Miss Hokusai is a beautifully animated project about the irrepressible daughter of one of Japan's most fabled artists, an effort drenched in period detail and jazzed up with touches of magical realism. It is not, however, a very good movie. It's aimless, unfocused, even indifferent — adjectives I don't want to use for something that clearly radiates artistic ambition and sports a top-notch production pedigree. But material like this, and especially a main character like this, deserves a movie with more of a point of view on its material than an indifferent shrug.
Mistress of the house (and the canvas)
One of my favorite lines about being married to a volatile creative personality came by way of Bennett Cerf interviewing James Joyce and his wife in Paris. As Roger Ebert put it: "When ... [Cerf] described Joyce as a genius, Mrs. Joyce dryly replied, 'That's all very well for you to say - you don't have to live with the bloody man.'" The same seems to have gone for Hokusai, who according to this movie was a genius of a painter, but an absolute pain in the neck to live with.
The film, adapted from Hinako Sugiura's manga (not yet available in English) is about a year or so in Hokusai's life from the point of view of his adult daughter, O-Ei. With Hokusai's wife having stepped out of the picture, O-Ei has ended up in the position of being her father's agent, creative collaborator, and life janitor. She ensures he continues to have work, she helps him complete projects when they go unfinished, and she keeps him from landing himself (and, by proxy, herself as well) in the gutter.
All three of these functions are demonstrated in a sequence near the beginning of the film, one of its best. The old master has been working on a commission, an ink painting of a great dragon, and at the very last minute O-Ei mistakenly drops ash from the pipe she's smoking on it. Hokusai trashes the finished work, and is gruffly unmoved by the pleas from the samurai who came to collect it. It's not his problem if the poor guy has to dump his guts on the floor for failing to deliver. O-Ei ends up working through the night to reproduce her father's work, and the two of them are found the following morning asleep on opposite sides of the paper.
O-Ei has talent of her own, and a hard-nosed attitude about life that seems well-suited to this kind of bohemian hardscrabble. But one of the drawbacks of being the daughter of someone that prestigious — doubly so in a hardly-progressive milieu like 19th-century Japan — is that you always are "daughter of", and never your own person. No, not even if your talents are worthy of note by themselves. O-Ei seems resigned to such a life, one where she directs traffic in the little hovel where they rest their heads and keeps at bay the various drunks, hangers-on, and alleged love interests that come cycling through the house.
Without a map
If all this sounds like setup for a story about how O-Ei comes into her own — or even one where she doesn't and has to confront this fact — what's baffling is how the movie doesn't really become anything of the kind. It becomes, instead, a more plotless and open-ended project, one where a succession of possible themes swim into view and then drift lazily away. It touches on many different things — O-Ei's unmet needs for real companionship, for instance, or the way she's destined (read: doomed) to swim against the tide of her era just by dint of being a woman — but it never spins any of them together into a proper narrative.
The closest thing the story gets to an actual story, and one of its best elements overall, is a narrative thread involving O-Ei's younger sister, O-Nao. O-Nao is blind, and nominally in the care of a Buddhist nun, but O-Ei visits her regularly and takes her out on excursions to make her feel less like a problem to be solved and more like an actual human being. In the very best scene in the film, the two of them encounter a young boy playing in the snow. At first we think he's going to bully her. Then we see he's trying to make her a partner in his games, to the best of both of their abilities. It's a lovely bit, but again the rest of the film doesn't employ it towards any larger or more disciplined end. It comes, it's beautiful, and then the movie forgets about it. It's symptomatic of how the connective tissue between events in this film remains too thin.
Where the film steps most wrong is when it tries to inject moments of magical realism into the goings-on. At one point in the film there's a long interlude where Hokusai, O-Ei, and one of Hokusai's hangers-on go to the red-light district. There, a top ranked courtesan lets them in on a secret of hers: At night her spirit tries to escape her body and go wandering. But the idea goes nowhere — we witness her spirit discorporating, there's some indifferent comments about it, and the subject never seems to come up again. There's an attempt to tie it into a dream or fantasy of Hokusai's, where his hands detach from his body and go a-wandering, but the end result is more bewildering or incoherent than enlightening or even enchanting.
Is that what the film is about, then, the strange and transitory nature of things, or something along those lines? Not really. The movie contains a great many such elements potentially in the service of such a point of view, but what narrative direction it obtains seems orthogonal to them. It seems content to just give us snippets, vignettes, moments, individual beats, and to tease us with the possibility that a larger thesis will be built from them, but it never happens. The end result is every observation about the family, like Hokusai's inability to take responsibility for his own family, becomes trivialized by this structure. It's one thing to give people a slice of life, but this movie settles for crumbs from the table.
What's it all about, then?
Back in the early days of this site, I described a dilemma I had where I saw the CGI Tekken movie and Makoto Shinkai's Children Who Chase Lost Voices in the same weekend. I knew Shinkai's film was theoretically the "better" one, but in reality the Tekken film accomplished far more of what it set out to do. It may have been a mere crowd-pleaser, but it knew it, and reveled in it. Children was far too derivative of the Ghibli films to be its own animal, and in the end, kinda boring to boot. But for a long time I told myself I was obliged to speak well of Shinkai's efforts, because he had been aiming for Bigger Things. Nonsense, I told myself: good and bad are contextual. If you respond personally to the ambitions in a film, that's fine, but they aren't a substitute for whether or not the movie actually realizes those ambitions. Tekken worked on its terms, Children did not, and for me to suggest otherwise was dishonest.
The same dilemma bubbled back up while watching Miss Hokusai. I was tempted to ignore my gnawing misgivings about the movie's overall aimlessness, to just credit the movie for having the vision to be about something other than high school kids fighting aliens with giant robots, etc. but my unease wouldn't go away. Time and again, I felt the movie was getting sidetracked, ignoring its own most important elements, opting for atmosphere and flavor over storytelling and insight.
It's not that I think you can't make a movie that is primarily atmosphere and flavor. It's just that you shouldn't bait and switch. Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg is almost entirely atmosphere and flavor, and it works, because it never cops out and never suggests it might do otherwise. Miss Hokusai always seems to be on the verge of becoming a narrative, or saying something insightful and prescient about its characters, but always backs down before things get too thick. Its ending is especially enraging, because it avoids entirely saying anything of substance at all about its main character, and instead gives us what amounts to a life-went-on-because-life-is-like-that end card.
There's still a couple of reasons to see Miss Hokusai. The first is to spend some time in the company of O-Ei herself, since she's a fascinating character despite the way the movie treats her so cavalierly. She's unsentimental when it comes to her father and his work, and when it comes to her own work as well, but she has soft spots in her soul. O-Nao, for instance — O-Ei wants Dad to take responsibility for her, but not because O-Ei doesn't want the job. She's also at sea about the needs of her own heart, at one point visiting a male prostitute to try and rid herself of any foolish sentiment about male companionship, and ends up talking shop with the fellow about the rather gaudy painting hanging in the room. We want to know more about this woman, about what makes her tick, about what she might do or what we might learn about her if she were in a story that did any discernible justice to her.
Reason number two to watch the film is the technical credits. The director was Keiichi Hara, he who gave us the death-and-transfiguration fantasia Colorful a few years back. The animation is another showcase for the talents of Production I.G, the studio responsible for some of the most polished-looking and intelligently conceived anime productions out there. There are moments of great visual exuberance, as when Hokusai's fabled Wave makes an appearance, as part of a fantasia on O-Nao's part about the boat she and O-Ei are riding in. The problem is in how the dazzle is not used in a consistent, sustained way as an actual storytelling device. It's just there for cumulative flavor, like everything else.
What an irony that a movie that has at its center a character of such potential and charismatic fascination, that is filled with a great many enthralling, engaging, important things, should wind up being about nothing much at all — no, not even Miss Hokusai herself.