Pile of Shame

by Justin Sevakis,

Nitaboh, The Shamisen Master

Last year, an old friend of mine asked me to help a non-profit group of radio producers come up with a Kickstarter video for a public radio project called "Heavenly Sight," a multi-part audio documentary and web resource on blind African American blues and jazz musicians. It wasn't a subject I was all that familiar with -- my main musical obsessions tend to veer towards the electronic. Blues didn't speak to me instinctively, but I always had an appreciation for the sound of it. The project taught me a lot about this unusual subsection of musicians who usually came from poverty and a musical tradition free of visual exploitation. They were blind, but seemed to possess extraordinary talent. They were the lynchpin behind an entire tradition of American musical tradition.

Until I watched Nitaboh, I had no idea that Japan had a similar tradition. For centuries, blind musicians -- many of them women refered to as "goze" -- travelled the land to perform at parties and as street performers. Higher up the caste system, traveling bands of blind shamisen and other musicians would travel the land performing for the upper class. The film is meant to be educational (it's the first feature film produced by WAO! Corporation, a group formed by an educator that specializes in producing educational anime with government assistance), but clearly its intended audience is kids who grew up being taught the minutiae of Japanese history, so I'm probably missing a lot here.

Anime biographies are possibly the rarest of genres, comprising only a handful of titles over the decades. Nitaboh (née, Nitaroh), the blind shamisen musician covered by this film, is frankly the least interesting thing about this one. That's mostly the fault of the screenplay, which takes a man's life, and fits it so neatly inside very standard Japanese story tropes that you could basically substitute him with any mild-mannered Japanese kid who Wants To Be The Best from any manga or TV drama ever made, and the story wouldn't change one bit. There's a childhood friend/possible chaste love interest, a rival group that conspires to take Nitaroh down, and even a final battle. I don't know anything about Nitaboh other than what's been presented to me here, but I smell a rat.

The broad strokes: it's the end of the Edo period (and beginning of the Meiji era), a time of great change and modernization. Nitaroh is a kind and polite peasant kid being raised by his widowed father, who drives a water ferry across a river, in Kanbara (Aomori Prefecture, the North tip of the main island of Japan). At age 8, a deadly plague spares Nitaroh, but takes his sight from him. Not long after, a traveling goze named Tamana appears in town with her daughter Yuki. Fascinated by her Shamisen, he asks to be taught to play by Tamana, who agrees to stick around and have him as a pupil. Nitaroh's late mother was also a Shamisen player, he learns.

Nitaroh later loses his father to an accident in the river during a storm, and at age 11, he goes it alone, earning his keep as a street performer. His talent soon attracts a fanbase, and Nitaroh slowly starts to develop his own technique -- rougher and louder than the instrument was usually played. When his sole instrument breaks, a well-heeled fan-turned-friend named Kikunosuke sponsors a much more robust replacement for him. But Nitaroh struggles to find his way with the new instrument, and soon has to find inspiration from the strict practices of itako, the blind Northern female shamen, who fast for a week to attain enlightenment. Soon, his new technique is unstoppable, earning him the ire of traditional shamisen traditions. They challenge him to a tournament, to see who is The World's Strongest.

It does all get a little silly, but I'm making it sound more crass than it is. Most of the film's running time is dedicated to slices of Nitaroh's countryside life, his training, and the support of his friends. The music (the bulk of which is actually by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra) is beautiful but minimalist, and unfortunately it's not until the end that we get to enjoy real shamisen. The animation is nothing special for most of the film, but when we see Nitaroh and other musicians play, it becomes sublime -- painstakingly animated from live action footage and extremely realistic.

Its reliance on well worn tropes aside, I really enjoyed Nitaboh. It's a compelling, educating and unique piece of animation, with decent storytelling and ambition to match that of its subject. Its artistry, in both its writing and its draftsmanship, won't win any awards, but its subject matter alone is compelling. And let's face it, if you're going to watch an anime tournament battle, you could do a hell of a lot worse than seeing a face-off between shamisen masters.

Japanese Name: NITABOH 仁太坊―津軽三味線始祖外聞 (Nitaboh: Tsugaru Shamisen Shiso Gaibun)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 100 min.

Vintage: 2004

Genres: Drama, biography, music

Availability (Japan): I can't find a DVD release in Japan... but surely one happened? I know there's a French release...

Availability (English): Fansubs only

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