It's refreshing how the Japanese approach to animation is not as boxed in as the American, and generally the western, approach. No matter how inventive or groundbreaking our animated features might be, there's almost an unspoken rule that a mainstream piece of animation has to tell grand adventure tales with a bunch of dazzling action set pieces. That's not necessarily the case with the Japanese counterpart, where the medium enjoys a wide range of styles and narrative approaches, from the seizure-inducing manic sci-fi animes, all the way to slice-of-life dramas that use animation as a way to heighten the story's reality.
Miss Hokusai is one of those films. It's series of subtle, meditative, and ultimately human vignettes, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking, centered on the early 19th century life of the title character, a painter who's almost more passionate about her art than her workaholic father Katsushika Hokusai. The characters are based on real legendary painters of the era, whose artistic influence on the Edo period was significant to say the least. Yet the film doesn't treat itself as a strict biography, and has fun mixing straight character drama with embellishments that even include ghost stories and an overall mystical tone.
It has a fairly episodic and at times atonal approach, to be sure, apparently adopting the style of the manga series it's based on, but the way the film embraces the tight emotional bond and the organically developed relationships between the father, the daughter, and her blind sister, provides the thematic glue that brings together one of the most moving animated features of recent years. Miss Hokusai was made by Production IG, known primarily for action-oriented sci-fi fare like Ghost in the Shell. They delve into Miyazaki territory so successfully here, that it would be perfectly understandable for even knowledgeable anime fans to think it to be a Studio Ghibli outing.
The delicate mix of hand drawn animation and CG elements, the attention to detail in everything from the smallest background object to the intricacies of each facial expression, the patience in which each sequence is built and executed as they put the emphasis on character over action, Miss Hokusai is an experience almost tailor made for Ghibli fans. Just look at a gorgeous and absolutely heartwarming sequence where a playful young boy goes out of his way to play with Miss Hokusai's blind sister. The scene gradually builds on the burgeoning friendship between the boy and the little girl, as we are transported to a tiny but refreshingly real moment within a culture and time period we're not familiar with. If cinema is the ultimate tool for empathy, this scene proves it.
Miss Hokusai's beautiful mix of traditional animation and more modern techniques shines in this gorgeous 1080p transfer. Every single detail pops on screen, and the vibrant contrast between the colors are represented with great detail.
We get DTS-HD 5.1 tracks in both Japanese and dubbed English. The English dubbing is solid, but of course I'll always recommend the Japanese track for the authentic experience. This is especially true in the case of this film, since the subject matter and the narrative approach are entrenched in Japanese culture. The Japanese track puts us in the middle of the time period, with an ambient sound mix that utilizes all tracks.
The Making of: This is a treat for fans of the film as well as anime fans. An almost two-hour documentary, it covers every aspect of the production. This is the only extra we get, short of a trailer, but it's a major one.
We also get a Trailer.
Miss Hokusai was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016, a year that had its fair share of great animated fare. It's a treat for fans of anime, Japanese history, Japanese art, and all around great storytelling. The spectacular A/V presentation on the Blu-ray does the film justice.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com