Welcome, all, again. I recently had the pleasure of watching the debut Memphis showing of Miss Hokusai, and I was floored! The winner of multiple awards, this is a powerful piece of cinema which uses episodic exposition of familial relationships to explore the concept of yugen, a term once explained to me as “the beauty of the sadness of being human.” A real mouthful of an explanation, right? But as foreign as the idea might initially seem, it lends itself to a certain subversive familiarity when interpreted as an almost weightier incarnation of the term melancholy. Quietly assertive, Miss Hokusai shines most when examining that pain and desolation which only love can cause.
Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The story told is a fictionalized account of the relationship between historical figures Katsushika Hokusai and his daughter Katsushika Oi, both artists of the Edo period. Hokusai became best-known for stylized portrayals of waves and mountains (particularly Mount Fuji), while Oi was renowned as a painter of beautiful women; both also produced erotica. Furthermore–and as shown within the movie–Oi worked alongside her father as an assistant to his work. Contemporary accounts indicate that they seem to have respected each other’s talent. In Miss Hokusai, however, Hokusai’s opinions of Oi’s work (and person) are often condescending, while her own respect towards him is cast as rather begrudging and clouded by her disappointment in his personal conduct.
But that is itself understandable, as the movie casts Oi as the conduit of emotional consternation concerning her fractured family. Her parents are divorced, and Oi stays with her father. (In reality, Oi’s mother–Hokusai’s second wife–died early in Oi’s childhood.) Meanwhile, Oi’s blind younger sister O-nao has been left in the care of a female religious order. O-nao’s condition creates great strain for her parents, but Oi dearly loves her younger sister and visits her often. Being an artist herself, Oi is understanding and even reluctantly accepting of her father’s selfish and judgmental attitudes, but cannot abide his avoidance of his younger daughter or the emotional distance he places between himself and his family. And when Oi gets fed-up, even the great Hokusai needs to tread warily!
At its core, Miss Hokusai is a movie about choosing to love in the face of human failings. Indeed, disappointment and bitterness flavor most of the relationships portrayed, muting even moments of otherwise supreme triumph for the characters. We watch Hokusai alternately bully and cajole one daughter, while almost completely ignoring the other; the girls’ mother seems powerless to intercede. (At one point, Hokusai even derides Oi’s lack of sexual experience, saying that it retards her development as both an artist and a person. Father-of-the-Year material, right?) And we re-learn old lessons: life is unfair; might makes right; the people closest to you are the ones who can hurt you most. Strong and perceptive musical choices help build the emotional impact of this visually beautiful movie–that nonetheless takes viewers into myriad uncomfortable situations, some even sporting veneers of joy. Be ready to end this one feeling deeply moved but slightly adrift.
[Parental Note: Definitely not for younger children, particularly scenes involving an onnagata, a male prostitute who specialized in female impersonation but assumed the role of either gender depending upon client preference. Beyond that incident are themes of parental abandonment, betrayal of familial obligation, and the impermanence of love. If you do bring a child, get ready to do a LOT of explaining. . .]
[Addendum: I mentioned that both Hokusai and Oi produced erotica (shunga). If you’ve ever been curious as to the origins of the “tentacle rape” phenomenon in manga and anime, view Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. This particular fetish has been around in Japanese art for a while. . .]