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As many other animation critics have pointed out, this year produced a huge abundance of films, a majority of them pretty much in the same ballpark. Variety is the spice of life, and yet even seeing how financially successful animated films have been this year, they tend to stay in the realm of brightly colored, celebrity-riddled, and fast-paced comedies. Not that this can’t be a good thing since a lot of great animated films use all three elements, like 2014’s best animated film, The LEGO Movie, but it would be nice for animation studios to take different steps and diversify themselves. So many studios follow what’s successful, and while that isn’t a bad idea at all, I mean, this is an industry wanting to make money, but they should also work on making their own identities. With situations like DreamWorks, they can definitely do comedies, but it seems like they are better at story and character-focused films, like Kung Fu Panda 3 and How to Train your Dragon 2. Illumination is good at Looney Toons-style comedies, but their stories lack depth. I don’t think I want there to be a ban on fast-paced comedies, but it would be nice to have diversity. That’s why I was super-excited for this film, Miss Hokusai. This Japanese animated film was directed by Keiichi Hara, who was the director of the well-received film, Colorful. When this film came out, it made waves, and was a popular film among film festivals. It even won multiple awards, including the Jury Prize at the Annecy Film Festival, the Gold Audience Award for best animated feature from the Fantasia International Film Festival, and the Satoshi Kon Award for best animated feature film. When I saw that GKids was going to bring this over, I got excited. So, how does it all turn out?
Miss Hokusai revolves around the daughter of Hokusai, Katsushika Oi, voiced by Erica Lindbeck. She lives with her father, the famous painter known as Hokusai, voiced by one of the best anime voice actors around, Richard Epcar. The movie mostly follows her interaction with her family and different people, ranging from Hokusai’s apprentices to random customers who hire them for art commissions.
The interesting thing about this film’s plot is that it doesn’t really have a major plot going on. It forgoes the three-act structure, and the film really isn’t building up to something big. Instead, the film is more down to earth, slice of life, and real. It definitely reminds me of films like The Rabbi’s Cat, where most of the film is the characters interacting with each other about life and art. Some could see this as a downside, since there is no major story to connect to, or it feels unfocused. I can definitely understand that statement, but I disagree. The big risk about doing these types of films is making sure you keep the characters interesting, since if you can’t invest or be interested in the characters, then no one wants to watch your “plotless” film. What works about the “plot” is while it isn’t traditionally set up, there is actual character development developing. You see little stories unfold about the individual characters, like Katsushika Oi’s relationship with her mother, father, her younger blind sister, her artistic talent compared to her father and other artists, and life. Hokusai also has an interesting sub-story about his thoughts on life and his relationship with the blind daughter, and why he doesn’t visit her. You even get these Birdman-style fantasy elements that are woven in, but don’t distract from the more grounded story. It’s a film that is the purest definition of being “real”. The interactions, how they talk, and their moods really does show what Japanese animated films can be like. Anime is unfortunately stuck in this deep ditch of preconceptions and tropes that stew, and give it an unlikely image, since most will just see it as all the same schlock. While most anime can and will be terrible due to the industry only producing certain types of anime, every once in a while you get something like a Ghibli film, a Makoto Shinkai film, something from Mamoru Hosoda, or a film like Memories that goes against the common opinion about this genre of animation. Miss Hokusai is the most recent example of this, where the film might be dripping with Japanese culture, but the characters are interesting and relatable enough to be worth investing in, with the dialogue sounding more fluid and natural than what you find in something like Ghost in the Shell. You feel for the characters, and while some moments can be a bit sappy, everything else is just so good that you don’t mind it.
The animation is great. While it might not be the super-hyper style of animation so many American audiences are used to, that’s because the characters needed more fluid and non-exaggerated ways of moving. It would be distracting if this film had something like, Hotel Transylvania or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs-style animation. I also like how the designs aren’t traditional anime. The characters have more realistic proportions. Miss Hokusai also has a lot of quiet and tender moments that let the audience breath, and let them into their world. It’s very reminiscent of something from Hayao Miyazaki. The voice cast also does a great job at personifying the characters from the old sort of pessimistic, but caring Hokusai, to the silent, but stubborn Oi. While I definitely feel like Richard Epcar was perfect casting in how he doesn’t use his Jigen Daisuke or Batou voice, the rest of the cast, including long-time veteran Erza Weisz, Courtney Chu, Marc Diraison, Cindy Robinson, Mike Pollock, Kevin T. Collins, and Robbie Daymond pull off strong performances. The music by Harumi Fuki is also very elegant and inspiring, and fits the mood in each scene.
Now, with all that said, and I really do love this movie, I have a few minor gripes. Sometimes the scenes with the younger sister are a bit sappy. You can kind of tell what’s going to happen, but they are done well enough that you care about what happens with her, and when she is with her older sister and father. I also found the ending to be yet again abrupt. It’s all done with Oi on the busy bridge that you see at the beginning of the film talking about what happened to everyone. I wish I could have seen that instead of been told that movie. I know this film wasn’t all about having a three-act structure and a big pay-off, but I hate it when Japanese animated films are like this. It happens way too often, and it comes off like they have no idea how to end their story properly. It doesn’t ruin the movie at all, but it’s noticeable. There is also one scene where Oi goes to a brothel with male prostitutes, and the scene itself is done well enough and does have context for the character, but it almost could have been something unsavory. It never came close to the whole Wings of Honneamise scene that taints the film, but they were lucky in Miss Hokusai that it was executed as such, or else people would probably have a field day about it. As a final personal nitpick and personal taste sort of comment, I do wish there were more romantic moments with Oi and the man she is crushing on, but it was probably done lightly to reinforce her strong character traits and not having to rely on falling in love with a guy, like so many movies are going to do.
I think anyone into art should definitely see Miss Hokusai. It’s a complex movie, and is easily one of my top five favorite movies of the year, and that’s saying something, with a year that has Kubo and the Two Strings, Zootopia, The Little Prince, and Only Yesterday. If you are in a city with the film playing nearby, definitely go see it, and definitely buy it. It’s one of the best animated films of the year, and shows that Keiichi Hara has a great future ahead for himself, and could easily be up there with Mamoru Hosoda as being some of the best anime directors to a new generation of film makers. I want to keep going with this stream of positivity and talk finally talk about Wes Anderson as we take a look at Fantastic Mr. Fox. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the review, and see you all next time.