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December 16, 2010

Edo Porn

hokuai manga.jpg

Hokusai manga
Kaneto Shindo - 1981
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Several times in this biographical film, Hokusai's rival, Utamaro is mentioned. It was enough to make me wish I could see Kenji Mizoguchi's film, Utamaro and His Five Women again again after almost thirty years. Mizoguchi does a better job in conveying the importance of Utamaro, and the film works doubly as an argument about artistic freedom, both in the artist's own time, as well as in the immediate years of post World War II Japan. Shindo's film takes advantage of the then new freedoms afforded filmmakers, yet there is no clear sense as to the importance of Hokusai.

It could also be that Shindo made the film for an audience familiar enough with Hokusai that his importance and facts regarding his life would already be assumed. The first half or so of the film is of Hokusai trying to establish himself as an artist, infatuated with the betel nut chewing beauty, Onao. To what extent this is a historical character, I wouldn't know, but Onao appears to be the most liberated woman of 19th Century Japan, not only comfortable in disrobing for Hokusai, but coming and going at will, and occasionally choosing her lovers. In contrast, the depiction of Hokusai creating his most famous painting, of Mount Fuji and the ocean waves, is so brief that within the context of the film, it appears incidental to the story of a guy who liked to paint pictures of naked young women.

Two women have important roles in the narrative. The elusive Onao remains in Hokusai's mind as his most perfect muse. Hokusai's daughter, Oei, in contrast, remains with Hokusai throughout his life, acting as his assistant, supporter, and on occasion is his most severe critic.

Setting aside biographical considerations, Hokusai Manga (I dislike the English language title) is substantially about the idea of men possessing women, as the idealized sexual companion, or at least possessing the idealized image of a woman. One of the key scenes is of Hokusai's father pursuing Onao in his house. The father's house is full of mirrors. While the father is able to catch multiple reflections of Onao, the woman herself remains beyond his grasp. One of the themes of the film is about the reproduction of images, with the paintings of Utamaro and Hokusai representing early versions of art, especially erotic art, made available in multiple reproductions, for purchase at relatively affordable prices by a larger public.

Concurrent with this, is the idea of the artist as celebrity. Utamaro, a minor character in Shindo's film, is discussed by others, the most well known popular artist at the beginning of the film. Hokusai's celebrity is highlighted with a crowd gathering to see him paint on a grain of rice, followed by his painting of a giant ink portrait with a brush that resembles an oversized broom. Fame does not necessarily mean fortune, as Hokusai is seen living quite modestly through the end of his life. Even when the artwork sells, there is self-doubt regarding artistic abilities.

Shindo's early filmmaking career was in part as assistant to Mizoguchi. Later, Shindo made a documentary about Mizoguchi, in 1975. Mizoguchi's film, as mentioned, about Utamaro was about artistic expression and government regulations and restrictions, with the period setting used to comment on being an artist in post World War II Japan. Shindo's film might in turn be thought of as a response to Mizoguchi's film with the past used to comment on the present as well. In this case, the use of erotic content may be understood as being both a cause and effect of economic necessity, at a time when the Japanese film industry had virtually collapsed, and one major studio, Nikkatsu, had committed itself entirely to the genre called "Roman Porno". Unavailable at this time for comparison is another Shindo biographical film made twelve years later, with some similar themes, Bokuto Kidan, discussed by Acquarello.

hokusai manga 1.jpg

Shindo plays very loosely with some of the chronology of Hokusai's life, so that a scene about the creation of one his his most famous pictures takes place much later in life on film. Inspired by the female divers he sees on a beach, Hokusai convinces his new muse, a young woman also named Onao, to pose with a small octopus. The film eventually becomes a fantasy of the aroused young woman, with tentacles groping around her nude body. The mood becomes unintentionally comic when the two octopi are seen, even though they do resemble the creatures in Hokusai's painting.

In keeping with the idea of reproduced images, Shindo has some of his actors appear as "twins" of characters from Hokusai's past. Most significant is Kanako Higuchi, who plays the part of two very different women, both named Onao. In the title role, Ken Ogata seems smaller than he appears in some of his appearances, such as Vengeance is Mine. Furanki Sakai appears as Hokusai's father by adoption, while Jo Shishido has a small part as one of Hokusai's friends, the author Jyuppensha Ikku. Hokusai Manga proved to be a breakthrough role for Yuko Tanaka as Oei, the first of several prize winning performances.

Posted by peter at December 16, 2010 08:50 AM