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MISS HOKUSAI - Behind every great artist...

MISS HOKUSAI (Keiichi Hara, 2015)

-Mocha J Herrup, PhD

3 April 2023

Behind every great artist….

MISS HOKUSAI takes place in the 19th century during the latter part of Japan’s Edo era, 250 years of notable stability when what is now Tokyo became the center for art and commerce. During this last vestige of feudal society, the 20% of the population living in urban areas (the remaining 80% were mostly rice paddy farmers in rural areas) were afforded something unique and quite unheard of throughout much of history: Free time.

Ukiyo-e, or “art of the floating world,” developed in an environment in which people had time to enjoy activities such as entertainment, arts and crafts, and gardening for pleasure – what we might call pastimes today, literally ways to pass time. The “floating world” encapsulates this idea of passing time – the transient and ephemeral nature of our world.

Considered Ukiyo-e’s most famous artists, Hokusai (1760-1849) is perhaps best known to Western audiences for his painting that became a global icon, “The Great Wave.”

This artist who called himself “Man mad about painting” was as prolific as he was eccentric, drawing, painting, and making prints for upper crust Lords and commoners alike for over 80 years.

So we think.

Today, there is debate about the origins of Hokusai’s works, and many believe that the artist’s daughter, O-Ei, a talented artist in her own right, was behind or took part in many of the mad man’s creative production, particularly in his later years. To some, the name “Hokusai” stands for both of them, with the art being more the result of studio effort than any one artist’s hand (think: House of Gucci). But this is mostly speculative, based on non-exhaustive historical records and the way that some advanced eyes claim to detect subtle differences in tone, line, color and perspective. Interestingly, there is little motivation for the museum and collector industrial complex to pursue the veracity of O-Ei’s involvement in Hokusai’s work, as this would then diminish the art’s commercial value.

Keiichi Hara’s beautiful animated film, MISS HOKUSAI, explores this alternate reality of the great Hokusai’s legacy, and is based on “Sarusuberi,” a very popular series of Japanese comics in the 1980s created by manga artist Hinako Sugiura depicting the Hokusais and their contemporaries. Filmmaker Hara was a huge fan of this series, and the blossoms of the sarusberi plant, known to English speakers as crape myrtle, is a central metaphor in the film. The red flowers blossom, disperse, blossom, and disperse.

While the film is heavily influenced by the comic series, MISS HOKUSAI departs from the vivid portrayal in some significant ways. O-Ei’s blind younger sister, O-Nao, only mentioned once in Sugiura’s work, is at the heart of MISS HOKUSAI, putting O-Ei’s capacity for love and Hokusai’s callous behavior in high relief. The scenes with O-Ei and O-Nao on the famous Edo Bridge, along with O-Nao’s encounter with the joy of snowfall, are two of the most sumptuous and moving segments of the film.

Also worth noting, the anachronistic electric guitars on the film’s soundtrack, on both the English and Japanese audio versions, is Hara’s homage to Hinako Suguira, who liked to listen to rock music as she drew her famous cartoons.

MISS HOKUSAI is a great introduction to Ukiyo-e art and the Edo Era, and an intriguing companion to NBAM’s current exhibition.

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