An Artist Re­stored

Animation Magazine - - Features -

KKei­ichi Hara’s newly im­ported anime fea­ture finds drama in the story be­hind one of Ja­pan’s most-fa­mous im­ages. By Charles Solomon.

ei­ichi Hara’s el­e­gantly evoca­tive fea­ture Miss Hoku­sai, which opens the­atri­cally Oct. 14 in the United States via GKIDS, of­fers an in­trigu­ing look at the life and work of the great painter, il­lus­tra­tor and print maker Hoku­sai (1760-1849) through the eyes of his daugh­ter O-Ei. The cre­ator of the print “The Great Wave off Kana­gawa” — ar­guably the most-fa­mous work of Ja­panese art in the world — Hoku­sai in­flu­enced Van Gogh, Monet and other Western pain­ters.

O-Ei was an artist in her own right, although only a few works can be at­trib­uted to her with cer­tainty. Many his­to­ri­ans be­lieve she as­sisted her fa­ther in his old age, when his abil­i­ties be­gan to fal­ter. Lit­tle is known about her life. Hara based Miss Hoku­sai on Hi­nako Sugiura’s manga Sarusuberi (lit­er­ally “Mon­key’s Slide,” the Ja­panese name for the crepe myr­tle, a tree in Hoku­sai’s gar­den).

In an in­ter­view con­ducted via email, Hara ex­plained that he first read Sarusuberi more than 20 years ago, and has been wait­ing for the chance to an­i­mate it ever since.

”Her sto­ry­telling was as­tound­ingly cin­e­matic, her di­a­logue bril­liant, and her char­ac­ters so charm­ingly … hu­man,” Hara says. “As a young film­maker, I could only envy her tal­ent, es­pe­cially when I re­al­ized we were al­most the same age. Sarusuberi is sim­ply per­fect in its bal­ance be­tween re­al­ism and fan­tasy, com­edy and drama, cov­er­ing the en­tire spec­trum of hu­man emo­tions through the be­liev­able, re­lat­able char­ac­ters.”

Hara learned Hoku­sai had a child who was also an artist from Sugiura’s manga. “The fa­ther-daugh­ter and mas­ter-pupil re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hoku­sai and O-Ei, which is based on the few his­tor­i­cal records we have, has been won­der­fully de­picted and de­vel­oped by Sugiura,” he says. “What you see in the film is a re­mark­able, mys­te­ri­ous woman, whom Sugiura turned into her avatar to time-slip into 19th cen­tury Ja­pan.”

Hoku­sai was an ec­cen­tric fig­ure, and Hara’s film de­picts two of his most fa­mous stunts. Us­ing brooms as brushes, he painted an enor­mous por­trait of the Bud­dhist pa­tri­arch the Bod­hid­harma be­fore a crowd out­side a tem­ple. To demon­strate the del­i­cacy of his touch, he later painted two spar­rows on a sin­gle grain of

build­ings and open-air mu­se­ums to gather “first-hand im­pres­sions of the pro­por­tions and tex­tures of build­ings and ob­jects in a real, three-di­men­sional en­vi­ron­ment.” They also con­sulted 19th cen­tury prints and the il­lus­tra­tions in Sugiura’s manga.

On a more in­ti­mate scale, the artists stud­ied how their char­ac­ters would move in ki­monos and other tra­di­tional gar­ments. This re­search was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in a se­quence where Hoku­sai and O-Ei visit an oiran, one of the great cour­te­sans of the Yoshi­wara plea­sure quar­ter. Her rank dic­tates that she wear layer upon layer of elab­o­rate robes, but their pat­terns and tex­tures couldn’t be al­lowed to dis­tract the viewer’s at­ten­tion from the char­ac­ter’s ac­tions and emo­tions.

“The an­i­ma­tors needed to fig­ure out how the fab­ric would fold and what shad­ows it would cast, how arms and legs would emerge while mov­ing within the robes,” says Hara. “Yoshimi Itazu, our chief an­i­ma­tor, wore a ki­mono him­self to gain a first­hand un­der­stand­ing, and we had a model pose in a ki­mono in front of the whole an­i­ma­tion team. If you don’t pay at­ten­tion to those de­tails while watch­ing the film, it means ev­ery­thing looks nat­u­ral to your eyes — which means the an­i­ma­tors did their job prop­erly.”

A Fem­i­nist An­gle At a time when Western au­di­ences are de­mand­ing hon­est ac­counts of women’s ex­pe­ri­ences in film and women in Ja­pan are gain­ing in­creas­ing free­dom from the sex­ism of tra­di­tional cul­ture, the story of the un­apolo­get­i­cally in­de­pen­dent and ta­lented O-Ei speaks to an in­terna- tional au­di­ence. It also re­flects the at­ti­tudes of the many women who worked on Miss Hoku­sai.

“I have no di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of O-Ei’s state of mind, I can only guess,” Hara says. “But co-pro­ducer Keiko Mat­sushita, ac­tress Anne Watan­abe (who pro­vides O-Ei’s voice) and singer-song­writer Sheena Ringo, who are very strong-minded and cre­ative women pur­su­ing their goals with great de­ter­mi­na­tion, may have re­lated to O-Ei at a more per­sonal level. The film re­flects the love and ded­i­ca­tion they put into it.”

Hara, who is al­ready at work on his next film, sees only a ten­u­ous link be­tween the Hoku­sais’ graphic vi­sions and con­tem­po­rary an­i­ma­tion. But he finds that for the artists who make those films, lit­tle has changed in the two cen­turies since Hoku­sai cre­ated “The Great Wave” and other sem­i­nal wood­block prints.

“Print­mak­ing of the Edo pe­riod is strik­ingly sim­i­lar to the pro­duc­tion process of hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion,” he says. “They are both the re­sult of tight team­work among very spe­cial­ized crafts­men aimed at mass au­di­ences; no orig­i­nal art sur­vives, only re­pro­duc­tions. Pub­lish­ers in the Edo era would de­cide on the project, se­lect the staff, do the mar­ket­ing — ex­actly like to­day’s an­i­ma­tion pro­duc­ers. And like an­i­ma­tors, Edo pe­riod print­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Hoku­sai, were con­sid­ered ‘ar­ti­sans’ rather than ‘artists.’ I cer­tainly don’t com­mand Hoku­sai’s cre­ative pow­ers, but I like to con­sider my­self an ar­ti­san, striv­ing to make my way through an end­less wilder­ness of white paper, hold­ing noth­ing but my pen­cil.” [

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the renowned artist Hoku­sai and his ta­lented daugh­ter is at the heart of the story of Miss Hoku­sai.

Kei­ichi Hara

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