You don’t need to work hard to make Keiichi Hara’s newest film, “Miss Hokusai,” sound dry on paper: Simply throw out the phrase “movie based on an historical manga series,”and you’ve positioned the movie right at the intersection where “arid” crosses “boring,” except that “Miss Hokusai” defies geography by being neither of these. An animated semi-biographical film about the daughter-cum-apprentice of the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai sounds like a snore, but Hara marries biography to observational and slapstick humor, plus a healthy dose of supernatural rumblings, and in so doing produces something altogether fascinating and endlessly entertaining. Just don’t count on him for accuracy.
Or maybe do. “Miss Hokusai” cares little for the rigidity of its form, choosing instead to mine the romantic and fantastical out of the life and times of Katsushika O-Ei (Anne Watanabe), spent in the shadow of her gruff, aloof, domineering father (Yutaka Matsushige); it’s a poor example of disciplined, grandiose, puffed up biopic filmmaking, which is to say that it’s thoroughly enjoyable and mostly authentic, at least when it’s not busy floating dragons in storm clouds or making any number of other mythical and ghostly innuendos throughout its narrative. It gets its dates right, that’s for sure: Hokusai lived just about to the ripe old age of ninety before dying, while O-Ei fell off the face of the Earth some years after her father’s passing. But that’s about as much as Hara feels he owes to the truth. The rest appears to be drawn from inference.
No matter. Hara can infer as much as he likes: “Miss Hokusai” is a delight, maybe even a marvel, and certainly a strong late-year addition to 2016’s wide assembly of top notch animated fare. The film excises plot for character study, installing O-Ei’s blind younger sister, O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), as the major throughline for establishing the passage of time and binding O-Ei to Hokusai on more substantive levels. When we meet O-Ei, she provides an overview of her life as Hokusai’s pupil, best described as “itinerant.” “We don’t cook. We don’t clean. It gets too dirty, we move,” O-Ei tells us in voiceover, a note of defiance, or perhaps nonchalance, to her oration. If you ever wondered what a shrug sounds like when put into words, just listen to O-Ei talk.
But the film isn’t all about vagabond whimsy. O-Ei and Hokusai live in small domiciles that better qualify as shacks than as houses, painting day and night for clients of both lowly and respectable standings, and yet “Miss Hokusai” isn’t just about painting; it’s about the tenuous bond between a parent and a child, and how O-Ei’s relationship with Hokusai shapes her relationship to O-Nao, and how that, in turn, informs her perspective on Hokusai. With O-Ei, Hokusai acts more as a teacher and less as a father. With O-Nao, he acts like a coward, refusing to visit her until a single scene toward the film’s end. “Miss Hokusai” is both a portrait of fatherhood in absentia and fatherhood in ambivalence: His neglect prevents him from being a father to O-Nao, and his status as a mentor prevents him from being a father to O-Ei.
What a hell of a mentor, though. “Miss Hokusai” is told from O-Ei’s point of view, and as much as she maintains a prickly, muted dialogue with Hokusai, she is never less than reverent of his work as a painter. Nutty old man he may be, but the man sure knows how to swing a brush. It’s hard not to join in the awe the film has for Hokusai’s paintings, particularly in small moments of evocation where his most famous efforts are turned into cinema; in one scene, O-Ei and O-Nao go for a leisurely jaunt in a rowboat, drag their hands across the water’s surface, and churn them so that in one surreal moment, we see “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” recreated on screen. It’s a beautiful representation, one that Hokusai himself might approve of as easily as condemn. He’s a tough man to please, but then, isn’t that always the case in yarns like this?
By now you probably have it in your head that “Miss Hokusai” is self-serious, or “important” in that plastic, manufactured way too many movies released in the last three months of the year tend to be. You can disabuse yourself of this false notion in one of two ways: By reading reviews of the film, which will quite happily emphasize its light comic elements, or by watching the film, which doesn’t even wait two full minutes before slinging a poop joke smack dab in the middle of a crowded pedestrian bridge. If this takes you aback, then perhaps consider the source. Hara did work on the anime adaptation of another manga series, “Crayon Shin-chan,” in both its film and television forms dating all the way back to the early ’90s. “Miss Hokusai” never stoops to the same joyfully puerile level as ‘Shin-chan,’ but it knows how to tickle a funny bone, and without undermining either its elegant presentation or its overarching sobriety.
It’s odd to think of the film as a venn diagram where Hara fans and history buffs overlap, but it seems like the universe has common ground for every imaginable demographic pair-off. “Miss Hokusai” is one to watch no matter where your proclivities and preferences might fall, especially if superbly composed animation falls within your wheelhouse of “likes.” It’s a slim, brief affair, possessed of an economical sense of focus and a brisk gait, but the brevity may well be part of the reason the film stays with us. Like Hokusai and O-Ei, Hara strives for perfection, wasting no time in establishing his central theses. He also understands how fictions can clarify our realities, suggesting that tales of roaming, spectral hands and hellish painted tableaus help us get a grip on the unknowable world we live in. None of that helps O-Ei comprehend Hokusai any better, but it makes for great storytelling regardless. [B+]