By Jonathan Clements. An illustration by Tsuyuki Kocho shows the famous artist Hokusai at work with his assistant, his daughter Oei (or Oi). The picture is dated 1843, only a few years before Hokusai’s death, when he was increasingly reliant on his divorcee daughter to care for him. Hokusai himself is partly obscured, crouching over a painting as if straining to see it properly. Oei is depicted in equally unflattering terms, her eyes narrowed in the disdain that allegedly cost her her marriage (she had a habit of laughing at her husband’s artwork), leaning on a long tobacco pipe. Her chin is somewhat prominent, reflecting a nickname that played upon this feature.
Katsuchika Oei, Hokusai’s third daughter, was known to be an artist in her own right. Ten extant works are known to be by her own hand, many of them displaying a powerful sense of light and dark, and an original sensibility with colour that would have been sure to have propelled her to height of fame in 19th century Japan. But Oei remains a shadowy figure, like the apparitions of her best-known work, Night Scene in the Yoshiwara, brushed out of history by very mundane concerns over attribution. However, she may have been far more prolific than previously supposed, albeit working under another name: that of her own father.
In the Afterword to her novel The Ghost Brush (published in the UK as The Printmaker’s Daughter) Katherine Govier alludes to a fervid debate below the surface of Japanese academia. She points out that many appear to be in agreement, at least tacitly, that Hokusai’s later works occasionally display the hallmarks of a different artist’s eye and preference for certain lines or materials. The art critic Kazuhiro Kubota suggests that the aging Hokusai, infirm and suffering from palsy, somehow managed to crank out an incredible series of pictures. “These works had a lot of bright colours with a youthful touch, as well as an incredibly accurate drawing skill, even though an old man over eighty had supposedly drawn them.”
However, the technology does not yet exist to “dust” a work for stylistic fingerprints. There might be suggestions in terms of colours or particular stylistic elements, but the evidence is merely circumstantial. Furthermore, neither Hokusai nor his daughter would have had any commercial interest in recognising her work as hers, since it was the Hokusai name that commanded the highest prices. If she admitted to her handiwork, she would be taking food from her own mouth.
Such an impasse endures to the present day – the last thing an art dealer wants to do is to reduce the value of works by questioning the brand of a famous artist. Even if it were possible to prove Oei’s handiwork, there would likely be resistance from museums and collectors who have invested substantial amounts in the legacy of her more famous father. Hokusai became famous because of his skill, but that itself has become a brand worth fighting for. Although it is very likely that we should really speak of the output of a Hokusai studio, even the man himself still commands the highest prices. Now, paintings are famous because they are by Hokusai – the talent and achievement invested in his White Tiger in Snow, one of the prime suspects for being really by Oei, does not change if we recognise a different artist’s handiwork. However, in the eyes of the hardest-nosed of dealers, this takes it from being a picture by Hokusai into a “fake” Hokusai by someone else.
The debate over “Hokusai’s Daughter” has received substantial attention in Japan in the only place where it is safe, the fictional realm. The manga artist Kazuo Kamimura alluded to her story in his comic Connections of the Mad Man (1977). The novelist Masayo Yamamoto brought her up in Katsuchika’s Even Book (1984), and the scenarist Seiichi Yashiro included her in his screenplay Hokusai Manga (1981). But the most well-known treatment of her life is to be found in Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, which ran from 1983-87 in Manga Sunday magazine, and forms the basis for the new Production I.G anime film Miss Hokusai.
Sugiura, who would eventually leave the manga business to become a specialist in Edo period costume and culture, populates her manga with the cluttered, trash-strewn scenery known from contemporary accounts of Hokusai’s life. Hokusai was notoriously messy, and his daughter supposedly took after him. There was, of course, no way that Sugiura’s artwork was liable to compete with that of her subjects. Instead, she limits herself to very simple line work and stark shades, depicting mundane moments in the lives of two Edo-period family members, leavened occasionally with glimpses of their artistic inspirations and output.
Sugiura’s Hokusai is plagued by headaches and tremors, sometimes unable to hold his brush, leaning increasingly on the aid of his third daughter. She, meanwhile, sees her own artistic career slowly subsumed within his. In Sugiura’s story, Hokusai is only 55 (the age he was when he created the first volume of his famous Manga), enamoured with his twenty-something apprentice Masame. Oei is still barely into her twenties, a girl with suitors and prospects, still decades away from the unrecognised helpmeet and amanuensis she was fated to become.
Sarusuberi is populated with lurid moments from Edo reportage – love suicides and fires – alongside the everyday grind of trying to earn a living by drawing things. The samurai are losing their grip on society, becoming an increasingly impoverished aristocracy as the merchant class flourishes. Quite coincidentally, the lifespan of Hokusai, who died in 1849, marks the very end of Japan’s period of isolation. Even though their prints and books would continue to flourish long after their deaths, Japan would never be the same again. Commodore Perry’s infamous Black Ships arrived in Japan in 1852.
The film version, Miss Hokusai, also carries a certain resonance for the anime business itself, which has long exercised a similar lack of recognition for female artists. Although fully half the labourers in the anime industry are women, few of them are promoted out of the lower-ranking jobs of colouring and in-betweening. There are many reasons for this, not the least the continued insistence that women are better at colour recognition, and hence better employed with the paints rather than as directors. But they are also commonly excluded from the camaraderie of late-night pushes, chivalrously sent home with the married men on the last train, leaving the single males to pull the all-nighters and win all the glory.
Historically, entire echelons of female anime staffers have been wiped out in numerous putsches. During the fervent competition of the post-war period, when Japan was swamped with returnees from its drastically reduced empire, women were swiftly shoved out of the film studios, where they had worked for years, to make way for more “valuable” men. And as Yoshiyuki Tomino observed on the introduction of xerography in the 1960s, the elimination of one paint-and-trace element of the animation process “put a lot of women out of work.”
Screenwriter Miho Maruo adapts Sugiura’s manga with a deft touch, leaving director Keiichi Hara and his team of animators to replicate a series of iconic moments from Japanese art. Boats beneath a great wave off Kanagawa, an Edo bridge in sunset, and vibrant scenes of festivals and streets come to life in a film that recognises it must both recreate the spirit of the original, and the look of the pictures. 3DCG from the Dandelion studio helps here, as does modern anime’s ability to use digitised cels to shoot scenes in chiaroscuro, replicating the distinctive shadows and highlights distinctive from Oei’s own work. Such sumptuous night scenes would simply not have been possible in anime a generation ago, showing today’s animators making the best use of new technology, just as Hokusai once seized upon the artistic potential of the newly available paint, Prussian Blue.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, out now from the British Film Institute. Miss Hokusai will be released in UK cinemas this October by Anime Ltd.