The year is 1814 and a demure kimono-clad young woman walks across a crowded bridge in Japan’s capital city of Edo. Have we heard, she asks us, about “a nutty old man” who creates enormous paper canvases and also paints two sparrows on a grain of rice?
“That nutty old man,” she concludes as, out of nowhere, 21st century electric guitars create a rock music crescendo on the soundtrack, “is my father.”
That opening scene of “Miss Hokusai” says a lot about the offbeat sensibility of this unusual, visually adventurous animated feature, simultaneously modern and steeped in Japanese culture and history.
Directed by Keiichi Hara and adapted by Miho Maruo from a celebrated manga by Hinako Sugiura, “Miss Hokusai” surprises us with its different emotional tones, ranging from the sinister and supernatural to the unapologetically sexual and the sweetly sentimental.
Most of all it is the story of the artistic and personal evolution of a real person about whom little is known, a young woman named O-Ei (voiced by Anne Higashide) who is the daughter of the legendary painter and woodblock artist Hokusai, best known for images like “The Great Wave” that this film brings to vivid life.
Gruff, grumpy and unconcerned about personal hygiene, Hokusai, known to his daughter by his real name Tetsuzo (Yutaka Matsushige), lives only to paint, and his daughter, who shares living space with him, does the same.
“We don’t cook, we don’t clean, if it gets too dirty, we move,” she tells us with typical bravado, adding in conversation with her fastidious mother, long since moved out, “With two brushes and four chopsticks, we’ll get by anywhere.”
Life with her father, however, is more complicated than that. She is invaluable to him professionally, often doing work that is sold under his name, including erotic drawings known as “pillow paintings” that would be unusual for respectable women of the time to see, let alone create.
O-Ei also has to put up with the boorish behavior of her father’s drunken friend and fellow painter Zenjiro (Gaku Hamada), who lives with them, as well as the dismissive grumbling of her father, who frequently tells her that her erotic paintings are lacking because she herself is without personal experience in that area.
O-Ei attempts to remedy that lack by hanging out in Edo’s busy red light district (animation for toddlers, “Miss Hokusai” is not) and painting the great courtesans of the day, including the regal Sayogoromo (Kumiko Aso).
It is in glimpses like these of O-Ei’s day-to-day existence that “Miss Hokusai” comes to life, as we see her dealing carefully with men who are attracted to her as well as a vivid illustration of the exhilaration she feels watching the huge conflagrations that were a regular feature of Edo life.
Most poignantly, we see O-Ei’s relationship with her younger sister O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), blind from birth, who lives with Buddhist nuns because her father will have nothing to do with her.
O-Nao is captivated by sounds, and one of “Miss Hokusai’s” most memorable moments involves a young boy who knocks snow off trees because he can see how much O-Nao enjoys the sound it makes.
Also a key part of O-Ei’s personal landscape are the ghostly stories she hears, like the one about a painting of hell she collaborated on with her father that was so powerful it caused the woman whose husband owned it to hallucinate that evil spirits were coming to get her.
When our travels with O-Ei are over, we not only understand when she says, “this life is nothing special but we’re enjoying it,” we feel privileged to have been along on the journey.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual situations and images.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles.