Anmitsu dishes up some hot licks


In junior high school, going to shamisen lessons was something Yuka Annaka and Kumi Kindaichi hid, even from their friends. “There was this image that it was something our grandparents did,” says Kindaichi. “Other kids reacted like it was strange. I didn’t talk to anybody about it all through junior high school,” Annaka says.

Now, as the professional duo Anmitsu, they are often asked to perform at schools. And one of their greatest pleasures, they say, is changing the common image of shamisen music by making it more familiar. Most students, they say, have never heard the instrument performed live before.

“Even living in Japan, there’s hardly any chance to hear Japanese instruments,” says Kindaichi. “The things you listen to when you’re young make a big impression, right? That was true for us,” she said, “And when we play, if even one child thinks, ‘That’s neat,’ that pleases us.”

In fact, Tsugaru shamisen — a vigorous, rhythmic style that originated in Tsugaru in Aomori Prefecture 130 years ago — is enjoying a surge in popularity nationwide.

According to Hogaku Journal editor Takafumi Tanaka, today’s “second wave” Tsugaru shamisen boom started when young performers like Shin’ichi Kinoshita, who were adept in the traditional styles, came to Tokyo and started playing the genre’s classics with rock inflections and other contemporary beats. Female audiences in their 20s and 30s spread the news.

Both of Anmitsu’s thirtysomething players grew up during a more general hogaku revival centered on Tokyo that started in the mid-1960s and lasted about a decade. Kindaichi and Annaka recall seeing elderly Tsugaru shamisen masters on regular television specials. Over two decades later, it is their turn — and that of a whole generation of young players — to take to the stage, changing the tradition’s image as they do it.

“Everywhere we go,” says Kindaichi, “people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you’d be this young!’ “

At the heart of Tsugaru shamisen’s appeal, for performers and audience alike, is its use of improvisation. There is no written music. From the earliest days of the tradition, its musicians have vied for an audience’s attention, challenging each other to ever more energetic, innovative performances. And every performer prides herself on a characteristic, unique style.

It was the desire to put their own imprint on Tsugaru music that brought Annaka and Kindaichi together. Both of the Tokyo-raised musicians started playing when they were in elementary school. After graduating high school, Kindaichi joined a group in Akita Prefecture for four years in order to study the local min’yo (folk songs). She has won a series of competition titles, and turned pro after successfully completing NHK’s hogaku audition. She now resides in Akita.

Annaka worked short-term jobs while continuing to perform and to win awards at national Tsugaru shamisen competitions. She took her shamisen to Shikoku to perform on the famous pilgrimage route of 88 temples there.

The two met in the early ’90s, when they performed at the same event. Both, they found, were looking for more from their musical careers. “I had worked on my own for a long time,” recalled Kindaichi, “but there weren’t many places where I could just perform what I wanted.”

The name Anmitsu, which is also a Japanese dessert, is a combination of the names of the players (An + Mi) and the number two. Sweets are a theme in the duo’s publicity, which urges fans to “enjoy anmitsu while it’s fresh.”

Formed in 1999, Anmitsu has spent the last two years performing at clubs and festivals and for television and radio broadcasts, traveling from Hokkaido to Okinawa and in continental Asia as well.

Typically, the pair feature standard Tsugaru music at the start of a performance, introducing their original tunes and genre-bending arrangements in the latter half. Audiences really respond, they say, to the original melodies for which the genre is famous.

The two must also juggle individual performance schedules. This year they are cutting down on live appearances to concentrate on developing their own music and on recording their first CD, due out in the fall.

Kindaichi is not the first to point out that Japanese people are currently caught up with re-examining things Japanese. This world of music has been at their feet all along, she says, “and we’d like to be a window onto it.”