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Film review: "Miss Hokusai"


Based on the Hinako Sugiura manga series, Keiichi Hara's animated feature "Miss Hokusai" takes an unusual approach to the standard biopic. Told in episodic style, the film focuses on the life of legendary Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai -- most famous for his "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" woodblock print -- as seen through the eyes of his daughter, O-Ei Hokusai.

O-Ei is herself an artist, working as an assistant to her father and struggling to balance her art with family and societal expectations. We see things from her perspective as she narrates various, seemingly disconnected moments from Hokusai's life. We see his unique view of the world reflected in his art, and observe his lengthy conversations with fellow artists and hangers-on as they discuss their philosophy on art. In one of the most memorable segments, Hokusai tells a story about how one night, he felt his hands detach themselves from his body, stretching across the world and allowing him to experience what they were feeling.

The various segments throughout the film gradually reveal the differences between father and daughter, both in personality and in their art; Hokusai has gained his talent through experience, while O-Ei has grown to focus on technique, a student of simple observation.

The film periodically dips into melodrama during sequences in which we see O-Ei caring for her younger sister, O-Nao. Blind and perpetually sickly, O-Nao is all but ignored by their father. But these sections feel underdeveloped, and the film doesn't spend enough time on them for these scenes to really resonate the way they ostensibly should.

The episodic storytelling technique lends a patchwork quality to the narrative while echoing the variety of styles displayed throughout Hokusai's lifetime of work. It doesn't always lend itself to a cohesive story, but the striking visuals -- as well as the ideas and sensations they contain -- stick with you.