Review: Miss Hokusai

An independent spirit.

An independent spirit.


Title:                         Miss Hokusai

Certificate:               12A

Director:                   Keiichi Hara

Major Players:         Anne Watanabe, Yutaka Matsushige, Gaku Hamada 

Out Of Five:             3.5


Talk about a smorgasbord of new releases!  This week, there’s a slice of Hollywood history in Trumbo, scary monsters for the family in Goosebumps, classic comedy moves from TV to the big screen in Dad’s Army, feuding Icelandic brothers in Rams and now comes Japanese animation, Miss Hokusai.

I’ve only given one of them the thumbs down, much as it grieved me, and Miss Hokusai won’t be keeping it company.  Set in Edo – now Tokyo – in 1814, it’s a little- known side of the story surrounding one of the country’s most famous artists, Katsushika Hokusai, who produced some of the country’s most famous works of art.  The Miss Hokusai of the title is his older daughter O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe), who’s inherited both his stubborn nature and his talent.  She paints for herself but many of her father’s artworks are hers as well, although she’s never credited for them.  And their influences come from anywhere and everywhere, from spending time with her younger sister to a flower petal.

Although it’s an animation, the relationships in the film would make an equally fascinating live action film.  And, with today’s technology, all the fantasy sequences would stand up quite happily.  But at the heart of the film is the idea of feminine freedom in a strict, constrained society.  O-Ei is conscious of the traditions she needs to obey – modesty in the presence of a man, caring for her little sister and her family in general – but she’s independent as well, strong and determined to pursue her own career.

Her story is told in a series of episodes, demonstrating the effect of art on other people, especially when it’s not done with sufficient skill.  We see her caring side, looking after her blind sister who their father can’t acknowledge and her solitary walks across the city’s main bridge.  She always looks serious – hardly ever cracks a smile – but she has a dignity and self-belief that shines through.

The animation, as you’d expect from Japan, is beautiful.  It doesn’t have the hand drawn delicacy of Ghibli’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, but some of the images are stunningly realistic and the colours rich and luxurious.

Where the film suffers is in its translation for European audiences.  The choice of music is curious, alternating between heavy rock guitar and Richard Clayderman style piano solos, neither of which fit with the 19th century Japanese setting.  The subtitles have a similar problem, often using 21st century slang.  Somehow you can’t imagine O-Ei uttering phrases like “say what?” or describing her father as “nuts”.  It may be an effort to appeal to a more contemporary audience, but it still sets your teeth on edge.

That aside, though, Miss Hokusai is a visual treat, a look at a fascinating life that chimes with cinema’s current efforts in the direction of diversity and an insight into another culture.  It’s also a good starting point for newbies to Japanese animation and Japanese arts.


Miss Hokusai is released in cinemas on Friday, 5 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 4 February.




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