Miss Hokusai is the story of real person Katsushika Ōi. Well, stories of real person Katsushika Ōi. The anime is an episodic memoir mostly about Ōi (voiced by Anne Watanabe) and her younger sister, O-Nao (voiced by Shimizu Shion). The film doesn’t specify but they’re half-sisters, daughters to famous Japanese Edo period artist Katsushika Hokusai (Matsushige Yutaka). Ōi is also an artist, working under her father’s tutelage and when the movie’s not about her and her blind, sickly sister, it’s about her and her dad’s other slightly eccentric (and obviously all male) students.
Oh, and her love life. Almost the entire second act is about Ōi not being good at the erotica art because she’s a virgin. Except it’s all done in fades-to-black-in-between episodes (to the point you can tell when one is running too long), which would be more effective if it had a lyrical structure instead of just a herky-jerky epical.
The problem with Hokusai—other than the disaster third act—is the narrative distance. It’s not a character study of Ōi, it’s a mildly cloying look at the world she inhabits. Someone—screenwriter Maruo Miho or original mangaka Sugiura Hinako—utterly punts on the character study approach, which leads to the father ending up the most compelling character (and performance by a voice actor). The most compelling character overall is the sick sister because she’s literally just there for a combination of sympathy and period empathy (the kid’s convinced she’s going to someday end up in Hell because she’s blind). Shimizu’s good as the kid. None of the performances are bad, but Shimizu’s good enough to stand out. Otherwise it’s just about waiting for the father to speak because it’s always words of wisdom; Matsushige does a great job with it.
There are a lot of effective sequences once Ōi starts showing some agency (she’s got to worry about her dad’s professional contracts because he’s an artiste and can’t be bothered with money, wives, or blind daughters—but in a soulful way… they really should’ve gotten Mickey Rourke to do a dub); anyway. The directors do an all right job with a lot of it, leveraging a bunch of CGI backdrops—but not bad until the end when it’s too late anyway—and for a while Hokusai’s somewhat jarring rising action is effective.
Until the third act when the movie gives the best stuff to the father and reduces Ōi to a narrator of his biography, then her own. In that order, obviously. The finish is reductive and truncated in the worst ways. Then there’s some terrible CGI. Plus rock music.
Hokusai’s music is a whole thing. There’s rock to show how Ōi is really a modern girl living in nineteenth century Japan. Except the generic rock music’s for some eighties movie about white kids learning to dance in rural America. The rest of Fuuki Harumi’s music is fine; I wouldn’t be surprised if the rock was added for the American releases (even the Japanese language ones). Though I also wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t.
The animation’s solid. There are some highlights when visualizing the painting of the actual historical artists’ paintings.
After a very slow burn, Miss Hokusai goes into its third act at a reasonable high and then belly flops. It could’ve been a success of cloying melodrama. Instead it’s just respectably unsuccessful.