Speaking as a Japanese person, I can’t help but feel a short burst of national pride when Hollywood gives my country any kind of attention, like with the animated film “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Directed by Travis Knight of Oregon-based Laika Entertainment (“Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls”), “Kubo” is set in 16th-century Japan and draws from the feudal culture of that time. It’s tinged with samurai violence and grapples with some heavy-duty family dysfunction, but more importantly it tones down the exoticism and concentrates on adventure.
The titular protagonist is a 10-year-old shamisen-playing boy with one eye who’s been dealt a bum hand in life, but it doesn’t leave him wallowing in hopelessness or prevent him from trying to fulfill his destiny.
Now, as a Japanese person, I’m also rather partial to the music of the Beatles. So while I enjoyed “Kubo,” I have to make special mention of the film’s theme song: a cover of George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The film’s version, by Regina Spektor, includes shamisen accompaniment by Kevin Kmetz. When I heard it for the first time, my love for country, film and George blended together in a moment of sheer joy.
And apparently I wasn’t the only one who was moved. After seeing the film in Spain, Kenichi Yoshida and his older brother, Ryoichiro — better known simply as renowned shamisen musicians the Yoshida Brothers — say they offered to supply their own rendition of the song for the film’s Japanese version.
“I was surprised by how the film got the mood and the logic of Japan’s feudal era right, without turning into a purely historical story,” says Ryoichiro, 40, while 37-year-old Kenichi nods vigorously in agreement.
“And the fact that the filmmakers went with shamisen accompaniment was also very gratifying,” Kenichi adds. “The tone of the instrument matched the tone of the story perfectly.”
The brothers explain how the shamisen goes back 600 years and their own chosen genre of Tsugaru-jamisen, which originated in the northeastern Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture (the “sh” is pronounced as a “j” when it follows the word “Tsugaru”), itself has a history of around 150 years, “mostly rooted in deprivation and sadness,” Ryoichiro notes.
Tsugaru-jamisen was traditionally taken up by the blind, who stood in the doorways and under the overhangs of buildings to play for food or a bit of cash. Many died in poverty before they reached 30, but the music was passed on through generations of players.
The Yoshidas, who come from Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, each took up the instrument when they turned 5 years old. Their debut album, “Ibuki,” was released in 1999 and, 12 albums later, they are acknowledged as Japan’s first internationally successful shamisen act and have toured extensively overseas.
“Tsugaru-jamisen may have a lot of sadness attached to it but today it’s a branch of traditional Japanese music just like any other,” Ryoichiro says.
“Yeah, it’s not like we were in dire straits or went from door to door, playing for money,” adds Kenichi, who now teaches shamisen in Barcelona. “We were just two kids who had to learn shamisen the way other kids had to learn to play the piano or take swimming lessons. And boy, did we hate it. It was only later when we got serious about performing, that we understood the history connected to the instrument.”
The circumstances may have changed, but the music hasn’t really deviated from its traditional origins, according to the brothers.
“It wasn’t made for concert halls and music sheets,” says Ryoichiro. “Players were taught the basics of certain key phrases, and they ad-libbed the rest. So there’s no real structure to the music and very little in the way of rules. Once you know what you’re doing and can pick out the phrases, pretty much anything goes.”
Strains of Tsugaru-jamisen set the mood in “Kubo,”which takes place in a wintry northern town in ancient Japan. The one-eyed hero (voiced by Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) lives with his sick mother, and to support them both he plays shamisen in the market square and uses magic to make origami creations dance in time to the music.
His mother’s only rule is that her son come home “before dark,” but on the one day he doesn’t, all hell breaks loose. His grandfather, a powerful magician called the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), is after Kubo’s other eye and has sent along the boy’s evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara) as henchmen. In a few terrifying sequences, Kubo’s mother is killed, their village is burned to ashes and he’s on the run, from family members who would stop at nothing to steal his remaining eye and leave him for dead.
“So the blindness factor is right there in the story,” says Kenichi. “Kubo is always threatened with the possibility of not being able to see. That resonates very deeply with anyone playing Tsugaru-jamisen, and not just because the first players were blind. It’s because we don’t have music sheets, and the performing is done with the entire body. We’re not seeing so much as feeling or doing battle with some unknowable force. We’re beating the shamisen like it’s a weapon, and still there’s a beautiful melody. We don’t know if there’s any other instrument like that in the world.”
Intriguingly, the warlord who presided over most of northeastern Japan in the late 16th century also wore an eye patch like Kubo. Date Masamune was also known as Dokuganryū” (“The One-eyed Dragon”), and like many warlords, he too was plagued by family betrayals and is known to have staged a few treacherous acts of his own.
“When we’re living in Japan, it’s easy to forget that we’re Japanese,” Ryoichiro says, looking to his brother who replies, “But when we go abroad and see a movie like ‘Kubo,’ we’re reminded of our identities and history.”
“Exactly,” Ryoichiro adds. “The movie made me so respectful of the shamisen heritage, and the uniqueness of its culture. It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re from that country!'”
“Kubo and the Two Strings” (Japanese title: “Kubo: Nihon no Gen no Himitsu”) is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information on the Yoshida Brothers, visit www.domomusicgroup.com yoshidabrothers/index.php.