Movies: Miss Hokusai


Screened during the Mill Valley Film Festival, this anime movie opens a window onto the household of Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese artist, and in particular his daughter O-Ei. The film is based on the manga Sarusuberi and, as the introductory speaker noted, it is not by Studio Ghibli, whose output has tended to dominate western cultural channels of late.

O-Ei makes a fantastic central character for a movie. She is stubborn and feisty, exerting considerable sway over her eccentric father and his dubious hangers-on. She has inherited her father’s talent and is shown to be a gifted and ambitious artist, prepared to tackle all subjects, even the seamier material. She is also very sensitive to the needs of her blind younger sister: the relationship between these two is among the more tender and affecting parts of the movie.

I marvelled at the convincing recreation of the late Edo period (the year is 1814), and at the references to iconic artworks such as the woodblock print The Great Wave. However, the goal here is not the pure realism of a biopic: we see supernatural forces intrude on the action again and again.

I also warmed to the earthy, slightly irreverent tone of the piece, which made a change from the more earnest Studio Ghibli productions. The soundtrack is a delight – for instance, the playful juxtaposition of contemporary rock music with a classic 19th century panorama of the city. Recommended, especially for those with an interest in Edo-period Japan or the life of Hokusai.

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi) (2015)
Director Keiichi Hara
Running time 90 min

You can view the trailer below.

Embracing the surreal: video animations by Tabaimo

tabaimo aitaisei josei
This exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art showcases the work of Japanese artist Tabaimo, who creates bold video animations in a style influenced by manga and anime. It works well as a complement to the digital art show in my last post, which was also by Japanese artists and highly immersive.

However, the Tabaimo show distinguishes itself by offering more sense of a narrative. Each of the three main animations is loosely inspired by the same work of fiction, the 2007 novel Akunin (Villain) by Shuichi Yoshida. I was sufficiently intrigued by an exhibition themed around a single novel that I checked it out from the library this weekend – another post on this may follow.

The video installation danDAN (2009) gives the viewer a kind of intimate bird’s eye view of life inside an apartment building or danchi, which is a setting used in the novel. Tabaimo presents a rapid-fire series of vignettes, some mundane and some macabre. The pace is quick and the viewing angles a little odd, so you strain to make sense of what you are seeing.

A domestic interior is also central to the video installation aitaisei-josei (2015), though here the surreal gains the upper hand. Disembodied organs (the heart, the brain) that popped up previously now take centre stage, contrasting strangely with traditional motifs from Japanese art (the full moon, the pine tree).

The effect is entertaining, if enigmatic. The work references a pair of lovers (Miho Kaneko and Yuichi Shimizu) from the novel, and even a second pair of lovers (Ohatsu and Tokubei) from a famous bunraku play of the 18th century. This would probably remain obscure to most of us, but for the excellent labelling.

New Stories from the Edge of Asia: Tabaimo: Her Room
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA
6 February to 21 August 2016

Above: Tabaimo, aitaisei-josei, 2015. Single-channel video installation. Running time: 5 min 33 sec. Image: the artist; Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo; and James Cohen, New York. Photo: Kazuto Kakurai at

Travels in California, part 6: Xu Bing at LACMA

brush xu bing

We had limited time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) so our visit was short but very sweet – in particular, this show by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing (b. 1955), which was the first thing we saw. I covered the Xu Bing show at the Ashmolean in 2013, so it was fascinating to spend more time in front of his work and to see it in a different presentation.

As before, there was a strong emphasis on the written word and actions related to it – writing, printing, calligraphy. For instance, a series of very striking images based on the hand holding the brush, in two sets of woodblock prints, Holding the Brush and Softening the Brush.

But where the Ashmolean focused on works on paper, LACMA offers a more diverse body of work. There is a piece from his Silkwork Book series, for which he raised live silkworms and made them spin silk over books instead of into cocoons. The book in question is a model book of calligraphy by famous scholar Yan Zhengqing (709-785).

The installation Backbone, taking up most of one wall, builds a text from words found in 19th century tobacco stencils, printed on cigarette paper. In an interesting collaboration, the words were used by René Balcer to create a free-verse blues poem, honouring the African American women who worked in the tobacco industry. You listen to one while viewing the other.

Perhaps the most spell-binding work here is The Character of Characters, an animation that portrays the evolution and simplification of Chinese characters, explored in tandem with social and political developments in China itself.

This brings to an end my series of posts on the fabulous Asian art that I saw in California.  If you are interested, do take a look at my earlier posts on three exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco – Seduction, The Printer’s Eye, and Tradition on Fire.  There are also my before and after posts on the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco, and my post on surprise Korean ceramics where I least expected to see them.

The Language of Xu Bing
LACMA, Los Angeles, CA
20 December 2014 to 26 July 2015

You can view part of the animation on YouTube.

Above: Xu Bing, detail from Holding the Brush, 1996. Woodblock print. The Carolyn Hsu & René Balcer Collection. Image at

Chinese animations by Sun Xun

sun xun 21 KE image

Sun Xun (b.1980) is a Chinese artist specializing in animation.  His animation 21 KE [21 Grams] (2010, 27 mins) is currently running at the Hayward Gallery, along with several shorter animations, including Requiem (2007, 7.21 mins) and Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution (2011, 12.22 mins).

Sun Xun draws his images by hand and films them frame by frame, creating flickering effects and giving the work a volatile, organic quality.  The visual style varies each time, from the slick oil-based colors of Requiem to the gritty monochrome woodcuts of Some Actions.  21 KE is different again: the animation is in black and white, but the rendering is much smoother, giving a greater sense of realism.

The animations are pretty short on narrative but allude to political change and upheaval in China’s recent history.  21 KE inhabits a kind of late 19th century fantasy world, Chinese-style.  I was reminded of the Joan Aiken books I read as a child, or even the Philip Pullman books: top hats, steam trains, flying machines.  This made it fun to watch, although undeniably there are darker moments.  The capitalism of 19th century Europe and 21st century China are not so far apart.

Sun Xun: Yesterday is Tomorrow
Hayward Gallery, London
16 January to 23 February 2014

Above: Sun Xun, 21 KE [21 Grams], 2010. Animation with sound. Image: the artist, and ShanghART Gallery, at