The fresh-faced JapanFlix has been selecting the tastiest flicks from all genres of eiga and giving them a much deserved US release. With all of them available to rent or buy through iTunes, it couldn’t possibly be easier to get a flavour of what we here in the States have been missing. I was given a special treat preview of the 2005 comedy Three String Samurai (オーバードライヴ in Japan), now available through the JapanFlix website.
There has always been a special place in Japan’s heart for the shamisen, both because of it’s native folk music connections and the peculiarly ancestral depths that it evokes. The sound evolved around the late 1990’s, with the addition of multicultural instruments an expansion of the repertoire. In particular, the focus has strongly favoured the Tsugaru-jamisen native to northerly Aomori prefecture – which just happens to be where the story of our hero takes place.
But first, Tokyo: Guitar god Gen Asada and his two bandmates are in the midst of a PR crisis. At the peak of their success, lead-singer Mishio has sworn a sudden embargo on ex-lover Gen; and what is worse, on the entire guitar legacy he represents. “Music needs to evolve,” she declares to a frantic media scrum, with keyboardist Jin nodding dumbly at her side.
Drunk and disillusioned, Gen blunders his way out of their hotel vigil through the crowd of paparazzi and into the nearest taxi. However, a slight discrepancy of some four to five hundred miles has brought him to the Shimokita of Mount Osore (‘Mount Fear’, fabled entrance into Hell) and definitely not to one of the Bohemian epicenters of Tokyo.
Gen wails the eternal hipster yen to his mystery cabbie: “Where are all the cafes!?”
And so down the rabbit hole, where a mountainous ‘lair’ has a history of inspiring – and terrorizing – the likes of Van Halen, Jimmy Page, and Yo-Yo Ma (sort of). The camera settles in the exquisite, otherworldly Shimokita Peninsula*, itself geographically resembling something between a pickaxe and bachi (shamisen plectrum, or pick). Gen is set to experience the sharp end of every kind of axe in his Tsugaru-jamisen apprenticeship.
Three String Samurai is a loveable fun-fest wrapped around an ardent showcase for the shamisen. With a wink at the camera, viewers are bounced along by the sporadic animations and Shuji Kashiwabara’s handsome, goofy face. Amid the usual tropes of training montages and bumbling stooges, a whirlwind romance with a 500 year-old instrument takes place. Even the original prize intended for Gen winning the shamisen competition – the beautiful food-loving Akira (gravure idol and singer Anzu Sayuri) – fades when compared with the final mastery of the resonant Tsugaru technique.
While the scene shifts and humour may be a bit of a blur for Western viewers unused to J-pop culture, the laughs are meant to come easily and often. Even the dour, soulless Sonosuke and his Mephistophilic master can’t withstand the sunshine. A particularly beautiful effect is when Sonosuke (Hiroshi Nitta) – a nod to bluesman Robert Johnson – summons the darkness with his enchanted bachi, sending ‘shivers up the spine’. In fact, the impassioned performances by father- and- son Nitta (Masahiro plays Gen’s rival ‘Oishi’) are the major highlights of the film.
Eiga veterans Micky Curtis and Renji Ishibashi lend the old boy star power, and will be welcome faces to Japanese cinema fans. The girls take something of a backseat, but are refreshing. Pop idol-turned-actress Ranran Suzuki is adorably vacant and petulant. Anzu Sayuri’s kewpie doll face a lust for life are believable motivation for Gen’s decision to give this Tsugaru-thing a go.
Director Tsuitsui Takefumi seems to have long specialised in documentary format films, but has his own biggest feature flying in a bubble of pop and folk culture Technicolor. Considering his background however, it won’t be surprising to find that you, like Gen, have just been given the best crash course in the shamisen…without even noticing.
For those who have fallen under the three-stringed spell, here are a few places to start. The Yoshida Brothers offer a more modern flavour, collaborating with world musicians to produce a trance/electro style; though the boys are always on the stylistic move, as in the dirty-cool ‘Overland Blues’.
The co-musical director for ‘Three String’ was shamisen master Shuichiro Takahashi, and a fresh sprig from his legacy can be found in the up-beat, eclectic Chanchiki led by a former student Takahashi. That is of course not to forget Shinichi Kinoshita, who has a cameo in the film appraising the handiwork of Gramps Igarashi.
For those in NYC this year, Carnegie Hall has a shamisen-devoted set of evenings throughout the city as part of their current JapanNYC season. You can actually see young Masahiro Nitta up close and personal at Zankel Hall on 25 March, and at a free concert the next evening.
*Filming took place alternately between Aomori and the more Tokyo-convenient Yamanashi
For those like me who are not schooled in Japanese fables, the rabbit in the moon is explained briefly in Wikipedia.