An Artist Restored
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.” [