When “The Wind Rises” released in 2013, the legendary Hayao Miyazki received considerable praise. The film was a love letter to art in many ways, while always striving for perfection. The greatest accomplishment of the film was its creative use of the biopic format. Rather than telling its story in live action, “The Wind Rises” proves animation is a suitable style in which to tell the stories of unknown men. This year, the GKIDS-distributed film “Miss Hokusai” delivers an adult-oriented biopic. While women in the arts are consistently overlooked, “Miss Hokusai” wishes to raise its protagonist to the world as an example of greatness.
Adapted from a historical manga series, “Miss Hokusai” follows the story of Katsushika O-Ei, a young female artist living in Edo (now Tokyo) in the 1800s. While O-Ei is seen as an accomplished artist, her father is the great Hokusai, a man renowned for his stubbornness and talent. The film follows O-Ei through her day-to-day life, without necessarily committing to a singular plot in the process. We see O-Ei go to brothels, visit her blind sister in her domesticated life, and work through the night to complete commissioned pieces. Through the use of vignettes and ever-changing focuses, the film is able to bring a slice of O-Ei’s life to the big screen.
Unlike other anime films, “Miss Hokusai” sheds the magical realism element many have come to expect from Studio Ghibli fare. Instead, “Miss Hokusai” depicts women courtesans and sexual relations between women and men. The film is decidedly not for children, which unshackles it from genre norms. This lets the film deliver adult entertainment and messages in a way that is unique among animated films.
Where “Miss Hokusai” really flourishes are through its animation and emotional power. The animation through the film is masterful, successfully combining iconic imagery of Japanese art and showcasing it throughout the film. The varying styles present from one segment of the film to another are wonderful. The film elevates its material from good to great when it chooses to make its art literally come to life. We see dragons and demons leap out of the imaginations of the artists, and into the world on numerous occasions. It is not simply enough to believe in the imagery, but instead believe the creatures live and breathe. The film consistently utilizes familiar images of Japanese art to showcase that O-Ei was not simply capable as an artist. Instead, she is an artist consumed by the pursuit of greatness.
Additionally, the film’s focus on a broken family is established early on. O-Ei’s mother and father no longer live with each other, and O-Ei’s sister O-Nao lives in a home for blind girls. Hokusai believes his daughter’s illness is his fault, and he buries himself in his work to avoid the situation entirely. There’s a moment about halfway through the film where O-Ei and O-Nao pass him on the street, without Hokusai saying a word to either. His stubbornness is offset by beautiful and poetic moments the sisters share throughout the film. It is this bond that delivers an emotional heart to a film that would otherwise prove cold and unfeeling.
However, the film is certainly not without its faults. While the vignette structure is fairly appealing, it also leads down some tangents that don’t pay off. There are a couple of smaller stories told in the film that bog down its pace a little too much. It begs the thought that an 80-85 minute version of this film would cut just enough weight to keep up an effective pace. Furthermore, the coldness of the film is rather jarring at times, with many of the “adults” acting borderline unfeeling at times. While there’s something to be said about cultural differences in how to publicly display emotion, the general unfeeling nature of many characters is still startling.
Since its founding in 2008, the animation studio GKIDS has become a heavy Oscar player. The studio received its first nomination in 2010 with “The Secret of Kells” which surprised many. However, since that year, the studio has received double nominations in Best Animated Feature three times. “Miss Hokusai” will need this track record to push through in a tough year for the animation branch. Disney should have at least two considerable players, and Sony Pictures Classics will push “The Red Turtle” as well. With 5 projected slots, “Miss Hokusai” will need GKIDS campaign skills to highlight its soaring accomplishments.
“Miss Hokusai” is an excellent film that should make a strong push toward Oscar for Best Animated Feature. By lifting up the story of an unknown woman artist, the film is able to take on a much stronger narrative than many would expect. Through the use of stunning visuals and surprisingly effective, if not sparing, emotional beats, the film is a solid triumph.