Guest post by Tyne Lowe.
In the first thirty minutes of Miss Hokusai, artist O-Ei walks through Edo with her blind younger sister, O-Nao, and attempts to explain their father’s art to her. The viewer has been introduced to their father, Katsushiko Hokusai (referred to in the film as Tetsuzo), as a somewhat eccentric and performative artist, painting enormous, floor-sized paintings with a mop or rendering minuscule pictures on grains of rice when he was not working in his messy studio with O-Ei. Presenting Hokusai’s best-known work to the viewer and her sister, O-Ei invites O-Nao to experience it, boarding a boat and riding it through increasingly choppy water; the animation slows and then halts as their boat is lifted by the iconic wave, imitating Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (a woodcut c. 1829-1833). Throughout the film, O-Ei’s act of bestowing vision to the blind symbolically embodies her role as an artist. In the Great Wave scene (and others), the emphasis is placed on Hokusai’s art and exploring the near-mystical quality of his artistic energy; however, much of the film also explores O-Ei’s own vision and the processes by which she hones her own skills.
Based in part on historical records, Miss Hokusai tells the relatively unknown story of O-Ei, the daughter and apprentice of Hokusai, an internationally known ukiyo-e painter and printmaker active primarily during the 19th-century Edo period in Japan. The film presents a series of vignettes, exploring O-Ei’s creative process and artistic challenges, her often tumultuous life with her father, and her relationship with her family beyond Hokusai’s studio. The film offers a deeply human portrait of O-Ei, a study that stands in contrast to the inaccessible (yet occasionally nuanced) character of Hokusai himself.
Miss Hokusai is an adaptation of a 1980s manga series by the same title (also known as Sarasuberi) created by Hinako Sugiura. Comparing the original manga to the adapted anime film is challenging for an English-speaking American reader like me; an English translation of Sugiura’s work has not been widely published, and only excerpts of the work can be found online. However, it appears that Sugiura sometimes rendered the manga in a ukiyo-e inspired style, serving as a self-conscious homage to Hokusai’s work — and, perhaps, to O-Ei’s work. Hokusai himself was known to produce “manga,” or albums of semi-related drawings, that were popular during the late 18th-early 19th centuries in Edo Japan. Thus, in creating the manga series, Sugiura may have reflexively imitated Hokusai’s work itself instead of simply discussing the artwork as subject matter. The anime, on the other hand, is rendered in a more contemporary, conventional anime style, emphasizing the characters’ emotional experiences instead of consistently reproducing the aesthetic of the period. Engaging in a remix of period styles that is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, the opening of Miss Hokusai shows O-Ei walking through Edo to a soundtrack of rock music, immediately emphasizing the modernized attitude of the film — especially one that places the character of a female artist at its forefront.
The fictionalized Miss Hokusai takes many liberties when representing O-Ei’s and Hokusai’s lives, but the film demonstrates an awareness of the artwork produced by and about the pair of artists. Beyond the Great Wave scene, Miss Hokusai includes scenes that imitate known works of art. In an early scene, O-Ei smokes a pipe and watches Hokusai/Tetsuzo paint a large picture of a dragon, seated close enough to drop ash on the painting. This scene echoes a painting Tsuyuki Kōshō that includes a rare depiction of O-Ei herself, sitting with her father in their studio.
Other scenes depict Hokusai producing paintings for which he is known today. For example, a male assistant is modeling humorously exaggerated facial expressions while Tetsuzo sketches him; these sketches are imitations of Hokusai’s own work in one of his manga. It is unclear if the film explores O-Ei producing any of her actual paintings (or studies for prints), especially because so few works have contemporarily been attributed to O-Ei (or Katsushika Oi).
Interestingly, when representing Hokusai and O-Ei at work in their studio, the film exclusively shows them painting and neglects to represent the practice of printmaking. Hokusai is particularly well known for his woodcut prints (including The Great Wave); why not represent the process of carving and printing from a woodblock? The filmmakers may have preferred the act of ink painting to that of printmaking because painting emphasizes raw, kinetic artistic energy to a greater degree than the slow, methodical process of woodblock carving might. Miss Hokusai demonstrates great concern for such artistic inspiration and energy, characterizing creativity as a mystical force.
This is particularly true when Hokusai and/or O-Ei are rendering supernatural beings. In the early scene described above, O-Ei accidentally ruins Hokusai’s large painting of a dragon by burning it with pipe ash, and she struggles to sketch a new one, producing and then crumpling up many drafts. An artist visiting from a competing studio tells her that the act of painting a dragon cannot be forced, and one must wait for the dragon to descend upon them (perhaps speaking literally or metaphorically). Sure enough, a mysterious apparition of a dragon later appears in the stormy night sky, and the film cuts to the next morning, where Hokusai and O-Ei lie asleep around a newly finished painting of the dragon. This choice to represent the finished dragon after the descent of a metaphysical force instead of representing the artists painting it themselves reinforces a notion of creativity as a unknowable, nearly alchemical energy, one that derives from flashes of inspiration instead of elbow grease.
In another scene, a woman is being psychologically tormented by a painting of demons she commissioned from O-Ei; the woman is convinced that she hears screams from the painting, and she has apparitions of the demons springing off the paper and threatening her. Tetsuzo and O-Ei visit the woman’s house to inspect the painting, and in a scene akin to an exorcism, Tetsuzo adds a deity to the painting, suggesting that O-Ei either forgot to include it or rendered it poorly. This scene reinforces the nearly occult character of painting, suggesting that painters have the power to literally bring an image to life, but that power can be made dangerous when wielded incorrectly or naively. This concept of a master artist as a powerful redeemer is akin to the notion of artist as genius, one that seems somewhat dated to Western postmodern art historians who dismiss the centrality and authority of the creator. (Although these associations with myth are in dialogue with 19th-century Edo beliefs, it is unclear if the notion of a mystical genius is representative of the dominant belief in this period.)
This representation of the powerful, genius artist is also at odds with O-Ei’s creative process itself, one that emphasizes technical proficiency and practice over intuition. O-Ei is presented as a developing artist, one who is striving (and often struggling) to realize her potential while also cultivating relationships beyond her artistic practice, especially with her sister. In the film, she is presented as the foil to her father, an isolated artist who is entirely absorbed in his work at the expense of his relationships and his living space. Will O-Ei be able to achieve the same level of skill as her father, or is his artistic achievement determined by his hermetic tendencies, by his unlearned skills? This question cannot be answered within the film itself; like O-Ei’s life, the question of creativity is highly mysterious and elusive.
Miss Hokusai will screen at the IU Cinema on March 24 at 1 pm as part of the Art and a Movie series. Before the screening, at 12 pm in room 102 of the Fine Arts Building, there will be a talk about Hokusai’s work held by Judy Stubbs, the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art.
For more information on O-Ei (or Oi), click here.
Tyne Lowe is an MA student in Art History at Indiana University, focusing on the history and theory of comics with an emphasis on North American alternative comics. She also works as a Graduate Assistant to Nanette Brewer, the Curator of Works on Paper, at the Eskenazi Museum of Art.