Based on the Japanese historical manga series by Hinako Sugiura, the gorgeous, hand-drawn “Miss Hokusai,” from director Keiichi Hara (“Colorful”) and Production I.G (“Ghost in the Shell”), tells the poignant story of real-life painter O-Ei, who worked in the shadow of her famous father Hokusai. He was a master of ukiyo-e, a school of Japanese art depicting subjects from everyday life in the 17th–19th centuries.
While O-Ei dutifully finishes her father’s work (including dragons and erotic sketches), she experiences a dangerous rite of passage as both woman and artist, trying to find her own individuality and artistic style. Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) therefore becomes the perfect expression for animation: both realistic in its depiction of bustling pre-Tokyo Edo and supernatural with its intrusion of demons and goblins.
“I first discovered Sugiura’s work in my late 20s, and fell in love with her talent instantly,” Hara told IndieWire. “As a young filmmaker, I felt even envious: we were almost the same age, but she was so much ahead of me on everything. Her dialogue lines, the way she portrays people’s feelings and emotions, and her almost cinematic visual storytelling are simply amazing. O-Ei is a woman with talent, pride, and shortcomings. She is strong-minded, bad-tempered, sweet, clumsy and shy. I have rarely seen such a multi-layered character so delightfully portrayed. I’d like to think that she is Sugiura’s avatar back in 19th century Tokyo.”
Without any narrative continuity, Hara uses family as the cohesive story device. In particular, he developed O-Ei’s relationship with her blind younger sister, O-Nao, and eventually with their father. “Furthermore, we carefully picked up episodes with a strong seasonal connotation, as we intended to narrate this movie throughout a one-year span, and across the changing seasons. This brought us to create two completely original episodes, namely the Ryogoku Bridge sequence (fall), and the snow sequence (winter),” Hara said.
In general, they remained faithful to the original comic, but for O-Ei, designer Yoshimi Itazu gave her large and inquisitive eyes and thick eyebrows, symbolizing her unwillingness to adapt to conventions.
The greatest animation challenge, interestingly, was the kimonos, as the team had to study how the human body moves under a thick robe, and how the fabric would fold and cast shadows in the process.
However, 19th-century Edo was literally made of wood and paper. Thus, it’s virtually impossible to see anything dating back to the Edo period in present day Tokyo. “So we did our research in books, gathered early Meiji-era photographs, and referred to 19th-century prints,” Hara said. “The latter gave us an overall idea of the crowd in the streets or the look of Ryogoku Bridge [where crowd scenes were done in CG], but were not detailed enough to make the realistic backdrops I wanted for this film.
“We visited some heritage buildings still standing in the countryside around Tokyo, and spent one day at an open-air museum where Edo period wards had been reconstructed, because we needed to understand proportions and textures of buildings and objects in a tri-dimensional environment. But eventually I established a very simple rule: whenever you are unsure, always go back to Sugiura’s comic as your main reference.”
In terms of the stormy relationship between O-Ei and her father, the few historical records indicate that they spent all day drawing and never cooked or cleaned. And she probably made, in part, or completely, many paintings with his signature.
“The image of a neglecting father is the offspring of Sugiura’s invention, as well as her touch of genius,” Hara said. “She is returning this apparently larger-than-life figure into a very human dimension. This is reflected by O-Ei’s conflicting feelings toward him: she respects him as her master for his immense talent, but despises him as a father for being unable to deal with O-Nao. This unconventional portrayal of a dysfunctional family of artists was the aspect of this story that intrigued me most.”
One of the director’s favorite moments was incorporating Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave” painting. “Actually, the Wave was not in the original script, and I came up with the idea while I was drafting the storyboard,” he said. “Then I took care to disseminate references to actual paintings and prints throughout the film, but I also included one of O-Ei’s most famous paintings in the ending roll, depicting a nightscape of the Yoshiwara brothel district with a highly sophisticated interplay between light and shadows. Sugiura loved that unique painting, that was so different from anything else made in Japan at the time, and she even made a replica of it.
“The most difficult moment was… everything. The source material was so beautiful, and my greatest challenge was to preserve that beauty in the animation transposition.”
“Miss Hokusai” opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 14th.