The history of art is dominated by men. For much of history, women were denied educational opportunities in the arts and some those who dared to create works found their careers were painted over in the grand narratives of art history (usually written by men). There were some female artists such as Berthe Morisot, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, and Angelica Kauffmann who defied social mores to create, inspire, and amaze during their professional careers but for many more female artists, their works and lives remain waiting to be discovered, not least in Japan, a part of the world which has had a profound effect on the development of art.
When you think of Japanese art, chances are that you are familiar with the celebrated ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai whose woodblock prints of subjects such as Mount Fuji have become representative images of Japan. His most famous is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” that features a huge wave of blue surging water topped by white foam framing Mount Fuji. It is an image that can be found in galleries, on posters, and other types of merchandise and it is images like these that inspired some of the stylistic techniques of the French Impressionists. Would it surprise you to hear that Katsushika Hokusai had a daughter who was also an artist? That she created works in her own right? That some scholars suggest she was more than just her father’s assistant but a close collaborator who played a major role in his art as he neared 90 and had palsy? Like many a female artist it seems that her contribution to art has been forgotten about by history, something which Keiichi Hara’s anime Miss Hokusai seeks to redress.
The film starts in the summer of 1814 in Edo Period (1603 – 1868) Japan, and the action takes place in Edo (now known as Tokyo). The Shogun runs the country and the city is populated by samurai, merchants, nobles, artists, courtesans, and commoners. Amidst the hustle and bustle of this highly populated city lives the artist Hokusai Katsushika (Yutaka Matsushige). He is in his mid-fifties and has won clients from all over the nation thanks to artworks stretching from a pair of sparrows painted on a tiny rice grain to a giant-size Bodhidharma portrayed on a 180 square meter-wide sheet of paper. Hokusai Katsushika’s skill is immense but he isn’t alone in producing his pieces. He lives and works in a garbage-strewn house with his daughter O-Ei (Anne Watanabe). She may be a 23-year-old woman but she is a fierce presence. Indeed, she shares a lot of traits with her father. In many scenes you can see the two observe the world in the same way complete with similar physical movements. O-ei also shares the same emotions being short-tempered, sarcastic, and stubborn. This is a case of like father like daughter especially when she’s at home working amongst her father’s somewhat comical students who alternate between lazing around and discussing art and life in Edo. Much amusement will be found seeing O-ei eschew the behaviour expected of women and takes after her father with her sharp tongue and the physical rowdiness.
More crucially she is a highly skilled artist in her own right, fulfilling commissions for pictures of dragons to shunga (erotica) and she often helps her father with his own art and stands in for him when he lacks inspiration or time. He may not be sentimental but he knows how she thinks and helps her further her skills with advice and examples sagely told such as gently pointing his sexually inexperienced daughter towards a geisha so she can better draw erotica. Matsushige is a brilliant choice for voice actor as his gravelly voice is warm and sounds like it contains decades’ worth of experience. O-ei, on top of helping out with art, helps make her father far more human especially in relation to his family as a subplot involving another daughter plays out. These moments of interaction add intriguing doses of psychology and show how they are inspired as artists.
They form a formidable team. As O-ei says, “With two brushes and four chopsticks, we’ll get anywhere” and it is true as we witness the two working close, growing as artists and also growing as individuals over the course of a year. For the most part the film remains rooted in reality but there are flights of fancy introduced by people’s mental perception of the works of works of art and this leads to surreal elements such as when a woman who owns one of O-ei’s paintings of hell and is so affected by its power she sees terrifying visions of skeletons sweeping up bones, shadow monsters looming from lanterns and so forth. This is when Miss Hokusai leans more into anime tropes with fantastical elements but it fits in perfectly with how imaginative people view the world. A number of more down-to-earth works have been directly attributes to O-ei such as bijin-ga (paintings of beautiful women) and shunga and the film showcases her working on hanging scrolls, ukiyo-e, and book illustrations.
The artistic details of the setting ensure we enjoy the sights and sounds of Edo during the four seasons. The pace is leisurely as the film meanders through everyday situations told through neat little vignettes that display the dynamics of the father and daughter relationship as well as the vagaries of the publishing industry. It feels like reading chapters from the source manga written by Hanako Sugiura whose award-winning work is defined by her highly researched historical stories about Japan’s Edo period. Her work translates well onto the screen with a focus on customs and manners shown in this film. The setting is resolutely normal with Hokusai’s atelier being a prime location and O-ei wandering across the brides and through the streets encountering all sorts of people who inspire her.
Miss Hokusai is an apt title since audiences will see an obscure artist who exists in the shadow of her father and how she helped him. On-screen text confirms that little is known her life but there is enough to imagine how she fit in the world and so we see O-ei emerge on screen as a real person. In a nice match-cut at the end we go from Edo to Tokyo, we see the world she inhabited and relate to it. To further enforce the fact she is an artist in her own right we see her picture “Night Scene in the Yoshiwara” during the end credits. More could have been done to show off the few pieces of her art known to exist but audiences will understand how she came to be. She may be a woman but she won’t be marginalised and thanks to the space of possibility and imagination opened up by historical novels and anime, she is brought back to life for a new generation to discover.
Miss Hokusai is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Sunday July 3 at the Walter Reade Theater at 3pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.