It's been a rough couple of years for anime feature films. Making an original film (ie. not based on a big fanbase-sporting anime/manga franchise) has been proven to be nearly impossible. The ones that do get made are usually fantasy/dramas that try to mimic Ghibli's success formula. Imagine my surprise when I heard about Keiichi Hara's Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai. A historical drama coming from Production I.G that targets a more mature audience. I just couldn't let this one slip by.
Sarusuberi isn't 100% original material mind. The film is an adaptation of Hinako Sugiura's manga, though it has been thoroughly reworked to get to its current incarnation. The original manga was extremely fragmented, Hara chose to single out O-Ei's character and build the film around her. On top of that, additional material was written and added to flesh out the story. The film still feels pretty fragmented at times, but for what is basically an animated biography that shouldn't pose too much of a problem.
Even though O-Ei's the main character of the film, she's only a proxy to Katsushika Hokusai (better known as Tetsuzo), one of Japan's most famous 19th century artists. O-Ei is Tetsuzo's third daughter and the one who inherited his talents. She lives with Tetsuzo and one of his apprentices in a small house. Painting is what they live for and honing their skill takes up the bigger part of their lives. While this also takes up a sizeable part of the film, the meat of the matter lies in the drama surrounding the Hokusai family.
The film doesn't really work towards a definite point or dramatic climax. Instead we see small vignettes that help to shape Tetsuzo and his nearest family. Luckily the film goes well beyond simple mythification of its main characters, Tetsuzo is shown as a rather self-centered, single-minded man who works hard for his passion but is known to neglect others because of that. Through the eyes of O-Ei we get to know him a little better, though Hara makes sure that O-Ei herself also gets an appropriate amount of screen time.
It was a nice surprise to see that Production I.G upped their animation standard for this release. Rather than go for an upgraded OAV look (like they did with the latest Ghost in the Shell film), Sarusuberi looks the part. The animation is detailed, the character designs delicate and there are some interesting sequences in between where the art style changes to match the more mysterious and dream-like nature of the story. The CG isn't always up to par though, some bits look a little too clean and obvious, in part because the camera work is too focused on showing off the 3D models. That said, these moments are rare and generally speaking Sarusuberi is beautifully animated.
The Japanese dub deserves a big thumbs up. If you tend to get annoyed by the more typical (child-like and high-pitched) anime dubs then you don't need to worry here, Sarusuberi features a more natural, mature dub. Anne Watanabe in partcular does a superb job as O-Ei, Kumiko Aso also pulls her weight in a smaller role. The soundtrack is up to par too, although more in the line of what you'd expect. Classic Japanese sounds in a more contemporary arrangement that complement the atmosphere of the film. Except for two obnoxious pop/rock tracks that felt completely out of place. I cannot even imagine why they were added, luckily the impact on the film as a whole is minimal.
Sarusuberi's biggest hurdle is that it lacks a clear structure. Part of the film illustrates the dedication and passion of O-Ei and Tetsuzo, there's also plenty of time to dive into their bumpy personal lives and another sizeable part adds some mysticism to the film. But all these scenes are mixed together without too much of a general frame. Personnally I don't mind, I'm quite averse to the typical rise and fall structures of biopics, but people looking for a clear cut story might be a little disappointed by the disjointed way the film is set up.
Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai is a much needed entry in the anime feature film segment. It isn't based off of a big, popular franchise. It comes off as mature and genuine, with little fantasy influences, solid animation, a natural-sounding dub and some truly outstanding scenes. It's not quite up there with the best of Production I.G (roughly the period between '93 and '05), but it's a big step up from most other films and series they've released the past couple of years. A great film for people who are craving finer animation films, hopefully this is the start of a new trend.