Review: ‘Miss Hokusai,’ animated tale told in vignettes

Tom Long

“Miss Hokusai” is an oddly beguiling drift of a film, a piece of gorgeous Japanese animation based on historic characters which can’t be bothered with a traditional linear plot.

Instead, the film makes stops along the life of O-Ei (Anna Watanabe). The setting is early 19th-century Japan, and the fully grown O-Ei lives with, and in the shadow of, her famous artist father, Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige). Hokusai is gruff and demanding; O-Ei is an artist herself and Hokusai often sells her works as his own.

Hokusai is divorced from O-Ei’s mother, but O-Ei still plays with her blind younger sister, O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), who is mostly shunned by her father because he can’t deal with her disability. Also living with the father and daughter is a drunkard artist named Zenjiro (Gaku Hamada).

If you think all of this is going anywhere in particular, you’re wrong. Instead, the film is a series of vignettes that add up to a coming of age story for O-Ei. She seeks an erotic experience that will make her “pillow” paintings more sensually real, so she winds up sleeping with a female prostitute. She, Hokusai and Zenjiro go visit another courtesan whose spirit tries to escape at night.

When O-Ei hears a fire alarm, she runs through the streets to the flames and marvels at the beautiful destruction. One of O-Ei’s paintings drives a noblewoman mad; Hokusai has to fix it. O-Ei takes her blind sister to play in the snow.

It all sounds disjointed, but somehow director Keiichi Hara makes it fluid. There are meditations on mortality, art, relationships, love, fear, sexuality and spirituality in this sumptuous-looking film. They cohere into a portrait of a young woman as complex as any big screen character can be.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic

‘Miss Hokusai’


Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual situations and images

Running time: 93 minutes