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Miss Hokusai - the New Welsh Review Blog

BLOG Alice Vernon

NWR Issue 110

Miss Hokusai

Miss Hokusai is a Japanese animation film directed by Keiichi Harra, based on the manga by Hinako Sugiura. It was screened at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 19 February. For several months I had been desperate to watch this film. Thanks to the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, I finally got to see it. Based on Hinako Sugiura’s historical manga Sarusuberi, published in the 1980s, Miss Hokusai is a dream-like glimpse into nineteenth-century Japanese art and culture. This film did not disappoint.

Directed by Keiichi Hara and first released in 2015, it follows the family members of Hokusai (1760– 1849), painter of the infamous ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. While particular attention is given to his daughter and fellow artist O-Ei, a headstrong, witty young woman, no real sense of plot is maintained. The film works as more of a brief visit to Hokusai’s environment and the ways in which art affected and influenced his day-to-day experiences. Having said that, the slow decline of O-Ei’s blind and sickly little sister Onao is a thread to which the film frequently returns.

I could certainly see the manga format within the film; it is more a collection of shorter ‘episodes’ than a conventional linear narrative. Hara presents a selection of moments from a short time in O-Ei’s life, from her work habits to her relationships with her family and with the young men around her. Hokusai himself is a very minor character, only showing a degree of depth during Onao’s final illness.

The lack of solid plot did not lessen my enjoyment. I was utterly immersed in the world of nineteenth-century Edo (now Tokyo) as soon as the film started. In fact, having to focus on a narrative rather than smaller, transient moments might have distracted me from the best part of this film: its exploration into art. Miss Hokusai demonstrates the universal ways art can affect us. For me, one of its highlights is the moment O-Ei takes Onao to Edo Bridge. Onao’s head twitches in the direction of different sounds, from the creaking of the bridge to the rustle of a paper bag. Later in the film, Hokusai paints a guardian for Onao in her time of illness, and O-Ei guides Onao’s fingers delicately over her father’s brushstrokes.

I found the animation of the characters fairly simple. Scenery is where the movie excels, each backdrop like a painting in itself; detailed and vibrant. It buzzes with colour, drawing attention to everyday and overlooked objects. Before the film started, I heard someone make an apprehensive remark about its promised combination of 2-D and 3-D animation techniques. I’ve seen a few anime films incorporating this style, and more often than not it looks jarring and odd, so I was a little nervous as to how Hara would blend 3-D graphics into a nineteenth-century story. Like everything else, though, this turned out to show delicate and expert subtlety. It brought a fantastic fluidity, from the explosion of art works coming to life in the imagination to a particularly memorable scene in which O-Ei runs through the streets of Edo. It was a daring decision to bring modern and traditional art styles together, but it was carried out so seamlessly that the film is all the more vivid for it.

It was great to see such a turnout, too. The audience for the Kotatsu Anime Festival I attended in October last year was, at times, worryingly small. On the night, the audience took up over half the cinema. It is my hope that these film festivals encourage the cinema to show more anime films. Miss Hokusai proved a wonderful exploration into our relationship with art, and it complements the work promoted by the Arts Centre.

Alice Vernon is a blogger-in-residence at New Welsh Review, and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.


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