HOLLYWOOD—Anime films often go unappreciated by American film audiences. There are exceptions of course, but by large they are overshadowed by the big Disney and Pixar affairs. One hopes that this trend won’t hold for “Miss Hokusai.” While not as epic as some of Studio Ghibli’s classics or quite as visually stunning as the films of Makoto Shinkai, it’s still a cinematic treat.
The plot centers around O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe) whose father is famed painter Hokusai (voiced by Yutaka Matsushige). The plot is not so much a narrative as it is an exploration of their day to day life, artistic projects, and the relationship between Hokusai, O-Ei, and her chronically ill sister O-Nao (voiced by Shion Shimizu).
One thing that sticks out to me about the best animes is their visually beauty. It is something I think most Western cartoons fail to live up to. Take for example, the beautiful character design in this film. I especially liked the depiction of O-Ei. She is beautiful, but not in an ultimate perfection stereotypical kind of way. Her beauty is more real; more human than most animated characters I see. All together the animators did a first rate job.
Similarly, life in early 19th century Edo (Tokyo) is brought to life splendidly. The scenes of city life on bridges, in red light districts, of firefighting, and in neighborhoods are all gorgeous and give us a romantic picture of the city in line with Hokusai and O-Ei’s paintings.
This is a more mature cartoon to be certain, and this is something I enjoy about Anime. Even when we think of an American cartoon that address adult themes, like this year’s “Zootopia,” they tend to do so in a way that mildly infantilizes them. This is done because a work like “Zootopia” is made for children, and of course you need to be somewhat gentle when you explain certain things to people at such a tender age.
This isn’t something all cartoons are good for though. Cartoons can and should take on more adult themes for adult audiences. They are capable of being a part of the most pressing artistic conversations and taking on the biggest societal issues. I think there is a market for this amongst the adults in America. This is acknowledged and catered to in Japanese anime, so why not in American animated features?
We see the maturity of “Miss Hokusai” in how it addresses the relationship between O-Ei, Nao, and Hokusai. Hokusai is often neglectful of his daughters and instead focuses on his art. The film is smart in that it doesn’t become a melodrama. Hokusai is a complex person. He can see the beauty and subtlety in the world, but his own insecurities and fear prevent him from having the best relationship with his family. There is this air of quiet sadness to it all. I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic however.
If anything, it is a hopeful movie, a call to enjoy genuine family love and the remarkable beauty of the world ala the classic “American Beauty.” The magical realism throughout the film not only evokes the power of O-Ei’s artwork, but of our imagination itself. It asks us to look deeper into things and see the beauty in them, and in so doing find a redemptive happiness to life.
If there is anything wrong with this film I felt it just didn’t break any new ground. While beautiful, it doesn’t live up to Shinkai or Miyazaki. The script is decent, but the story is one that has been told in other places in other ways. It is a good, but by no means a canonical anime.
Still, “Miss Hokusai” is a wonderful film about the artistic life in the vein of “Mr. Turner” that features an on point story, dialogue, and great animation. It might be flying under the box office radar but don’t let that stop you from seeing this great film.