Rated PG-13 (1:30)
At Kahala 8
The year is 1814. A demure, kimono-clad young woman walks across a crowded bridge in Japan’s capital city, Edo. Have we heard, she asks, about “a nutty old man” who creates enormous paper canvases?
“That nutty old man,” she says as, out of nowhere, 21st-century electric guitars create a rock music crescendo, “is my father.”
That opening scene of “Miss Hokusai” says a lot about the offbeat sensibility of this unusual, visually adventurous animated feature. Directed by Keiichi Hara and adapted by Miho Maruo from a celebrated manga by Hinako Sugiura, “Miss Hokusai” surprises us with its different emotional tones, ranging from the sinister and supernatural to the unapologetically sexual and the sweetly sentimental.
It is the story of the artistic and personal evolution of a real person, a young woman named O-Ei (voiced by Anne Higashide), who is the daughter of legendary painter and woodblock artist Hokusai, best known for images like “The Great Wave.”
Gruff, grumpy and unconcerned about personal hygiene, Hokusai, known to his daughter by his real name, Tetsuzo (Yutaka Matsushige), lives only to paint, and his daughter, who shares living space with him, does the same.
“We don’t cook, we don’t clean; if it gets too dirty, we move,” she says with typical bravado, adding in conversation with her fastidious mother, long since moved out, “With two brushes and four chopsticks, we’ll get by anywhere.”
Life with her father, however, is more complicated than that. She is invaluable to him professionally, often doing work that is sold under his name, including erotic drawings known as “pillow paintings” that would be unusual for women of the time to see, let alone create.
O-Ei has to put up with the boorish behavior of her father’s drunken friend and fellow painter Zenjiro (Gaku Hamada), as well as the dismissive grumbling of her father, who frequently tells her that her erotic paintings are lacking because she herself is without personal experience.
O-Ei attempts to remedy that lack by hanging out in Edo’s red light district, painting great courtesans of the day, including regal Sayogoromo (Kumiko Aso).
In glimpses of O-Ei’s day-to-day existence, “Miss Hokusai” comes to life.
Poignantly, we see O-Ei’s relationship with her younger sister O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), blind from birth, who lives with Buddhist nuns as her father has nothing to do with her. O-Nao is captivated by sounds, and one of “Miss Hokusai’s” most memorable moments involves a young boy who knocks snow off trees because he can see how much O-Nao enjoys the sound it makes.
When our travels with O-Ei are over, we understand when she says, “This life is nothing special, but we’re enjoying it,” and we feel privileged to have been along on the journey.