Probably for the best that Miss Hokusai didn’t get subbed until I had a chance to watch Rakugo Shinjuu first. Even though the Edo period predates rakugo, this movie remains similarly steeped in storytelling and embraces the power of art to transport its audience elsewhere. Art attracts the watchful gaze for better or worse, awakening the brief flights into fantasy. This gains further meaning due to Onao being born blind and the only way she can perceive art is through her sister’s descriptive storytelling. As Ukiyo-e paintings decorate reality, it’s key that Oei paints the picture of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa for Onao’s headspace, instead of her negligent father.
Visualize it in your head, then wait until it has to come down, as if the dragon came to life. And after he comes into this world, sketch it rapidly with small strokes of the brush. This creature is different from all the others. So, the way it’s portrayed is also very different.
There’s a fine line drawn between the red-light district of Yoshiwara and the Camellias, Oei’s favorite flower in comparison to the indifference for skinship. The match cuts that Oei shares with the prostitute and Onao work towards the same purpose, presenting different approaches to art, as do the hellish shadow of a demonic claw and the hand reaching for enlightenment. It’s easy to see the Ryogoku Bridge, which Onao loves, as both physical and mental transportation. The bridge expands her limited horizons, lending itself a transformative property for spiritual maturity and a means of more grounded change, most evident in the final shot where the city of Edo blossoms into Tokyo. Commonly frequented by Oei, it begins and ends her story, following her development as an artist. While her father ironically searched for real artistry in the unreal to no avail, it’s significant how the opening scenes draw from life, capturing the bond between a pair of sparrows as Oei finds her masterpiece in the loving memory of her sister. Elevating beyond the restrictions of Zenjirou’s mere imitation, Oei comes into her own by departing from her father’s erotic drawings (a separation akin to Sayogoromo’s out-of-body experience) to discover a sensuality that evokes just as much passion, but refined with the purity of the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
In addition, it turned out to be a fine time to watch Le Portrait de Petit Cossette too, since I see it as a counterpoint to Miss Hokusai. While both more or less arrive at the same conclusion (artistry is best pure, not perverted), Cossette mainly thrives on unhealthy fascination with artifice as the perfect illusion takes priority over and distracts one from reality. Miss Hokusai is less prone to escapism and views art as an integral part of our existence, enriching the experience of life. One tears people apart and the other brings them together, but both demonstrate the power of art.