The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016: Miss Hokusai

Taking its title from Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1952 film Ikiru (“To Live”), the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 - “IKIRU: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema” - explores the way in which Japanese filmmakers have been observing and capturing people’s lives, and how people across the ages persevere, negotiate and reconcile with the environment and situation they live in. This year’s programme features a mixture of classics, animation and contemporary films and Smoke Screen has been taking a look at some of them, and reviewing some of the highlights. Opening the season is the animated film Miss Hokusai from Production I.G- the company behind the animated series Ghost in the Shell.

The season will open at the ICA, London on Friday, 5 February 2016 before touring.

Film Review: Miss Hokusai

Miss Hokusai, dir. Keiichi Hara, Japan 2015, 90 mins, Japanese with English subtitles

RATING: ★★★☆☆

This intriguing animated film from Production I.G and director Keiichi Hara takes a surprisingly offbeat approach to depicting the life and times of the famous artist and “ukiyo-e” (“pictures of the floating world” - a genre of art that flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries) master, Katsushika Hokusai. The focus of the story, based on the original manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, is actually on Hokusai’s daughter O-Ei, who bounces between her father’s house and studio and that of her father’s estranged wife and blind younger daughter. Holusai’s’ studio is in Edo in the early 1800s, where O-Ei spends her days alternately working and bickering with her laconic father: they are both as stubborn as the other. The film follows the pair during a few weeks of a particularly strange summer: the story is really about their relationship rather than Hokusai’s famous works, even though some of his artwork is seen being worked on, and his aesthetic occasionally is blended into film’s landscapes. 

The Edo period is recreated quite well through hand-drawn 2D art with 3D techniques, though the animation doesn’t hit quite the levels of peak Studio Ghibli lushness. Ghosts and demons seem to be commonplace in Edo during this time, which is odd, and the narrative doesn’t really offer much explanation for this, though it is implied that Hokusai’s art is a reflection of their existence, and in some cases might be creating them: in one scene he has to correct one O-Ei’s commissions to prevent the ‘wrong’ kind of spirit being freed and menacing their patron. 

The film’s real draw is the engaging dynamics between the misanthropic characters: O-Ei and Hokusai have a strained relationship due to his lack of attention for his disabled younger daughter, but O-Ei correctly senses that it is baed on guilt and fear rather than disgust. Father and daughter are clearly two peas in a pod though. Comic relief is provided by the two resident pupils in Hokusai’s studio including the drunk, woman-chasing Zenjro, who gets rarely anything more than a weary shrug and an insult from his elder. O-Ei is mocked as stiff and gruff by the two younger, horny male artists, but out of their sight she is compassionate with her blind sister, spending afternoons describing the world around her in a way that betrays her artistic eye for details. The film pleasingly does not try to shove the independent-minded O-Ei into a conventional marriage/domesticity path to resolve her issues, in fact, according to the film, she remained Hokusai's overlooked collaborator and defiantly itinerant to the end.


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.