The animated movie “Miss Hokusai” imagines what life was like for the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the Japanese artist best known for the woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Although historians know little about her, O-Ei was one of her father’s artistic protégés. Yet director Keiichi Hara has other source material to work with: the manga series “Sarusuberi,” by Hinako Sugiura.
Although it’s lovely to look at, the movie is disjointed and is told through a seemingly random collection of vignettes, some of which are more memorable than others. These anecdotes introduce us to a young woman whose tough exterior belies the emotions, pain and self-doubt that lie just below the surface. O-Ei lives a squatter’s life with her father and his friend, a drunken artist named Zenjiro, as she spends her days painting and drawing.
Her father relishes this kind of existence, but O-Ei needs more. And so she spends spare moments hanging out with her younger sister, O-Nao, a sickly blind girl whom her father refuses to acknowledge. The estrangement is a bit of poetic license, but it poses a worthwhile question, one that the film never fully explores: To be a renowned artist, do you have to forgo everything else in life? In one sad scene, O-Ei reminisces about a day when she was a child trying to get her father to play with her in the snow. Instead, he sits her down and hands her a pad of paper and a paintbrush.
The relationship between O-Ei and O-Nao gives the movie its emotional core, although there’s a lot more going on. Some of the episodes take a turn for the surreal, as O-Ei and her father investigate a woman driven mad by one of O-Ei’s paintings, and what appears to be a case of supernatural possession. In a more earthly turn, O-Ei spends a night in a brothel — all in the service of her art. Her father commends her on her portraits of courtesans, but explains that she won’t be able to depict sensuality until she’s experienced it.
In short, this isn’t a movie for kids. Younger viewers also are unlikely to appreciate some of the more imaginative Easter eggs in the film, such as a re-creation of Hokusai’s famous “Wave,” and other imagery from his art, seamlessly embedded in the narrative.
“Miss Hokusai” is more adept at delivering beautiful visuals than anything deeper. That’s perhaps not all that ironic, given that the movie’s portrayal of Hokusai is as a man who valued art above all else.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sexual situations and images. Screenings will be offered in two versions: Japanese with subtitles and English-dubbed. 93 minutes.