Ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai is one of Japan’s best-known artists. His print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” with its giant blue wave curling over a tiny Mount Fuji, is seen on T-shirts and coffee mugs around the world. Given his multifarious talent, vast energy and long life — Hokusai died in Tokyo (then called Edo) at age 88 in 1849 — I had long thought of him as a Japanese Picasso.
But as Keiichi Hara’s new animated feature “Sarusuberi” (“Miss Hokusai”) makes clear in scene after gorgeously illustrated scene, he resembled the Spanish master in another way: his vexed relationships with his offspring, particularly his 23-year-old daughter, O-Ei (voiced by the single-named Anne), the “Miss Hokusai” of the English title.
Based on Hinako Sugiura’s carefully researched 1983-87 manga, the film focuses on the period when O-Ei was serving as her father’s assistant — and coming into her own as both an artist and a woman. Their life together, as the film shows with the manga’s dry humor, is hardly conventional. Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige) is regally unconcerned with housekeeping and O-Ei is coolly disinclined to serve as a surrogate wife for the man she calls “Tetsuzo.” So they live in paper-strewn squalor with a menagerie that includes a cute dog and a talkative young disciple, Zenjiro (Gaku Hamada), who would rather carouse than buckle down to work. And so occasionally would Hokusai, much to O-Ei’s disgust.
“People in the Edo Period (1603-1868) lived lives very different than the ones we do today,” says Hara prior to a preview screening in Tokyo at a theater in Shiodome. “More than us, they looked for pleasure in nearby places. That may have been because they had less in the way of amusement. But when I read Sugiura’s comic, I had the feeling that ordinary people were really living intensely and joyfully.”
To convey that feeling in the film, Hara and scriptwriter Miho Maruo stayed as close as possible to Sugiura’s text, while incorporating the sort of emotional realism that was Hara’s trademark in his eco-themed 2007 fantasy “Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi” (“Summer Days with Coo”) and troubled-teen drama “Colorful,” both widely screened and highly praised abroad.
“Sugiura wrote about people who were living their own way,” Hara says. “But Hokusai was also stimulated by other people’s work. He hated to lose to anyone, so if he saw someone making a good painting, he wanted to make a better one. He had what you might call fighting spirit.”
All of this and much more has long been known to Hokusai researchers, including Sugiura, who died of cancer at age 46 in 2005. Hara mentions an “extremely valuable book” about Hokusai published in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that includes interviews with people who knew the artist — and O-Ei.
“According to researchers, O-Ei painted a lot of the pictures attributed to Hokusai,” he says. “He lived to be nearly 90, which was extremely long for a Japanese of that period. There are pictures he is said to have painted just before he died, but they don’t look anything like those a 90-year-old would have done. It may just be my imagination, but I believe that more than half the paintings Hokusai made in his latter years were collaborations with O-Ei. e_SLps In the film it may look as though they don’t get along very well, but I think he recognized that her talent as an artist exceeded his.”
Hara and his staff, including chief animator Yoshimi Itazu and background artist Hiroshi Ohno, have created a wonderfully detailed evocation of the Edo glimpsed in many of those paintings, combining a hand-drawn 2-D look with 3-D techniques.
“I wanted to see the Edo of the Edo Period,” Hara says. “The sky was bigger than it is now, since there were no tall buildings. Also, the Sumida River is not so clean now, but at the time it was a very beautiful river. e_SLps So people were closer to nature and had richer communications with those around them. The downside was that they had no privacy.”
With Hokusai’s stranger work as a touchstone, the film also ventures into the ghostly and fantastic realms of the imagination, which, as Hara notes, were not so imaginary to the people of the time.
“People seriously believed in ghosts and goblins and that a giant catfish was the cause of earthquakes,” Hara says. “Belief in the existence of the uncanny and nonhuman was taken for granted.”
As valuable as Sugiura’s manga was as a source of information and inspiration, both visual and narrative, its episodic form, with each installment a stand-alone, made it hard to adapt to film. Hara says he solved the story problem by focusing on O-Ei’s relationship with O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), her blind younger sister, who is living apart with their mother, Koto (Jun Miho). (Although still on speaking terms with Koto, Hokusai has a superstitious dread of the disabled that keeps him from visiting her and the girl.)
“Once I got the idea of comprehensively depicting the relationship between the sisters in the first half (of the film), I had pretty much decided on the path I should follow,” Hara says.
Often prickly with her father and Zenjiro, O-Ei reveals a softer, more caring side with O-Nao as she introduces the girl to the wonders of the visible world. As she watches O-Nao romp in the snow with a local boy, she is uncomfortably reminded her of her father’s stern devotion to work when she was of the same age, as well as his unbending determination to make her follow in his footsteps.
These scenes of sisterly bonding give the film much of its emotional power, as well as advancing the story of O-Ei’s development as a person and an artist independent of her father’s long shadow. However, the usual sort of Japanese commercial film sentimentality is nowhere to be found.
Also, O-ei’s comically awkward interactions with the tall, handsome Kuninao (Kengo Kora), an artist from the rival Utagawa school who is a friend of Zenjiro and a fan of Hokusai, humanize her rather austere character. But they do not lead in the expected romantic direction.
Finally, instead of neatly tying together his various narrative threads at the end, Hara leaves the audience wondering — and wanting to know more.
“That’s a good ending for a film, I believe — to make the audience think,” he says. “They can imagine what happens to the characters afterwards. I like that sort of movie myself.”