The mention of Three String Samurai might instantly evoke the cult action/comedy Six-String Samurai (1998). However, instead of a post-apocalyptic film set in an odd alternate reality and starring a Buddy Holly lookalike with sword and…er, axe in hand battling the forces of heavy metal led by none other than a Slash lookalike. Three String Samurai, however, is less about battling with contemporary musical instruments than doing so with traditional ones. Shamisens at ten paces anyone?
For those unfamiliar with the instrument, the shamisen is a three-stringed (thus the film’s title) instrument shaped and played somewhat like a guitar or banjo, which the shamisen is thought to be be spiritually related to. The instrument is traditionally associated with Japanese folk musics as well as music played by geisha while entertaining customers. Somewhat in parallel with the ukulele renaissance in the West, from the early 2000s, the shamisen has enjoyed a renaissance of its own, spurred on by a younger generation of musicians such as the Yoshida Brothers, who appear very briefly in the film, and Hiromitsu Agatsuma, both of whom combine the traditions of the instrument with modern virtuosic playing and fusion with other dynamic genres of music such as jazz and rock.
The film begins with Zero Decibel, a popular rock band in Japan, who is in the midst of a complete PR meltdown. At a press conference, vocalist Miki (Suzuki Ranran) declares her distaste for the sound of the guitar, fueling speculation that the band may soon by fizzling out and, more shockingly, that her rumored relationship with guitarist and bandmate Gen (Kashiwabara Shuji) will fizzle out as well. Despairing over the press conference and the fact that the band is contract-bound by their record label to produce at least one more single, Gen and third bandmate Jin (Kashu Toshiki) seek to put together one final guitarless song and end up on a drinking and snack binge instead. That same night, Gen runs into the paparazzi and ends up fleeing from them, ducking into a nearby cab whose driver, Goro (’50s rocker and character actor Mickey Curtis) has one goal in mind for Gen: to train him to be the best shamisen player in the world. Gen is initially hesitant. After all, he’s a guitarist who shreds on his axe, Hendrix-style. What is he going to do with three less strings? His hesitancy is ultimately overridden by his desire to win the heart of Goro’s cute granddaughter, Akira (former bikini model Anzu Sayuri), which he can only do by beating everyone else at the local shamisen tournament.
Three String Samurai ‘s story should sound awfully familiar. It’s the bland “underdog training to be the best” scenario that is overdone and, in this film’s case, painfully predictable. Think of a far less athletic Rocky (1976) or a more thematically similar School of Rock (2003) and you have a pretty good idea of how the story pans out, from Gen’s doubt then refusal to convert to the shamisen, to his subsequent training, and right down to the by-the-numbers final battle between Gen and his rival, Sonosuke. Characters too are completely predictable: Gen is the lazy ne’er do well with the heart of gold, Akira is ever perky and ‘genki’ cute girl, Goro is the ever-wise and sometimes bumbling sensei. If you’ve ever read a manga, you pretty know all of the vanilla character types that Three String Samurai employs. It’s to the actors’ credit that the zeal with which they play their characters helps keep the film’s overly long, two-plus hour running length entertaining. And, speaking of manga, stylistically and tonally, Three String Samurai feels much like one. Its comic pratfalls, fantasy-like mix of animation and live-action will interest fans of similarly stylized movies such as Kamikaze Girls (2004) and Battle League Horumo (2009).
Strangely enough, given its less than serious story, the film is at it its best when celebrating the traditions of the shamisen and the contemporary culture surrounding it. There are several subtle referential gags including a rival shamisen school of Goro’s called the Yamato-kai (possibly referencing the Yamato Ensemble, a professional group of traditional Japanese musicians). Another is during one of Gen’s many ‘why am I doing this?’ soliloquies, a train station sign reading “jongara” can be seen, a reference to one of the most famous traditional shamisen-accompanied folks songs “Tsugaru Jongara Bushi”. Also, besides the aforementioned cameo by the Yoshida Brothers, the professional father-son duo Nitta Oyako play major roles in the film. Father Hiroshi, dressed and made up like a kabuki demon, appears as Sonosuke who, Robert Johnson-like, has sold his soul to become a skilled shamisen player and later becomes Gen’s video game-like “final boss” in the tournament. Meanwhile, son Masahiro plays yet another shamisen rival who’s also competing for Akira’s love. Even those who won’t get the shamisen references should be able to appreciate the incredible music throughout the movie. Fans of guitar “shredders” such as Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen or improvisational music such as jazz and bluegrass will probably be plugging “shamisen” searches into YouTube soon after finishing the film.
So, overall, Three String Samurai can be seen as a young kid learning to play “Stairway to Heaven” on his new guitar. They may be both be a little long and out of tune, but are also helping to keep their respective musical traditions alive in their own ways.