Miss Hokusai @ CMA

The long and winding road that led us to Katsushika Oi’s painting, Operating on Guan Yu’s Arm, at Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) began with our vague awareness of paintings by her famous father, Katsushika Hokusai. Great Wave off Kunagawa, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Plum Blossom and the Moon to name a few.

Once we stopped just looking and began to read about father Hokusai, we quickly learned that he had a daughter who was also an artist and that she was the subject of a 90-minute anime, Sarusuberi or Miss Hokusai, directed by Keiichi Hara and licensed in North America by GKIDS.

 It’s a very good anime, a labor of love whose hand drawn cells take a painterly look at the city of Edo – now known as Tokyo – during the Tokugawa shogunate. It presents Katsushika Oi as her father’s overlooked and taken-for-granted daughter – the name she took for herself, Oi, translates to “Hey you” — who actually painted at least some of the work attributed to her father.

The Hokusai house is small even by Japanese standards and father and daughter are further crowded by the many young painters who visit, hoping to extract artistic wisdom from old man Hokusai and pay court to his daughter. 

We immediately wondered how historically accurate the anime was and quickly learned that the manga – the graphic novel – upon which it was based was drawn and written by Hinako Sugiura, who left manga to become a noted scholar of the Tokugawa shogunate and the floating world.

We were extolling the virtues of the anime to a friend who’s well informed about Japanese art and she immediately told us about a painting by Miss Hokusai that’s currently on display at Cleveland Museum of Art, Operating on Guan Yu’s Arm. We took a look on our next trip to CMA.

The painting depicts a scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th century historical novel. General Guan Yu has been hit by a poisoned arrow so the physician Hua Tuo operates to remove the poison. Both Guan Yu and Hua Tuo were historical figures but the storied operation never took place. As depicted in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Miss Hokusai’s painting, the physician offers anesthetic but the general declines, stoically losing himself in a game of Go while the surgery proceeds and the general’s retainers quail and turn away from the carnage. Miss Hokusai is one of many who painted this scene, but her treatment is notable for its still vivid colors, especially the red of the general’s abundant blood.

Operating on Guan Yu’s Arm is one of about ten paintings definitely attributed to Miss Hokusai. Here are two more.

Operating on Guan Yu’s Arm is part of the exhibition Japan’s Floating World, on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art until 10/9/2022. For more information, go to CMA.org.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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