Brandon directed us to keep it spooky this past October, and although that’s normally my forte, there was a dearth of time to check out much horror goodness this past month (notably, my only review last month was of Magnificent Seven, while my review of tense anxiety-driven thriller Don’t Breathe found itself online during September). I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of the animated feature Miss Hokusai, which, despite not being a scary movie, does have a lot of the hallmarks thereof: ghosts, dragons, demons, and spectres.
The film exists less as a straightforward narrative and more as a series of vignettes that depict short periods of time in the life of Katsushika Ōi, the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, a painter most well known in the west for The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which I (and probably you) had a poster of in college. Plot descriptions of the film imply that the plot will largely center on the fact that Ōi was herself a painter whose own work was overshadowed by her more famous father, but this is actually a relatively minor element. The most overarching themes are Hokusai’s failure as a father to Ōi’s blind younger sister O-Nao (a character invented for the narrative), whom he ignores in favor of his work and because he feels responsible, as well as Ōi’s attempts to transcend her own artistic limitations. Along the way, she fends off an overzealous suitor and spends time with O-Nao, taking her for walks and treats.
The more striking visual elements come largely from dream sequences and a few scattered moments of magical realism. Most notably, a dragon that Ōi paints (after ruining Katsushika’s painting of the same) appears in the sky over their humble abode, and a courtesan whose neck is rumored to grow overnight is shown to have a spectral head that leaves her body in the night and attempts to fly away, but is kept in check by bed netting. In another sequence, a woman is haunted by dreams of Hell and the demons therein after receiving one of Ōi’s paintings depicting just that scene; Katsushika must correct this error by including an image of salvation in a tiny corner, underlining the apparent message that art releases beauty and terror into the world in equal measure. Ōi herself is also haunted by strange dreams of being trampled by gods when she realizes that O-Nao will die, and that the young girl fears damnation because her handicap prevents her from being a “good daughter” to her parents.
There’s a lot more going on in Miss Hokusai than is first apparent, but the film is not without its flaws either. The vignette nature of the film leaves something to be desired narratively, and there are musical choices that are, frankly, puzzling. Still, this is a beautiful movie with images that intrigue and disquiet, and it’s well worth watching if you can track down a screening.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond