The Japanese animated drama “Miss Hokusai” is a unique, fascinating oddity. It’s a strong historical drama, and a serious one. Yet it’s occasionally joke-y, often uneven, and occasionally difficult to follow.
And it’s animated. In lesser hands, that may have served to diminish the dramatic impact of this coming-of-age story of the artist daughter of a well-known 19th century painter. Instead, award-winning director Keiichi Hara uses animation to heighten the spirituality, feeling, and resonance of “Miss Hokusai.”
He has crafted a film that moves beyond the boundaries of traditional live action to intoxicating effect, taking a flawed script and creating something memorable.
It’s showing at the North Park Theatre where it will be shown in both the subtitled and English dubbed version of the film (see northparktheatre.org for specific times). This review is for the subtitled version.
As “Miss Hokusai” begins, we find ourselves in the city of Edo (today it’s Tokyo) in the summer of 1814. As a rather incongruous rock guitar squeals away, we’re introduced to Katsushika O-Ei, the introspective, somber, supremely talented daughter of a famous painter.
He is famed Japanese artist and painter Katsushika Hokusai, and he is a sour, grizzled, rather offputting individual. At times, O-Ei (voiced in the subtitled version by Anne Watanabe, the daughter of the fine actor Ken Watanabe) speaks with ironic detachment about this titanic figure. (As she tells one character, he “paints erotica, so I guess he likes women.”)
Interestingly, O-Ei often contributes to and even finishes her father’s work. The old man has a rather negative attitude toward her efforts, though. “She thinks she can paint anything,” he says. “Won’t admit she can’t.”
Throughout the film, there is an alternating current of praise and diminishment when it comes to O-Ei’s art. Even those who know her talent tend to put her down in subtle ways. This makes “Miss Hokusai” an effective look at a time when female artists were not given the respect of their male counterparts.
And for a figure with a famous parent, standing out was even more difficult. That’s especially true with a father like Hokusai.
Consider, too, how a male fellow artist tells O-Ei about a smudge of ink on her face: “Clean it. It ruins your beauty.”
The melancholy film ends with O-Ei finally earning some proper reverence. This comes after personal pain, however, related to her blind younger sister, O-Nao.
Many of the scenes involving O-Nao are hauntingly animated, as are some ghoulish depictions of hell. These are striking, surprisingly effective moments, and the animation here is as breathtakingly strong as any feature released in 2016.
The same is true of the character of O-Ei. It has been a year of meaty, complex females onscreen, and unexpectedly, here is another. In terms of the film’s characters, only she and her younger sister truly stand out — their father is simply not that intriguing. But these two are more than enough.
In many ways, “Miss Hokusai” is not altogether satisfying. Viewers should not anticipate a plot that fits together perfectly, or any straight lines from start to finish. But the film works anyway, especially as a document of how things have changed … and, sadly, stayed the same.
Throughout the film is the sense that Japanese society is in the verge of dramatic transformation, and that point is hammered home during the closing minutes. The final shot accompanies text explaining that Edo soon became the city of Tokyo, and even if one knew that already, the effect is startling. It’s also a subtle statement that the echoes of the past are still present.
The Edo of “Miss Hokusai” feels intimate, small even. The ending is a reminder that this story was just one in the tapestry of a large city’s history. That’s a powerful realization, and it helps elevate the film from a minor curiosity to an emotionally resonant success.
3 stars (out of four)
With the voices of: Anne Watanabe, Yutaka Matsushige, Gaku Hamada, Kengo Kora (Japanese); Erica Lindbeck, Richard Epcar, Ezra Weisz, Robbie Daymond (English).
Director: Keiichi Hara
Running time: 90 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual situations and images.
The lowdown: The life and works of Japanese artist and painter Katsushika Hokusai, as seen from the eyes of his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei.