“Miss Hokusai” is a historical journey with a fantastic twist

Miss Hokusai (2015) is an animated film based on the manga series Sarusuberi which documents the life of the famous Edo period artist, Katsushika Oi-E (simply Oi-E in the film), the daughter of Tetsuzo “Hokusai.”  Tetsuzo is responsible for works like the “Great Daruma” and “The Great Wave of Kanazawa”. In the film and in real life, Oi-E is also an artist; she has gained some fame for her erotic paintings, though many criticize her work as it lacks emotion. The film follows her as she strives to improve her art.

The Great Wave Off Kanazawa

The film is very “slice-of life” oriented, rather than action or documentary style. We don’t get specific dates but rather events throughout a year or so. It’s a very calm movie with little action.

We see Oi-E’s relationships with her for father, her father’s student Zenjiro (who later becomes the famous Kesei Izen), rival artist Kuninao Utagawa and her sickly, blind little sister O-Nao and how they influence her and her work.

The two sisters enjoy an afternoon in town

The one thing that sets this film apart though is that it interweaves Tetsuzo’s most famous works into the film, it doesn’t just show him making them but the art style changes to match the work, and we get to see  how they were inspired or how they affect people.

This leads to an interesting relationship with the supernatural; in this story, drawings seem to come to life, or cause nightmares. People’s spirits escape their bodies but its not clear on whether its real, a hallucination, or if it’s something else mistaken for magic. There are times when it works well, and other times when it’s distracting. At times, to me, at least it seems as though some scenes were part of a different movie.

One of the artworks depicted in the movie

To me, these scenes feel a bit out-of-place considering the historical context of the rest of the film. I’m not sure how to interpret it. Perhaps, in the future, I’ll return to this film and come away with a different interpretation.

A lot of the movie focuses on sex, sensuality and erotic passion, though it isn’t explicit. Oi-E struggles with her sexuality and being comfortable in sexual situations, which is her main issue in her work. At one point, she goes to a brothel alone and meets with a cross-dressing prostitute. It’s not clear if they end up sleeping together but the guy is interesting, and I certainly hope he has a bigger role in the manga because I didn’t feel like there was enough of him in the film. It’s interesting how her uncomfortableness with sexuality contrasts with her otherwise cool, sarcastic, calm demeanor. 

A very awkward kiss

The good thing about it is that Oi-E isn’t uncaring or cold, she’s passionate about her work and cares deeply about her little sister. Oi-E takes her on the town, buys her gifts and always describes the scenery to her sister, and traces pictures on her hand. That’s the part that really got me. Most of the blind characters I see in TV usually have some power that negates their blindness, and there aren’t either many in sitcoms or dramas.

Considering the time period the movie is set in, the attention and care Oi-E puts on her little sister is impressive. And despite her role as the sick girl in the story, I really like Na-O, and she gets some really good moments.

There’s one scene in particular that really gets me; Na-O ends up playing with a little boy in the snow. There’s something very genuine and endearing about it. And I love little kids having their first crushes.

Ah..young love

The animation style itself is fine; I like how they really change up how the people are drawn. There’s no issue with same-face and everyone’s eyes are drawn differently, which is a nice change of pace. But, it’s nothing that special. Otherwise, to me, the people don’t stand out design wise from many other anime.

The backgrounds and sets designs are lovely and really evoke Edo-era Japan. It’s obvious that a lot of effort and time went into the scenes about the artwork and bringing them to life. Even though they don’t last very long, each one meant that the animators had to study the art, mimic the style and figure out the best way for them to move.

That’s impressive.

The music is probably the oddest part of the movie. It’s all instrumental, and a lot of it sounds more contemporary than traditional. At the beginning, rock music plays while Oi-E’s voice over plays. A similar song plays at the end. It’s so incongruous and it doesn’t really work.

I had no idea what the anime was about going in, so when I heard it I expected something very different. It’s not that the soundtrack is bad, but it doesn’t fit in with the setting or mood of the rest of the film. I would have liked something that fit the time period a bit more.

I did find myself bored at points by the film which is always an issue by slice-of-life films as they jump from adventure-to-adventure. And I really wasn’t crazy about Zenjiro. I mostly found him annoying and the minor love triangle that Oi-E finds herself in is kind of cute, but nothing ever really comes of it.

At first, I thought it was interesting how the plot was resolved but then realized it was lazy and didn’t really make any sense, narrative-wise. I don’t know if this is how it went down, historically. I know that she didn’t marry either of the men she was interested in, in real life but I’m sure some events were fictionalized.

I think it was interesting how the film didn’t have a documentary-style or education-style film to it. One could easily watch it without context and not realize that the people in the film are actual historical figures, especially if they have little to no background on Japanese art history. It makes me curious about how the manga deals with it

It’s not my favorite movie of all time. Far from it. But it’s pretty good. I know that it won a lot of awards and is really highly regarded. But, I try not to let reviews influence my own feelings towards a movie too much.

People will like what they like, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The last Star Wars movie was proof of that. But on that note, after skimming over the film and my thoughts a second time and getting a better understanding of the background and history of the film I’ll give the film a better rating than I was originally thinking.

I give the film 7/10.

And that’s the scoop!


Rated: PG-13

Length: 1 hr. 33 minutes

Available: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video, and DVD available from GKIDS entertainment

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