei, but do be mindful and aware as you observe her context. Just relax in your seat and this should happen naturally. The only burden on the observer is to remember.
As in real life, O-Ei's personality is very much like her father's, yet O-Ei is judged by many, within the story and by some in the audience, as being "harsh" and "unlikeable," while drunken and slovenly Hokusai is well admired by many more.
O-Ei is a woman far ahead of her time, even as she willingly carries out "traditional" duties of assisting her father in his work. She knows that she is honing her own skills through the experience, while being far from subservient.
Valuable lessons, harsh though they may seem, from Hokusai to O-Ei, about composition and balance, are literally and tersely depicted in the context of the story's moments.
O-Ei is highly opinionated. She suffers no fools. She is pursued by some for her beauty, by some for being Hokusai's daughter and by others for her art. O-Ei is devoted to her sickly younger sister, O-Nao, and gets along well with her mother, who lives amicably apart from Hokusai. O-Ei is far from maladjusted.
MISS HOKUSAI shows us everyday Edo period life as an artist, who just happens to be O-Ei, experiences it.
All things depicted matter, no matter how diffusely.
We learn that O-Nao is blind and that she "sees," with her mind's eye, that the goldfish pets given to her by O-Ei are having great fun inside their bamboo aquarium, which brings O-Nao equal joy and respite from her illness.
MISS HOKUSAI includes many direct representations of how elements of everyday life become ukiyo-e prints and paintings, often emphasized in perfectly timed freeze frames that do not interrupt the flow of the film.
Sisters in a riverboat, fingers trailing in the rippling water, speculating about the dangers of rough open seas. Tiny ripples become waves, becoming an imaginary tidal wave about to engulf the riverboat, scene turning into woodblock print. Visual poetry.
O-Ei walking at sundown, through the shadows and light between the city structures lining her way home. She passes Hokusai ambling along, in the opposite direction, across the street. As they pass, O-Ei is aware. Hokusai might not be. Both are in shadows, neither acknowledges the other. Then as O-Ei passes out of shadow, she admires the fresh rays of light streaming between her fingers. A scene brimming with symbolism.
(The more you know about Hokusai's work, the more Easter eggs you will find in this film.)
Mindfulness, awareness and context, within everyday life, are what MISS HOKUSAI is all about. Not "character development." Not "plot." Don't let western cultural conventions/blinders keep you from absorbing and enjoying what MISS HOKUSAI shows us about everyday suchness.
Understand how O-Nao manages to see/sense so many things within the limits of what her young mind can comprehend. She's not always "correct," but she is "in touch." At every step and turn, we all face limits, but everyday suchness allows for that. It's not about correctness or finality.
Too much has been made about how trivially O-Ei's "marriage" is narratively tossed off in an end title card.
The real O-Ei was briefly married to a fellow art student BEFORE she became an assistant to her ailing father. She divorced, because she found her husband to be a comically poor artist. She never had any need to remarry, period. The anime treats O-Ei's one marriage as seriously as she did. We also get to see the gist of that earlier "relationship" play out in O-Ei's later interactions with her male contemporaries as depicted in the film.
While MISS HOKUSAI is anime aimed at an adult audience, I can't say that it's not for kids. Yes, there are "s.e.x.u.a.l situations" that are tastefully depicted, but they are not beyond the scope of informed discussions between guardians and wards of a certain age. No relationship depicted is age-inappropriate or perverse. Not one thing remotely within the realm of SOUTH PARK. There are far too many other things to talk and think about in MISS HOKUSAI to outright ban it from supervised viewing.
So, now, what do you see when you look at O-Ei's painting of O-Nao in a garden admiring her goldfish?
Perhaps you see a tranquil blind girl, intently focused on the joyous watery sounds of her pets. She is also surrounded by the dotted red beauty of fallen tree blossoms all around her. The little girl, in a peaceful garden, is surrounded by death.
O-Ei's painting is a wistful remembrance/celebration of her dearly departed sister, for which words can do no justice.
That is the context of a centuries old painting. That is a deep taste of everyday suchness. That is the point of MISS HOKUSAI.
Even if that wasn't your cup of tea, I thoroughly enjoyed every drop.