Most people are familiar with the works of Katsushika Hokusai, particularly the iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” ukiyo-e print, but few know that his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei, was a talented artist in her own right. She spent most of her life assisting and working with her father and was best known for her prints of beautiful women. Miss Hokusai, based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, tells a fictionalized version of her life, one characterized by her devotion to her blind younger sister as well as to her art.
Miss Hokusai eschews a traditional narrative structure, instead opting for an episodic approach. It’s an unusual approach to a film, one that has been widely criticized, but I thought it worked beautifully for the subject matter. The vignettes provide a more complete picture of O-Ei as a person; without having to unite them through a story, it gives snapshots of her personal and professional life and relationships. We see how she relates to her father, to her colleagues, to her sister, and to her art, without her being defined by any one aspect. O-Ei is certainly a woman who defies simple definition. From the very outset, she makes it clear that she is a woman with little interest in traditional femininity. She strides across a bridge over the Sumida River with her arms at her side, rather than the delicate, pigeon-toed gait with hands folded in front favored for women at the time. Instead of maintaining the home, as would be her expected role, she works side by side with Hokusai, explaining that neither of them cooks or cleans; rather, they just move when things get unlivable.
Historical fiction rarely focuses on women, so I especially applaud the decision to tell O-Ei’s story rather than that of her legendary father. That’s part of why I was so baffled by the number of reviewers who came away with the impression that the movie was about Hokusai himself, rather than the title character. This review by Brian Tallerico on rogerebert.com exemplifies that mistake. Tallerico seems unable to conceive that the movie is not Hokusai’s story told through the eyes of his daughter, but her own story. He claims the film “allows us to see him through his daughter’s eyes.” Hokusai is a prominent character and influence in her story, but make no mistake – O-Ei is the one driving the action in every scene. The dissonance between expectation and reality makes it difficult for Tallerico to fully immerse himself in the world of the movie and enjoy it for its own qualities.
He complains that the film is “remarkably talky,” filled with “conversations about other artists of the period and discussions of the philosophy of art.” This claim indicates Tallerico was paying more attention to the male characters than to O-Ei, who is in fact quite taciturn. In one of the first scenes of the film, a popular young artist known as Kuninao comes to visit as O-Ei works to replace a painting of a dragon she had inadvertently ruined right as her father was finishing it. She sits silently at her desk, focusing on her work, as the young man explains to her how to draw a dragon. She doesn’t smile or speak to him, but only stares in response – she knows how to draw a dragon, as shown both from the sketch she’s working as he talks to her and the masterful finished project, which is passed off as her father’s work. It’s classic mansplaining, and O-Ei has no use for it. It’s not worth even engaging with for her. The discussion of art and technique is used well to build up O-Ei and those around her as characters. It’s integral to how they view and experience the world around them and the foundation of their relationships, so of course in the scenes where O-Ei is interacting with other characters, they would be primarily discussing art. There are plenty of scenes where the characters talk about other things, or not at all, but those scenes tend to involve either O-Ei by herself or two women, so naturally Tallerico and the primarily male reviewers would tune out for those. One of the primary through lines is her desire to be seen as equal to those around her and her low-key rivalry with her own father, and thus is essential to her character development.
Tallerico almost, almost catches on that, citing a sequence where Hokusai tells a story to a Yoshiwara courtesan about his hands escaping his body and roaming the world, claiming that’s the secret to his art. He says, “The parallel between this approach to art—tactile and experiential—and his daughter’s, which is more intellectual and technique-based, is interesting, but, like so much of “Miss Hokusai,” underdeveloped.” I find this claim to be quite misleading. For one thing, Hokusai admits at the end of the sequence that he took that story from a Chinese folktale and that it has nothing to do with his actual approach. Although it’s never explicitly stated, quite a few scenes are devoted to O-Ei’s more analytical approach to her art and her resulting shortcomings. Her skill at drawing solo women is well-recognized – her father says she may even be better at it than he is – but she struggles with erotic “pillow drawings”. The reason is clear – while she can go out to Yoshiwara and draw any courtesan that will agree to model for her, she lacks experience with actual sex. Even her father’s student Zenjiro, whose figure drawing is awkward and poorly proportioned, is more popular when it comes to pornographic prints. The printer tells her portraits have “technical mastery, but lack any sensuality.” He tells her it’s not her fault, and that Hokusai “is to blame for making his daughter draw such paintings,” the implication being that as a young woman, it’s improper for her to be drawing pornographic images. O-Ei’s lack of sensuality comes not from her being a woman, but from her lack of experience, something she is well aware of. After talking to the printer she runs into her crush Hatsugoro, noticing the “scent of his skin” as they walk together under an umbrella. She excuses herself, claiming she just remembered she had something else to do… and runs off to visit a cross-dressing male prostitute known as a kagema. (A lot of reviewers did not pick up on the fact that the prostitute was a man, which tells me they pay absolutely no attention to the voice actor’s performances. A shame.) The whole encounter is deeply uncomfortable to O-Ei, but she soldiers on because that’s the only way she believes she can learn to create pillow drawings that will sell. It’s a calculated, analytic strategy, and it goes awry when he falls asleep on her chest instead of doing the deed. Tallerico’s claim that it is undeveloped refers to the lack of focus on Hokusai, who spends more time commenting on the work of others than his own work. The film only touches briefly on the contrast between his and O-Ei’s approaches, and spends more time showing O-Ei’s approach through her choices and actions.
Most critics, as focused as they were on the lack of Hokusai, still could see how touching the relationship between O-Ei and her blind younger sister O-Nao is. It’s most emotionally-driven element of the film and one of the strongest stories. Quiet, serious O-Ei turns tender around her younger sister, smiling gently as she guides her and helps her experience the world through touch and sound. When they go for a boat ride on the Sumida River, O-Ei dips O-Nao’s hand into the water; on a snowy day, O-Nao comments on how quiet the world has become. Hokusai, on the other hand, wants little to do with his youngest daughter. The way he interacts the world is so purely visual that he can’t relate. O-Nao’s perspective is so alien to him that he seems actively terrified of it. The image of a blind person touching someone’s face to “see” them is a staple of film, but usually presented as romantic or touching. When O-Nao reaches out to touch her father, he isn’t touched; he’s terrified. The contrast between the common trope and Hokusai’s reaction is deeply effective and drives home that while he may be an artistic visionary, he is extremely limited in his own way. Tallerico, however, doesn’t see it that way: “The idea that O-Nao’s father, while painting art that would resonate centuries later, basically ignored his sick child, is a fascinating one but it’s better served by a documentary than episodically within an animated film.” Tallerico’s attitude is dismissive toward the affective power of animation and the deeper, more important relationship between the two sisters. Hokusai’s relationship with O-Nao, or lack thereof, is fascinating, but mostly contrasts with O-Ei’s ability to engage and meet her sister halfway, helping her explore Edo when most people would have simply locked up their disabled child away from the world. The idea of replacing that beauty with a relatively cold historical documentary, of preferring it, makes no sense to me. Besides, it would be impossible – little is known about Hokusai’s children outside of O-Ei, including how many of them there even were.
It’s sad, but not surprising that so many critics seemed to have tuned out the two-thirds of Miss Hokusai that did not include the artist. In the words of Twitter user @lossthief: “the film is literally named after her and they refer to her like a narrating side-character” The film serves as a snapshot in the life of a fantastically unconventional woman who pays little regard to the expectations society holds for her. When male critics lessen her role in her own story, they unconsciously play into those expectations and deny themselves the full experience.