Running time: 127 min.
Reviewed by Eric Evans
Gen (Shuji Kashiwabara) is having a bad day. On one hand he’s the lead guitarist for Zerodecibel, a popular rock band; on the other, his romantic relationship with the band’s mercurial lead singer Mishio (a somewhat shrill Ran Ran Suzuki) is on the outs to such an extent that she’s called a press conference to announce that the band’s next single will be their last, that Gen is leaving the group immediately, and that she hates the very sound of guitar. A few hours (and drinks) later, Gen escapes a horde of paparazzi by sneaking into a cab driven by Goro (Mickey Curtis), who has been watching Gen—or maybe scouting is a better word. Goro, you see, is a master of the fast-fingered Tsugaru Shamisen style, and is in need of an apprentice and successor. One drugging and abduction later Gen awakes deep in the countryside of Aomori Prefecture, a friendly prisoner in Goro’s peculiar home.
A bid for retreat is abandoned after Gen meets Goro’s granddaughter, the too-cute-to-be-true Akira (former gravure model Anzu Sayuri, acquitting herself rather well). Goro makes no promises about Akira but he’s savvy enough to suggest that she loves great shamisen players, and that’s enough to convince Gen to stay on and study the instrument in earnest. His training includes bunny-hopping through the home’s subterranean levels, doing laundry at a neighboring shamisen dojo, and ultimately competing in the 10th Annual Tsugaru Shamisen competition against Goro’s former pupil, the fearsome Sonosuke (Hiroshi Nitta, one half of father/son Tsugaru shamisen duo Nitta Oyako; son Masahiro also has a featured role in the film as Oishi, another player after Akira). In one of the films several sublots, we learn that Sonosuke sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play shamisen so well his music can kill; this twist on the Faustian Robert Johnson blues guitar legend is just one of many nods to blues and rock guitar royalty peppered throughout.
Two things differentiate the film from the horde of familiar titles: the shamisen playing, which is legitimately amazing (and all performed by the actors onscreen), and the film’s freewheeling sense of stylistic and tonal whimsy. The music is important because the shamisen is typically thought of as a staid piece of living history, yet the playing here demands your immediate attention. Despite a number of “duels”, the musicianly one-upsmanship continues throughout the film; Kashiwabara is an accomplished guitar player and clearly relishes the challenge half the number of strings offers. This artistry is played against the film’s panoply of stylistic tropes, ranging from animation (a sly twist on the angel on one shoulder, devil on another), to a black-and-white silent film-styled sequence, to CGI tendrils of shadowy evil drifting off of Sonosuke as he plays, to a split-screen scuffle between actors pushing on the split where the two scenes meet to make more room on their half, to regional theater-caliber effects (a brief fantasy sequence in which Gen imagines himself playing his shamisen standing on a small rock jutting out of an angry sea, wearing a red tracksuit, a dozen cutouts of Hokusai’s wave crashing in front and behind). It doesn’t all work, and director Takefumi Tsutsui may have done better to choose one or two and stick with them. It feels as if Tsutsui had been saving up ideas for when he was finally given free reign on a set, and now was his chance to express them, all of them, heedless to whether or not such a display was correct for the story he was telling. This everything but the kitchen sink approach gives the film several big laughs, but the resulting tonal shifts lessen dramatic impact in the bits that would otherwise generate tension. It’s all a bit much; Blending realistic effects with stagey, hokey ones has an artificializing effect on all of them, and one character subplot should have been jettisoned entirely. However, one unusual choice sings: the addition of a narrator in the form of pop singer Lisa Ai, who shows up occasionally to perform short songs bridging gaps between scenes. Her colorful costumes, hair and makeup set her well apart from the rest of the film, and her obvious stage lighting—highly unnatural shifting shadows, spotlights, colored gels—plainly reveal the sets to be artificial constructs, another peculiar choice in a film that never takes itself too seriously. This theatricality is evident from the opening credits, as the sound of people taking their seats and an usher’s voice saying “thank you for waiting, please come in” accompany a stage curtain onscreen. Cue narration (an opening rap by Ai) and the the curtain is drawn back to begin the narrative. If that makes “Three String Samurai” sound like an elegant experiment, well, it's half true. Though the story is somewhat predictable, in the telling it's nothing if not experimental.
“Three String Samurai” is one of the first wave of films released by Japan Flix, an online, on-demand digital film distributor. Given the state of DVD sales it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a variety of Japanese releases on Western shores, so there was some excitement among J-film enthusiasts at Japan Flix’s appearance. Even more curious were the films themselves: at least a dozen titles which seemed completely unknown, “Three String Samurai” among them. A but of digging revealed that the film saw domestic release in 2004 as “Overdrive”, box office data indicating that it met with profound public indifference. Their loss. While it’s no lost treasure, if you enjoy more playful Japanese comedies such as “Kamikaze Girls” and “Crime Or Punishment?!?” you’ll find “Three String Samurai” to be a charming surprise. The buffet approach to style and tone may distract from the overall effectiveness of the end result, but the movie keeps you interested for most of its 2-hour-plus run time and the cast fights above their weight. It’s slight but fun.