So, Miss Hokusai currently is not licensed in the US but somehow Otakon was able to have a special showing of it as part of DC's cherry blossom festivals (along with Up on Poppy Hill and Letter to Momo). I was pretty thrilled to have a chance to see it and really hope someone picks it up soon (it rather feels like a GKIDS film) so that everyone else gets a chance.
Edo, Japan. The world is changing slowly but, as is often the case, it is people's inner and personal lives that are the most important to them. O-Ei's world is in some ways very small, she is the daughter of the painter Hokusai and spends her days helping her father work and doing her own art. But it's far from an unfulfilling life and, with the other characters who filter in and out, not a boring one either.
First thing first, O-Ei was a real person (although it looks like there's some debate over her name), really did help her father, and really was a painter herself. Historians don't know much more than that (as the final lines in the movie say, we're not even sure when/where she died?) but I still find it enormously cool that she was real at all and that we still have paintings from her. This movie is based off of a manga with the same name (literally "Sarusuberi") rather than strictly historical texts so it's definitely best to think of this story as historical fiction rather than historical fact.
The "fiction" part rears it's head quite quickly as well since the story engages in quite a bit of magical realism which caught me off guard. It varies from a dragon appearing in a thunderstorm (but unseen by the characters) to stories about ghostly body parts that stretch and wander as the person dreams. It sounds a bit odd but it fits rather well, it fits both into the setting (this is an earlier time when science was less rigorous and the world seemed more mysterious) and in an artistic sort of way (O-Ei and Hokusai basically berate their flatmate and say that he will never be a great artist if he can't "see" these things). I thought these moments kept the story flowing and varied myself, the story feels more like a series of vignettes than a single movie (again owing to the nature of the original manga) and these more supernatural episodes had a different tone to them than the more slice of life portions involving O-Ei with her beaus or younger sister.
It might seem odd that this is a movie about many painters and I haven't touched on the art yet but honestly I'm not very familiar with Hokusai! I've seen some of his works of course but I tend to favor woodblock prints from the generation of artists after him (like Kiyochika and Hasui), not Hokusai or his contemporaries. So, while I'm sure the movie was referencing a number of his works I only caught "The Great Wave" reference, hopefully someone more familiar than I will go through the film and catch what I missed. Otherwise, there are some really interesting sequences in terms of ideas and execution but not necessarily animation, there was only one or two bits with neat animation (in that sense it reminded me a lot of Ghibli film, it was very even handed production wise and stayed within a set art style, color schemes, and general looks instead of varying them to accentuate the mood). I thought it worked for the story however, I think it probably makes it a bit more accessible (that the production is so even-keeled) and I personally really liked O-Ei's really thick eyebrows.
Finally, one detail I liked about this movie is that, even though it's a historical story, there was absolutely no mention of O-Ei's gender. By which I mean, no scenes where people talked about her needing to get married, that she shouldn't be a painter, etc etc, the things we "expect" in any historical story about a woman. Maybe that's historical fact, I don't know how independent unmarried woman were under the Tokugawa Shogunate were, but regardless I liked having that bit of drama removed. Heck, one point in the story is that O-Ei draws better women than the men because she understands them better so, with that line of thinking, I was totally fine with the idea that she doesn't draw sexual scenes as well because she doesn't have the experience there! I suppose that's my one warning about the film as well, it's mostly an all ages audience but since there are a few scenes in the red lantern district.
All in all however I have no problem recommending this movie to both hardcore anime fans and more fringe fans who watch Ghibli films and maybe a few other things. It's a satisfying watch even if it's lack of a conventional plot means the story doesn't pace and wrap-up the way you might expect.