Shamisen moments

It began on Facebook with a short video of two young Japanese women rocking on their shamisens (3-string lutes); you can watch the video here. A screen shot from their performance:


I shared the video with Kim Darnell, who sent me in exchange a rave review of the animated feature film Kubo and the Two Strings (also featuring a shamisen), which I was able to watch, transfixed, on Netflix.

The shamisen. The bare facts, from Wikipedia:


The shamisen or samisen, also sangen — both words mean “three strings” — is a three-stringed, traditional Japanese musical instrument derived from the Chinese instrument sanxian. It is played with a plectrum called a bachi.

The rockers. The duo Shamisen Kiki has an extensive Facebook page and a substantial official website, with a list of their videos and CDs and their touring schedule, plus some excellent posed photographs:


(This is about as much as I can say, since almost everything on the two sites is in Japanese, which I can’t read.)

Western-style music, whether classical or rock, played on a shamisen is adapted to the nature of the instrument and transformed by Japanese musical traditions, so it manages to sound vaguely familiar and thoroughly exotic at the same time.

Kubo. Shamisen Kiki is/are enjoyable, but the movie Kubo is magical. From Wikipedia:

Kubo and the Two Strings is a 2016 American 3D stop-motion fantasy action-adventure film directed and co-produced by Travis Knight (in his directorial debut), and written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler. It stars the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey. It is Laika’s fourth feature film produced. The film revolves around Kubo, who wields a magical shamisen and whose left eye was stolen. Accompanied by an anthropomorphic snow monkey and [Japanese Hercules] beetle, he must subdue his mother’s corrupted sisters and his power-hungry grandfather Raiden (aka, the Moon King), who stole his left eye.

Kubo premiered at Melbourne International Film Festival and was released by Focus Features in the United States on August 19 to universal critical acclaim

The three major good characters:


Beetle/Hanzo (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Kubo, son of Hanzo and Sariatu (voiced by Art Parkinson), Monkey/Sariatu (voiced by Charlize Theron). Note the shamisen.

From reviews: ‘both extraordinarily original and extraordinarily complex”; “visually intoxicating”; “dazzling stop-motion animation”.

The magical special effects are indeed dazzling (and sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying), the musical score is first-rate, and the acting is wonderful. Kim had told me about George Takei’s role in the film, but then the affectionate grandmotherly character came on scene, and I shouted out, “Wait! That’s, that’s … Brenda Vaccaro!” And so it was. Wonderful bit of casting.

The film is clearly an animation, with visually stylized characters, and so escapes falling into the “uncanny valley” that can plague hyper-realistic animation. At the same time, the characters are presented as believably human, while moving realistically like the creatures they also are: snow monkey, giant beetle, little boy, old man, witch.

And then there’s the magical shamisen.


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