Sometimes you can’t teach, only manifest. And sometimes you don’t teach, only manifest.
The new anime feature “Miss Hokusai,” playing SIFF Cinema Uptown Oct. 28 to Nov. 3, dwells on famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose work you’ve seen if you’ve ever seen a print of Mount Fuji, and especially huge foam-edged waves with Mount Fuji in the background; and his daughter Katsushika Oi, who lived and worked with him for much of his life, until his death in 1849. It doesn’t come steeped in facts, since certainties about the great man and his daughter are few.
Based on a series of manga by the late Hinako Sugiura, the film has little to teach, in the conventional sense of that term, about art, legacies, fathers and daughters. It creates its characters and its settings, sets them against each other, and settles into the richness of results.
Director Keiichi Hara follows Hokusai and Oi as they live, work and move.
“We never clean,” she explains in voice-over, “When it gets too dirty, we move.”
We never learn exactly how many wives and other children Hokusai leaves stashed in other places, where he almost never visits, although the story does introduce a blind younger sister for Oi, who probably didn’t exist in real life. The little blind girl sets a counterpoint to the beauty of what’s onscreen – in which she, of course, could never take part.
Oi comes off very much like her father, whether she’d like that to be said or not. Both are withdrawn and aloof. Both are prone to taking in a scene and offering a sardonic take on their lives. His heavy-lidded eyes contrast with her wide-open ones; she shows subtle emotions mostly with her thin line of a mouth.
But with her little sister, she summons all the affection she’s capable of. Though she hasn’t had much of a role model.
Hinako Sugiura did study the Edo period to prepare her manga, and this richness translates well to the screen. The episodic nature of the manga, carried over, means that the characters don’t move in a conventional story arc, so much goes unresolved – notably Oi’s hesitation around male suitors as contrasted with a strange, sad, fumbling night in a courtesan’s bed which hints at a sexuality unfulfilled or, at least, unexplored.
The film finds its building blocks in composition, sometimes summoning Hokusai’s best-known works, as when a boat does indeed meet the waves
with Fuji in the distance. Sometimes it’s more intimate, as when one of Hokusai’s apprentices drags a fellow home from the bar to meet the master, filling our frame with a drunken young man who’s shy about saying hello, a drunken acolyte wondering if he’s made exactly the worst call of his young life, and Hokusai keeping himself to himself.
From Hokusai's view of the huge Ryogoku Bridge, we realize that we can’t know the stories of any of the tiny people on it for sure, just as we can’t know Hokusai and Oi’s stories for sure. But we can imagine and take flight from the artist’s imagination. That’s a precious kind of education.