“This life is nothing special, but we’re enjoying it,” says O-Ei (voiced by Anne Watanabe), a young woman who apprenticed under her well-known painter father in early-19th-century Japan, at the end of the animated biography Miss Hokusai. That sentiment is probably true of most of us, yet when we’re telling stories, we tend to magnify the more sensational bits. Not so with Keiichi Hara’s quietly lyrical film, which condenses everyday interactions, memories, and dreams in O-Ei’s life into a potent mix of all the major ingredients of a well-lived life, including family love, companionship, humor, sex, work, natural and manmade beauty, and sorrow.
Drawn as a big-eyed beauty, O-Ei is self-confident and self-contained. Her closest relationship appears to be with her blind little sister, O-Nao (Shion Shimizu), but there’s a whole world of feeling within that circle of two. The tender love, confidences, and unspoken understandings that pass between the sisters are economically and movingly conveyed throughout the film. And Hara’s depictions of the outings the sisters share make excellent use of the ambient soundtrack as O-Ei describes the things around them and O-Nao tunes intently into the sounds, calling our attention to the layered noises that are always in the background, capturing everything from the murmuring roar of a crowd on a busy footbridge to the plaintive call of a lone bird.
It condenses everyday dealings, memories, and dreams into a potent mix of all the major ingredients of a well-lived life.
Other than O-Nao, O-Ei interacts mainly with her father, Hokusai (Yutaka Matsushige), and Zenjiro (Gaku Hamada), another young painter who’s working with and learning from her father. She lives with her father as an artist, free of conventional women’s roles, in a messy house that’s more art studio than home. “We don’t cook. We don’t clean. It gets too dirty, we move,” she says, and she moves through the bustling world of Edo and surrounding towns at will. Known for her skill at painting women, she helps with everything her father paints, including the erotic “pillow pictures” he’s often commissioned to make—though, as the gruff Hokusai points out, her lack of sexual experience makes her pillow pictures more artful than erotic. When she feels the need to solve her virginity problem, she simply heads out to hire a giggly male prostitute, in a humanistically humorous scene that unveils one surprise after another, its matter-of-fact delivery echoing O-Ei’s deadpan equilibrium.
There are hints of romance in her life; a young painter who’s a rival of her father’s is sweetly smitten with O-Ei, while she has an unrequited crush on another painter who’s one of Hokusai’s students. But the filmmakers relegate her marriage to one line in the title cards over the end credits. Rather than gin up a romance, they prefer to focus on the beauty, poignancy, and humor of more pedestrian things, like how the stray puppy that adopts O-Ei’s household stares, its whole body at attention, at a person’s face, or the ripples made by O-Nao’s hand as she trails it in the water when the sisters take a ride in a rowboat. They also bring to life some of the supernatural events that are a taken-for-granted part of O-Ei’s world—a way, one senses, of acknowledging the many mysteries that are beyond our comprehension.
Meanwhile, O-Ei and Hokusai’s constant striving to improve their art and Hokusai’s unvarnished critiques of his protégés’ work are a constant reminder of the importance of paying close attention. “That’s why your paintings are so crappy,” Hokusai tells the tuned-out Zenjiro every time the younger man fails to notice something important. As this film constantly but undidactically reminds us, our lives can be as mediocre as Zenjiro’s paintings, if we don’t keep our eyes and hearts open—or as vibrant as O-Ei’s, if we do.