The breaker—its roiling, surging mass seeming to dwarf Mount Fuji, off in the distance—starts to crest over the small boats like a creature of clenching foam. This is Hokusai’s famous woodblock print Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1831). It resurfaces in Miss Hokusai, Keiichi Hara’s adaptation of Hinako Sugiura’s ’80s manga about the master’s strikingly talented daughter, Ōi (voiced by Anne Watanabe). Some minutes in, as Ōi takes her young blind sister Onao out onto the river in Edo (Tokyo), she describes the sea to her and they’re caught up in the work itself, that wave surging down on them.
The movie’s episodic but, once it hits its stride half-an-hour in, what episodes they can be—poetic or fantastical moments like that one, or a boy showing Onao the patter of snow falling from tree branches (sound’s crisply used throughout here), or a lady haunted by Ōi’s panel depicting hell. Ōi, painter of creatures, people, landscapes, even erotica, can’t slake her thirst for perceptual and sensual delights: crowds passing over Ryoguku Bridge; a house fire at night; sleeping with a cross-dressing courtesan. And art overlaps in 1814 Japan with visions and possessions and spirits (snaking phantom limbs or heads stream wraith-like through the air).
This is a film about professional and personal dedication. When Ōi’s not painting assiduously or acting as a guide for her little sister (certain, because of her blindness and sickliness, that she’s bound for hell), she must contend with the men around her: two who seem interested in her, her father’s rather silly sot of a student, and the exacting, stern Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige) or “Tetsuzo” himself. He says that she doesn’t draw men well enough and completes that panel of hell with a deft little religious touch, giving the haunted madam peace at last. Yet the master-artist, living with Ōi in a perpetually messy little studio-home, neglects his family and can be imperious, even insufferable (“Tetsuzo is a coward” thinks or says Ōi, more than once).
Miss Hokusai gets jarred by a few too-modern music-moments and some preciousness in Ōi and Onao’s sisterhood, but otherwise it’s a steady sail through one woman’s artscape and life that can’t be entirely her own.