February 2017, Miss Hokusai, Feature image

Review: Miss Hokusai (Blu-Ray)

Miss Hokusai provides a snapshot of the life and times of the daughter of the renowned Edo artist of the same name. Early trailers looked promising so it was with some excitement that I sat down to enjoy this one. I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.

The film follows the life and times of O-Ei, Hokusai’s daughter, over the period of about a year or so. The story itself, on face value, is somewhat nondescript. We see O-Ei’s daily grind at her desk as an artist completing commissioned work under the shadow of her father, flitting her time between working away with the brush, spending time with her family and finding her place as an adult in a time where Japan was beginning to feel increasing pressure to open up to the rest of the world after nearly 300 years of isolation imposed under Tokugawa rule.

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The movements in the film are generally driven by incidents rather than building on a tight, focused narrative. We see O-Ei absorbing the world around her for inspiration, the pains of young romance, the beautiful relationship with her half-sister and the bemusing resemblance between O-Ei and her father, both in terms of profession and personality. Commissions and visits from other artists adds variety to the scenes, including some surreal and spiritual sequences that plunge the film into some amazing explorations of the life and passion of an artist through interesting, supernatual setpieces.

Miss Hokusai’s narrative gently floats along, maintaining a steady, engaging pace. Its tone is generally reflective and echoes O-Ei’s character as someone who takes the world as it is, warts and all, and develops her way of working within that. Of particular note is the nods to Hokusai’s famous works – the sequence with O-Ei and her sister riding along the river was particularly spectacular with how it folded in Hokusai’s renowned print, the Great Wave off Kanagawa.

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It’s difficult to pinpoint what it was that made me love this particular film. Its understated approach and keen attention to historical detail really made an impression, and O-Ei as a character was interesting to watch. The supporting cast, including her father, come across as eccentric but also very human in their performance and presentation. Given the story isn’t driven by climatic, world-changing events, it leans very heavily on its cast as they engage in daily life, and there’s an incredible richness and relatability to their personalities.

Even the conclusion reflects this approach, with an understated yet satisfying conclusion that invites the audience to think on the moments that made up the journey. At the end you can’t help but have developed an appreciation for the life of the great 19th century artists in Japan and being richer for an amazing exploration of Edo-period city life.

Production IG also added to the surprise. Known for their hyper-kinetic animation and production values, Miss Hokusai eschews what you would normally associate with their usual production work and knocks it out of the park. The key to this achievement was in confident, subtle detail. Shrubbery and flowers are depicted beautifully, and the shifts in the seasons look amazing. Lighting and composition is understated but very effective, and the time put into animating a living, breathing city is just superb. At times it reminds me of how Studio Ghibli productions can make the mundane such a beautiful thing to watch, and how the interplay with the natural and supernatural can be utterly believable.

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The package itself is also commendable. In addition to a stunningly mastered disc we also have a slew of extras on offer, relegated to the second disc in the package. We have a 2 hour (!) making-of doco and an interview with the film’s director. There’s no English dub on this release, but as usual that’s fine with me.

Miss Hokusai made for fantastic viewing – an engaging story, great characters, impressive production values and a solid release rounds out an excellent showing from Madman. Highly recommended.

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A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.