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Miss Hokusai (2015)

One of the things that makes anime so attractive to some animation fans is its willingness to tackle genres that animation just doesn't dare touch in other countries. Even by the standards of Japanese animation though, the animated biographical drama is still relatively rare. Production IG's animated feature Miss Hokusai is just such a film, based on events in the life of historical figure O-Ei (real name Katsushika Ōi) .

O-Ei was the daughter of the legendary artist Katsushika Hokusai- best known for the iconic print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. O-Ei lives and works with her father, acting as his assistant, but she is actually becoming an increasingly accomplished artist in her own right. While she may appear to be the demure and reserved lady required by Japanese culture of the time, in the studio she is a feisty, pipe-smoking independent woman more than capable of holding her own against her brash father and his colleagues.

Director Keiichi Hara brings 18th Century Japan to life in stunning detail. With Production IG involved, the animation was sure to be impressive, but even by their high standards this is a beautiful film. The film creates a completely convincing and immersive picture of a bustling and busy city in the form of the old capital Edo (now Tokyo). This is a period in Japanese history that is familiar from many years of films, animation and manga, but yet here it still feels fresh. This is an era we are more accustomed to seeing as being full of samurai, ninja and bloodshed so the bright skies and colors of Hara's version of feudal Japan makes it much more appealing.

The animation also pays homage to Hokusai's work directly, with some wonderful recreation of his pieces both in animated form and still images. The most memorable of course is based on The Great Wave, and it's no surprise that this imagery has played a big part in the film's marketing.

This is not a straightforward retelling of O-Ei's life, however- it is actually an adaption of the manga biography Sarusuberi . Rather than a cradle to the grave story, it concentrates on a very specific period of time, and uses it to tell a coming-of-age story, or a story of her finding her voice. It has an unusual structure too, playing out more like a series of vignettes rather than one ongoing story.

More surprisingly, it also adds supernatural elements to the story. The presence of ghosts and yokai (mythical Japanese creatures) lends an extra dimension to the film. Although it is arguable that the film would have been strong enough to work without them, it does help give the film its own unique flavour, and they are not overused. It's not entirely clear if the ghost story elements are meant to be taken literally or not, but ultimately it really doesn't matter.

The film's real strength though is in its characters. Miss Hokusai herself is an easy to root for lead, at once spunky and surprisingly modern while also having a real vulnerability to her. Hokusai senior is gruff and flawed but there's a genuine believability and warmth to his relationship with his daughter. Best of all though is the relationship between O-Ei and her blind and sickly younger sister, which truly provides the story with its emotional core.

It's this touching relationship that powers the standout scene, when O-Ei takes her sister out for her first walk in the snow. Not only does this provide us with some of the most beautiful animation.in an already drop dead gorgeous piece of work, it also packs quite the emotional punch.

The film's unusual structure may turn some off. This doesn't work its way up to a major climax or some giant set-piece. There's no gigantic moment of triumph or a major revelation. The plot's twists and turns are much smaller, more personal and emotional, and much more reflective of real life as a result. To some this will translate as "not very much happens", but this isn't the case. Despite the odd fantasy flourish, this is, in the end, a drama, and a very effective one at that.

The film arrives in the US with a new English dub courtesy of GKIDS. We were only able to watch the original subtitled version, so we can't speak for the dub's quality- but you can get a taste of in the trailer. It's hard to shake the feeling that this is a film that might be best appreciated in its original language.

To anyone who wants to see animation tell a wider variety of stories this is a must-watch. From the minute the unexpectedly modern sounding theme music kicks in it's clear that Miss Hokusai is going to be no ordinary biopic.This is like no other animated movie you will see this year, and truly a work of art.

MISS HOKUSAI will be released Theatrically in the US by GKIDS Films [For Screenings See Here] and will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD in The UK from ANIME LIMITED on November 14th 2016