Film Review: HOKUSAI MANGA (1981)


For those who have pre-knowledge of this film and are feeling something akin to outrage or pure curiosity, you can find my explanation/reasoning at the end (this whole work is going to be divided into sections, so you can find easily at the end of the article). That being established, HOKUSAI MANGA is not one of the best films you’ll see but it has one of the better performances you will see from a Japanese film and is an interesting film overall.

HOKUSAI MANGA is the story of Hokusai - the famous Japanese woodblock artist. It is not a strict biography now, for it does tell a story with a central theme and a study upon said theme. But this film is much like the 1984 film, AMADEUS. The film begins with Hokusai (going by his real name at the time), enjoying a bath along with friends who would later become great artists in their own right (like the novelist Bakin). Hokusai shows that he has an ambition - to become a great artist (and not just a woodblock artist at that). His work initially seen as crummy. With the subject of many of his works being women - both clothed and nude - no one sees any value in them. It is called just pornographic abroad and his daughter sees them as too "logical", hence boring. This is a tough pill to swallow due to the fact that he dare get disowned by his father (who was a mirror-cleaning shogunate) just to learn to paint.

It is only when he meets his muse (a woman named Onao) does he start painting for real. Many events happen which are indirectly caused by the muse, and she eventually leaves. But once one of his paintings is sold to a publishing company, Hokusai becomes famous, doing paintings of cranes on rice, painting on large dining room-sized canvases, and even drawing Mt. Fuji from 30 plus angles at different times of day. We skip to the latter part of his life where he and his friend, Bakin, are old men. It is durring this time that Hokusai learns how to do tasteful nudes with substance.

This is one of the 36 VIEWS OF FUJI, this one specificaly shown in the film.

HOKUSAI MANGA has a point within it. It is all about women. Mostly because women are men’s muses. So, upon closer observation, this film has to do with the muse-artist relationship. A muse is an important thing to the artist (no matter what medium). It is the muse which literally makes a work "inspired". It is something they can rely on. Persistence. In that reliance, there’s something (their work) which can keep their memory going for years after they have gone. There is a scene in the film in which before the writer Bakin becomes a widower, his passing wife finally allows him to become a writer. That is who he is meant to be. As the writer Harlan Ellison said, " Posterity is the only reason to do this." (Harlan was talking about writing, but writing is an art form just as much as painting or directing).

But, there is something interesting in the muse/artist relationship. It is the sexual side of things. Most of the time, especially with male artists, their muse is a female figure of some sort. That, mixed in with a message of what a tasteful nude is, is what this film is all about. As the film shows, those who aspire to draw tasteful nudes have quite a way to go. The film shows that at the beginning of his career, Hokusai did paint nudes but they were disregarded as pornography. It is only later down on in life in which Hokusai gets the perspective in which he could do tasteful nudes such as THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE.

That is a battle of the human intellectual adaptation versus the natural animalistic instincts. When you are young, you lack insight and the animalistic side of you is king. This is shown to great detail as Hokusai’s father, who was strongly attracted to his son’s muse, ended up hanging himself just because he wouldn’t be with the woman. The sexual want is just too much. But with time, things get clear. It is because of this that most of Hokusai’s life from his late thirties to his late eighties were ignored. A good artist has perspective, and he gained it. That perspective is to illustrate the desires of a woman. Not to be pornographic but to shed light on a world untouched. To explore the world of womanly desires was a new idea back in Elden Japan. Japan was largely a male-centered country with a male-centered culture, thus to put such interest and care into what a woman’s interest is quite the perspective. Not to mention that the study of this kind of emotion is what Hokusai needed because while his early work was too logical, work like THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE is just the opposite because it deals with the most illogical thing around - human emotion.

Sad thing is that younger people may often confuse the two, art and pornography. Having done THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE later on in life with a new woman who looked like Onao, Hokusai was old but his new model quite young. She became admiring of Hokusai’s odd artistic choices but she showed that she didn’t understand his work. At her last appearance in the film, the new model starts having sex with a man. Just regular sex. Hokusai walks in on it and when she asks if he is excited and wanted to paint her in the act, he declined. She didn’t understand it and goes off.

For all of that above, this film cannot be called pornographic. There is a literal art to it. There is less than 20 minutes of nudity within the whole film (which is an hour 58 minutes long). To call this film pornographic would be like calling Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT pornographic.

Ken Ogata is, to Western audiences, best known for the 1980's Paul Schrader film based on another famous Japanese artist (one of the liturate field), MISHIMA.

As far as direction goes, the film’s direction by Kaneto Shindo (who also wrote the film) is nothing too spectacular for a Japanese film. It is notable though, particularly with this reviewer, that it was this film which finally made me realize why Japanese films linger with long takes of scenes with no camera movement. It makes it seem like you are watching a play. This is quite remarkable. Though the make up of the film isn’t anything that will make you think of Kabuki or Noh theatre (rather, the make up at the end is applied to the actors just to show a difference in age), it is an interesting perspective to put the audience in. It is stuff like this which helps makes scenes like a monologue by Ken Ogata (playing the elderly Hokusai) gain momentum by not only being potentially interpreted as a personal diary said aloud to himself, but also as a monologue he is saying to the audience directly. It is almost like a moment out of GOODFELLAS.

Now, this is an interesting piece to choose to review for a blog like this. Truth is, there is one shot that could be called tokusatsu. The particular scene which enacts the inspiration Hokusai gets to draw THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE is done via both a real life enactment and a showing of what is going on within Hokusai’s head. The two wire-clad Octopi props and such were done by a notable person who has worked within the realm of kaiju eiga before - and with this being a Shochiku film, it is only natural that the art direction and possible doing of special effects be done by Shigemori Shigeta - award winning art director for SPACE MONSTER GUILALA and THE LAST SAMURAI. It’s not the best scene (there is a wire visible in one shot) but it is an interesting look into the mind of the master artist. While the kaiju connection is being discussed, it is notable that one of Hokusai’s works was used at the end of a Godzilla movie, Banno’s GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH.

Bottom line, it is a well written film with pretty good directing with the strong point being Ken Ogata’s acting. For some, recognizing the renown actor may be easy, for me it was difficult being used to only seeing him play Miyamoto Musashi (which required a good bit of make-up) in MAKAI TENSHO. It is an interesting look at the life of an artist and a nice way to spend two hours. Just be prepared for laughable content (the octopus scene might look fake to some and due to Japan’s censorship laws in regards to nudity in film and art (which proclaims that genitalia is not allowed to go uncensored in any form of media) the strains in which the filmmakers try to cover up body parts might seem a little obvious if not desperate). This film is worthy of all the awards it won and was nominated for back in 1981.

Recognize this GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH fans?

For those interested in seeing the film IMDB has it avaliable legally via Hulu.


Those who wonder as to why I chose to review such a film on this site, you shall have your curiosity quenched. Going through youtube one night, I stumbled upon a clip of the octopus scene from the film posted. I was curious and once I saw the period piece setting and the fact there was a painter by the woman who had a octopus on her, I knew what it was right then and there (the things they teach you in 7th grade art class). Oddly enough, someone was going through my likes list and decided to flame bait myself. People assumed that I had liked the clip due to it being sexual in nature thus it was purely pornographic (though none of these individuals have seen the film), that I was not allowed to press the like button on such things (just because my channel’s content is that of which minors may look at), and that even if I liked the clip for it’s artistic merits, that was not the case for some claim they know me so well that it wasn’t the case.

Truth is, it wasn’t the case. I did like it for it’s artistic merits. It wasn’t pornographic, and in all reality just because the film is called EDO PORN in America doesn’t mean anything. It is a bad, inaccurate title for a Japanese film (and this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, anyone remember GODZILLA VS. THE THING or GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND) that isn’t about porn (and someone tried to use the inaccurate title as something against me, going as far as calling me a dumb f***).

I hope this clears stuff up. I was in the right and this is a film I would prefer. Watch and don’t judge. And I don’t care if Children watch.