Thursday, October 27, 2016

Painting in her father's shadow

A beautifully animated film about the talented daughter of a 19th Century Japanese master.

Katushika Hokusai, the great 19th Century Japanese artist, remains best known for The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a wood block print depicting three boats in the trough of a monstrous wave.

In the beautifully animated Japanese film, Miss Hokusai, director Keiichi Hara shifts the focus from Hokusai to his daughter O-Ei, a young woman who serves as a kind of apprentice to her father.

A gruff and critical man, Hokusai can be unsparing in his appraisals of his daughter's efforts, even though she sometimes completes his works or creates them entirely.

While keeping O-Ei in the film's center -- she narrates the story -- Hara and screenwriter Miho Maruo provide bits of biographical information about Hokusai. The artist lived in self-imposed squalor. When his quarters became too littered, he simply moved.

Her father's criticisms not withstanding, O-Ei is no pushover. She has her own standards. She never genuflects at the altar of her father's fame, and she's clearly more disciplined than her sometimes dissolute father.

This is not to say that O-Ei lacks passion. She's irresistibly drawn to the fires that frequently disrupt life in Edo, a city where wood construction dominates.

O-Ei also tends to her blind younger sister, a girl who lives with nuns in a Buddhist convent and worries that her disability will disgrace her renowned father and condemn her to hell.

At various times, Hara blurs the line between the illusory world of Hokusai's paintings and the real world or, at minimum, allows them to intermingle.

Perhaps the movie's boldest achievement involves its acceptance of the power and vivacity of artistic creation. At one point, a painting that's purportedly cursed unleashes a phantom that terrorizes the wife of its owner. It falls to Hokusai to perform a kind of artistic exorcism, putting the finishing touches on the work.

At times, Hara adds rock music to the film's soundtrack, perhaps as a way of avoiding the period-piece trappings that might have given an overly reverential air to this adaptation of Hinako Sugiura's episodic manga.

Despite flourishes of strangeness, Miss Hokusai* can be emotionally affecting in simple ways. It also respects Hokusai and O-Ei's artistic achievements. Trying to match those achievements probably qualifies as a fool's errand, but Miss Hokusai clearly draws inspiration from them. The result can be visually spellbinding.

*This is animation for adults and not for younger children.

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