Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Three Women Playing Musical Instruments, by O-Ei Hokusai
Art, erotica, girl power, and parent-child relationships — Miss Hokusai ought to have everything going for it.

Set in the Japanese capital city of Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 19th Century, it depicts the life of famed painter, Katsushika Hokusai, and his daughter, O-Ei, also a talented artist, who spends her days completing deadlines for her unreliable father.

This would have been a fascinating story for a live-action film. But as an offering from the popular Japanese animation studio, Production I.G (Ghost In the Shell), it's an odd mix of gorgeous, painterly vistas and lovely glimpses of historical and cultural traditions, with jarring modern rock music, cornball dialogue, and inane slapstick comedy.

(To be fair, I saw a version dubbed into English. It's possible that the Japanese-language version, with English subtitles — both versions are playing at the Del Mar — might work better.)

Daughter of Dragons: Miss Hokusai
Directed by Keiichi Hara, inspired by Hinako Sugiura’s manga comic Sarusuberi, the movie revolves around O-Ei, who lives with her slovenly, obsessed father. He has no vices, she tells us, he doesn't drink or smoke— all he does is paint. She paints too, and when her dad can't complete a commission on time, she's expected to fill in for him — without credit.

This makes O-Ei perpetually fed up and rankled, so she's not a character we ever exactly warm up to. We see her smoking a pipe and sketching erotic drawings (the elder Hokusai was famed for his erotica as well as his iconic land- and seascapes), but neither of these pastimes gives her character much extra dimension.

Hokusai, the Elder's Great Wave

The plot goes off on a lot of weird tangents. There's Hokusai's apprentice, a drunken ex-Samurai used for tedious comic relief, and his buddy, another young apprentice, making painfully gauche attempts to ingratiate himself with the profoundly uninterested O-Ei. It's interesting that one if the brothel geishas turns out to be male, but not much is done with that character.

The movie is most impressive, visually, when its static —a giant wave that recreates the famous Hokusai image, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa; a white winter landscape dotted with touches of red. The supernatural elements are also well-done: a dragon that grows out of storm clouds; Hokusai's dream of his hands flying around the world; a courtesan's nightmares fueled by a painting of Heaven and Hell. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)
Cherry Blossoms In the Night

O-Ei was an actual historical person whose excellent work was almost entirely submerged in her father's career. In most bygone eras, only women who were the daughters, or wives, of artists were allowed into the old boy's club of the arts.

You'd never know it from this movie (where O-Ei seems to be a teenager), but O-Ei (daughter of her father's second wife) had already been married and divorced before she moved back in with her father in his old age, when he was stricken with palsy and needed her help with his work.

She was never credited with any of the painting they did together. Born around 1800, she did her most creative work between about 1830 to 1850. Only ten paintings have been attributed to her hand alone— but look how cool they are!

In the ukiyo-e style of this era, each painting was painstakingly copied by a master engraver, and the images were then published as hand-pressed woodblock prints. O-Ei's Three Women Playing Musical Instruments is remarkable not only for the rich detail of dress, but also for the audacity of that central figure with her back to the viewer.

And given the complicated printing technique, the intricacy of light and shadow is amazing in Cherry Blossoms In the Night. (Also variously titled A Beauty Reading (or Writing) Poetry by Cherry Blossoms In the Night.)

Attribution of this painting to O-Ei is sketchy. Two or three websites credit it to O-Ei, which references keep popping up on other sites. Wikipedia doesn't list this painting among its "selected works" for O-Ei, although that might be due to the confusion about the title.

However, O-Ei was renowned for her work in chirascuro (shadow and light). As a point of reference look at the luminous Night Scene in Yoshiwara, which is definitely attributed to O-Ei.

The movie Miss Hokusai has its ups and downs. But it's always exciting to discover an unsung woman artist!

Sketch of O-Ei and her father by Tsuyuki Kosho, ca. 1842

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