Miss Hokusai is not shy about the mystical. Paintings come alive to tell stories of hell and suffering and drives a woman insane. A geisha’s ghost has to be trapped in a net during the night in order to keep it from flying away. Our protagonist O-Ei paints a dragon, not from her own imagination, but from the model an actual dragon provides by visiting her. Just as the film is not afraid to speak of spirits and monsters, it is also not afraid to invoke the idea of the muse, leaving these otherworldly creatures and experiences to feel like incarnations of that muse and the people who witness them to feel holy, to have a vision of the world necessary to create art.
The story follows O-Ei, the titular Miss Hokusai, as she lives and paints with her father, known professionally as Hokusai to those for whom he paints. Hokusai is already famous in the film, a temperamental and particular man. He and O-Ei make a living with their paintings, working off of commissions from wealthy patrons. O-Ei’s mother lives elsewhere in the city, due to Hokusai’s desire to be a painter and his inability to understand or connect with his youngest daughter O-Nao, who is blind and sickly; O-Ei regularly visits them both, and her relationship with her sister is perhaps the only intimate relationship she has.
It would be easy for this kind of film to dwell on the idea of a woman artist trying to make a name for herself and to build a career in her father’s shadow. Miss Hokusai is more subtle than that. O-Ei is a quiet, stoic woman who wants to be the best painter in Edo. Though she narrates some of the film, many of her thoughts and desires are left for us to understand through the storytelling and are unspoken. O-Ei is a severe-looking woman, with low, thick eyebrows and a rarely-smiling mouth. Her voice is soft and often monotonous, as if she is constantly in a state of listless boredom. She doesn’t bother to tell us how she’s feeling. She doesn’t need to; she has other tells. She runs home in the middle of an outing with a suitor to apply makeup when she otherwise rarely bothers to wear it. She goes for walks with her sister, carefully describing their surroundings to her. She insists to her mother that she and Hokusai are eating well, then scarfs down the rice that her mother makes her.
But above all, O-Ei is a painter, and this is the sticking point of the film. The major theme is that of the “true artist,” the painters who are driven by more than a desire to be famous or to get paid. This is where the magic of the film exists. Some painters are able to witness otherworldly things, while others are only able to see the effects that magic has on the world, in the same way that some people have the ability to create and others only to admire. All of the painters in the film are famous, or almost famous, but that does not necessarily mean that they are artists, at least as far as people like Hokusai and O-Ei are concerned. The film dwells on the relationship between father and daughter and the different ways they approach their art, and especially what they are willing, or not willing, to give up in order to pursue it.
Miss Hokusai has a disappointing ending. It couldn’t avoid that, as a biographical film, especially one about a woman about whom little is known. But where the film succeeds is in dwelling on what it means to be an artist, to acquire the vision necessary to successfully create and to recognize that, sometimes, the compulsion to create can alienate the people closest to you. O-Ei rejects this tendency in her father, even as she commits to her own art in the same way. There is sometimes no choice but to prioritize, and Miss Hokusai captures the painful conflict of that decision.
Elizabeth Brei grew up in Chicagoland, once worked at Disney World and has a cat named Moo. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University and can sometimes be found on Twitter @peachchild grumbling about kids these days or talking about Sailor Moon.