Miss Hokusai

The year is 1814, the place: Edo (Tokyo), the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. A rather eccentric and irascible artist named Tetsuzo has become a leading light in the world of ukiyo-e painting. This artist will later be known as Katsushika Hokusai, and his works will inspire artists like van Gogh, Degas, and Monet. But unbeknown to many, Tetsuzo’s paintings are often completed, uncredited, by his daughter O-Ei (Katsushika Oi). As brilliant and unpredictable as her father, O-Ei is as uninterested as he is in trivial things like fame or wealth; she lives only to paint. The one exception to her artistic dedication is the relationship she shares with her blind half-sister O-Nao, to whom O-Ei is devoted. One day, while taking O-Nao out for a walk, O-Ei encounters Tetsuzo’s first and most famous pupil, Totoya Hokkei and realises she is in love. But dedication to art has left O-Ei unprepared for life; and aside from having to fend off the ham-fisted overtures of Tetsuzo’s other students, Zenjiro and Kuninao, O-Ei has no experience with men other than her own fraught relationship with her father. At the same time, the psychological and emotional impact of O-Ei’s work begins to draw complaints from and causes trouble with customers, resulting in a series of strange encounters that reference scenes from Japanese mythology and the teachings of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. It is in the midst of all this unrest that news arrives that O-Nao is unwell – and may even be dying…

A feature-length adaption of the manga by Hinako Sugiura, “Miss Hokusai” was produced by anime giant Production I.G. and released to critical acclaim in 2015. Visually vibrant, the narrative proceeds in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, revealing more by what is seen and shown than by what is done and said. The events of “Miss Hokusai” are less a biography of its subject than they are a psychological and existential sketch of a complex human being living within complex and unconventional relational dynamics. The supernatural elements that occur are metaphorical explorations of O-Ei’s artistic skill, and the often unsettling effect which her work had on its beholders. This impact, combined with the cultural conventions of the time, and the reaction which the unusual lifestyle she shared with her father provoked, probably explain both why her work is largely unknown today, and why she disappeared from the historical record within a few years of Tetsuzo’s death. But “Miss Hokusai” reveals a nuanced and layered reality beneath the historical silence, delivered with a visual aesthetic and a narrative sensitivity that are exemplars of the anime artform at its very best.

©Text copyright Brendan E Byrne 2020. All rights reserved.