The idea of rekishi-gyaru (history girls) has come up before in a few Manga Snapshot columns – a supposed market sector of young, educated women who are as nerdy about historical drama as Naruto fans are about ninja. The latest anime from Production I.G seems squarely aimed at them, as well as a whole world of overseas anime lovers and Japanophiles.
9th May sees the Japanese premiere of Miss Hokusai, which charts the life and times of Oei, the artist who laboured tirelessly as an assistant and sometime replacement for her famous father. Hokusai père was the printmaker who created the iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa as well as the tentacular picture usually known as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (now gracing Peggy’s office in the final episodes of Mad Men), and the sketchbooks or doodlings that eventually lent their name to the entire medium we now call manga.
Based on an obscure 1980s comic by Hinako Sugiura, Miss Hokusai looms in on “her-story”, that ever-growing genre that highlights forgotten ladies. The question always remains just how much of Hokusai’s work was actually done by his daughter – letters remain extant in which he states his pricing policy, and notes that clients can have him for one fee, or Oei at a discount… not unlike the way that late-period Studio Ghibli started choosing its directors!
But Miss Hokusai is also a clear entry in the new scramble for superiority left by the shuttering of that very same Ghibli. With Hayao Miyazaki retired (again) and Isao Takahata unlikely to ever make another film, the race is on for the anime high ground. Take my word for it, all around the world there are distributors who have made a tidy profit on Ghibli movies for the last decade, who have suddenly seen their cash cow put out to pasture. Where are they going to find their once-a-year classy film to draw in the twittering classes and pad out film festivals with something quirky and Japanese? Where’s their annual dip into the fan market and mainstream cross-over?
For those who thought the whole thing was a two-horse race between the consistently excellent Mamoru Hosoda and the randomly brilliant Makoto Shinkai, Miss Hokusai’s director Keiichi Hara has turned out to be a surprise contender – leaping out of journeyman work on Crayon Shin-chan with the acclaimed Colourful, and now this considered, self-consciously classy evocation of Tokugawa period glamour. Worthy and classy, Miss Hokusai is a dream come true for distributors and exhibitors, and hopefully for audiences, too. But this is going to be a long contest before the winner is declared.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #136, 2015.