Making Waves – Hokusai the Movie (A Review)

With the tagline of “Can paintings change the world?” Hokusai was originally suppose to be released May 2020. As with many projects that were set to be released then, especially since it would have been the 260th anniversary of Hokusai’s life, it was postponed an entire year later. With the anticipation building, and being a film that took three years to make and postponed once, it was time for me to head to the theaters.

Hokusai the film, is a dramatic re-telling of the legendary painter’s life with new to the public domain details. The story recounts historically accurate moments of Hokusai’s younger years, something that very few historical documents can corroborate, up until his death at age 90. There’s mystery and intrigue as the world of art is filled with collaborators, rivals, romance, inspiration and maybe even a bit of bloodshed in between.

I want to make this clear before getting into this review: I am a fan of Hokusai. I consider myself a bit above average in terms of my knowledge of his life, works, and impact. I’m still an avid admirer of his, and would love to walk you through his museum and talk your ear off about anything and everything Hokusai.

That being said: I had a really hard time getting into this film. There’s something where mid-way through I found my mind wandering. It’s a pity because I love film, and I love Hokusai, so this should have been an immediate connection for me.

There are a few technical reasons this happened. The story does open with a young Hokusai, but this inclusion despite this being among the first time these details were made available was probably a mere ten to fifteen minutes at best. This isn’t unexpected, as again, verified information about Hokusai’s childhood and younger years is limited. It did make the film feel incredibly lopsided by the end, considering it has a two hour and nine minute run time.

As you can imagine his life events we progressed via time skips, very standard in execution and kept the story streamlined and smooth progress-wise. These time skips were denoted with very simple titles roughly translated to ‘part 1’, etc. I couldn’t help that feel, for whatever reason, that these titles made the film like drama and broke the flow. Visually, they were integrated well enough, no jarring music or extended screen time, context appropriate font choices and simple description. But they were always on the center of the screen, and didn’t transition well into the next scene making the film feel cut up rather then cohesive. I feel like if they had been off to one side or in a corner this would have smoothed it out, but that’s just my opinion.

However, Hokusai as a film does have a lot of incredibly brilliant moments. Much of this is due to Yagira Yuya as young adult Hokusai. The gestures and postures that Yuya would use to show the struggles of a developing artist were top notch. There’s a particular section of the film where Hokusai has an artistic awakening of sorts, which really made Yuya subtle shifts in gestures and demeanor really flourish as a depiction. It’s something so subtle it really doesn’t click until you think back just a few scenes before, but once you see it, it’s there and it’s striking.

Balancing out young Hokusai, was then adult Hokusai portrayed by Tanaka Min. At first, I didn’t quite really know what to make of Min’s performance, since I was still back and forth about my engagement to the film and other factors. However, Min really commits to the art house styles of acting in some of the more dramatized and intentionally drawn out moments. There’s two in particular, one of which is a gust of wind, where Hokusai gets his inspiration for what would become Ejiri in Suruga Province.

For clarity, this exact print isn’t made in the film, but the sequence of events suggests how it was inspired.

The scene comes out of nearly no where. Hokusai is walking from the producer’s shop and the wind comes. We see the freeze frame and panning from the other figures on the street and what’s happening to them; bent knees, fluttering kimonos, papers scattered, startled but not scared expressions. And in Hokusai’s keen eyes we see him capture these details, sketch them quickly, and then repurpose them later. These freeze frames and slow-mo panning happens several times, and while the first is a bit jarring the repetition just goes to show how inspiration can truly strike at any time.

These scenes were then balanced by the attention and time taken to curate each shot. It’s clear that director Hajime Hashimoto really understood the artistic direction a film like Hokusai needed to take. There’s so many scenes where the rules of filming, but also of how paintings are constructed are taken into consideration at all time. There’s countless scenes were characters are framed by their surroundings, dividing them to various degrees and them breaking those divisions down and restructuring them. The use of curtains especially as a way to ‘filter’ the scene, something used in more then one context and more then one color was brilliant as well. Additionally, as a final piece to really sell the story was lighting. The lighting was so intentional, making sure to hit the emotional beats and set the ambiance of every scene just right from the opening sequence. Such a thing could come off as much too try hard, but for Hokusai worked out just right.

The filming techniques as well were stunning. I quite enjoyed the use of a horseshoe filming sequence when Hokusai first meets fellow artist Kitagawa Utamaro (Tamaki Hiroshi) in the brothel. Hokusai has begrudginly decided to sit in on Utamaro’s drawing session, but faces the wall. We pan from Utamaro and the lady of the hour Asayuki (Imou Haruka), upwards to see the detailed ceiling panels the the scene they set, before getting back to Hokusai who is upside down according to the camera, only now glancing over his shoulder to observe the master artist. It’s such a striking and unique scene that really captures the idea of this being a film about an artist, but also artistic itself. The use of 360 degree shots, panning from one character, slowly around the room we are in also, was brilliant. It was used just enough and in the right contexts to stand out in positive ways, but not so much as to be boring. I really enjoyed those scenes as it really showed all the characters at play, literally and figuratively within the scene.

In what writing my simplified review has given me enlightenment to, is that Hokusai is a prime example of a well-budgeted film for a beloved figure, that failed to commit to a specific audience. It had the source material, narrative, and funding to truly be an extraordinary arthouse film. I mean, come on it’s Hokusai! Yet it also wanted to appeal to the casual audiences by being entertaining, somewhat dramatized biography (potentially on the global stage if the website is any indication). In the attempt to be artistic enough for critics to applaud, but still approuchable enough for the average viewer, it ended up awkwardly landing somewhere in the middle. But maybe, despite this anayisis, the film is truly setting me up for what art is suppose to do, and that’s make you think.

Despite my lukewarm initial comments, I hope it’s come across that despite it all I do highly recommend Hokusai. It might be middle of the road in my opinion, but I don’t think that’s a complete negative in this situation. This would be a great introduction for someone unfamiliar with this works, but has enough in there for someone more knowledgable to be entertained. So if Hokusai does happen to catch a wave to a theater near you, I do hope you consider going. With that I’ll see you next post as always!

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