One of the biggest reasons why 2D animation is still alive and well in other parts of the world is that some countries never got the memo that all animated films needed to be about talking animals or singing princesses. Only in America do we seem to believe that animation should exclusively be used to capture things that cannot be placed in front of a camera — this, even at a time when the dominant live-action films are basically cartoons with celebrity stand-ins. Hollywood has completely resigned itself to the idea that seeing is inherently better than imagining, each newly announced “live-action” remake a reaffirmation of the idea that every drawing wants to be a photograph.
That isn’t (and has never been) the case in Japan, however, where animated movies are so often about people — not the secret lives of their pets, or their action figures, or their sex-crazed foodstuffs, but just… people. People in brilliant pasts and people in dystopian futures; people in enchanted bathhouses and people in outer space. How lovely, then, to see a new film that reinforces the value of that tradition by exploring its history and celebrating its rich artistic purpose.
The gentle, lushly visualized and exasperatingly diffuse “Miss Hokusai” is a missed opportunity in many respects, but it certainly does a magnificent job of validating its own existence. Adapted from Hinako Sugiura’s “Sarusuberi” manga series by director Keiichi Hara, the film follows in the tradition of “The Wind Rises” and “Tatsumi” by using animation as a means by which to dramatize the life of an iconic figure from Japanese history, in this case ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (best known in the Western world for his woodblock masterpiece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”). But, as the title suggests, that renowned 18th and 19th century artist is really just a smokescreen for a story that leverages his legend in order to focus on someone else, someone who has so completely faded into oblivion that Sugiura had to all but reinvent her from scratch: Hokusai’s daughter, O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe).
O-Ei is both heroine and tour guide, the protagonist of a movie that doesn’t have much in the way of a narrative arc — a movie that follows her around as though it were impatiently waiting for her to earn its attention. It’s 1814 and O-Ei is 23 years old. She’s spent most of her life cooped up in the messy artist’s hovel she shares with her father and his shadow, learning from him (and learning to resent him) as she quietly fights to forge her own path. She narrates the film, but never tells us anything about herself, marveling instead about the elder Hokusai’s singularly untamable talent — he paints a human face across 120 tatami mats, and then stencils two sparrows onto one grain of rice. She’s also quite a talent in her own right, often performing uncredited work on her father’s pieces even though the prevailing opinion is that the virginal O-Ei doesn’t have the experience required to adequately draw men.
It’s safe to assume that she’ll earn that experience by the end of “Miss Hokusai,” though what else happens along the way is difficult to pinpoint. Much of the movie unfolds in uneasy fits and starts — at times the story feels like a quilt of hazily remembered histories, and at others like a sketch of what might life might have been like for female artists of a different generation. There’s a cute puppy (almost every anime film has to have one), a courtesan client who is literally haunted by one of the woodblocks that hangs in her bedroom, and two very different love interests who make opposite but equally minimal dents in the narrative. Hara’s film empathizes with its heroine by suppressing its emotions in the same way that she often had to, and what little drama there is to be found here is packed into a side-plot involving O-Ei’s blind younger sister, who their father has all but abandoned (prepare for surprising shades of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but don’t expect the profoundly self-absorbed Hokusai to ever come around).
What the film lacks in sweep, it nearly makes up for in sensitivity. Hara delights in the smooth blue skies that hang over Edo (that rich texture being a signature of Production I.G., the anime powerhouse behind this movie and “Ghost in the Shell”), and in the ambient sounds that bring the city to life. Most of all, she savors the little moments in which O-Ei forces herself to bridge the gap between her surplus of talent and her lack of life experience; the scene in which she stubbornly visits a cross-dressing male prostitute in order to lose her virginity is so tonally all over the place that it almost feels like real life. That sequence, like almost all of the seemingly unrelated passages that Hara stitches together into an awkward whole, does a fine job of drawing our attention to the ways in which art can — and must be — different things to different people, each piece as infinite as the person who made it.
And, in some cases, just as fleeting. Hokusai would never have anticipated that his work would last for as long as it has, and Hara’s film is flush with the energy of transience — at times, it feels like each scene is set in a different season, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it final shot imparts a lasting sense of impermanence. But here we are, hundreds of years later, literally reanimating the artist and his work. In that sense, “Miss Hokusai” implicitly proves him wrong by tracing the impact he had on his daughter and the world she would have to redraw for herself.
“Miss Hokusai” is now playing in theaters.