Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is Japan’s most famous painter, if the countless reproductions of his best-known work, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” are any measure.

Though for all his productivity in his 88 years, and the commercial success of his woodblock prints, Hokusai lived an itinerant life, changing residence a reported 93 times, while never escaping poverty. (Not that, with his cavalier attitude toward money, he tried very hard.)

This bumptious, eccentric genius also led a life full of incident, which has since been pored over by biographers. However, some mysteries remain, such as the contribution of his artist daughter, Oi, to his later work.

Run Time 129 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Hajime Hashimoto’s sprawling biopic of the artist therefore has a lot of ground to cover. Instead of skimming through Hokusai’s nine decades, the film sensibly concentrates on the dawn and twilight of his career, with Yuya Yagira playing the artist in his youth and butoh performer Min Tanaka taking over the later years.

Len Kawahara’s script gives Oi (played by Kawahara herself) rather short shrift while framing her mother, Hokusai’s historically obscure second wife Koto (Miori Takimoto), as a cheerfully selfless helpmate and the too-soon-departed love of his life, all sheer invention.

More puzzling is a story that makes other characters the focus of much of the action, leaving Hokusai something of a supporting player in his own movie. Publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo (Hiroshi Abe), the patron of the young Hokusai, stoically looks on as the Edo (old Tokyo) police invade his bookshop and burn his woodblock prints for their “immoral” contents. Also, fellow master artist and confirmed libertine Kitagawa Utamaro (Hiroshi Tamaki) is later arrested for violating the strict censorship laws.

Other than lamenting shogunate restrictions on artistic freedom, Hokusai does nothing in their defense — while suffering no consequences himself — despite his own unabashed contributions to what the country’s samurai rulers considered social degeneracy. Examples could be multiplied, though spoilers would be needed to detail them.

Instead, his story is a familiar one of an up-and-coming artist finding his voice and vocation, while being socialized out of his early rudeness and crudeness: first by his understanding patron, then by his loving wife. Meanwhile, we get glimpses of Utamaro, who finds his subjects in brothels and scorns the lack of sex appeal in Hokusai’s women, and Toshusai Sharaku (Seishu Uragami), a young unknown who produces work of startling originality. Both characters, however, are something of genre cliches.

More interesting is the story of the old Hokusai, whose career gets a second wind after a stroke temporarily paralyzes his drawing hand. How he accomplishes his miraculous recovery is not fully explained (the biographical record is also unclear), but playing this white-haired genius fiercely tottering to find new inspirations — a red Mount Fuji at dusk being among the most famous — Tanaka is a force of nature, unstoppable and unquenchable.

Also, Akihiko Nihonmatsu’s vibrant and atmospheric cinematography makes everything from Edo’s jostling dens of sin to the deserted Kanagawa coast look evocative of Hokusai’s art and life.

And we see the de rigueur shots of hands (obviously not belonging to the actors) drawing in the artist’s style of the moment, from the firm lines of his youth to the trembly ones of his old age.

The real thing, however, is inimitable. There are the waves of nature, the waves of lesser artists and, alone in its spiky grandeur, “The Great Wave.”

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