By Kyle Abbott on August 08, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

I've always been optimistic about shamisen becoming more well-known in the future, but it was truly a very pleasant surprise when I heard of a feature film being made with a shamisen player taking a major role in the story.

Yes, coming out on August 19th is the animated epic - “Kubo and the Two Strings”!!

From Wikipedia - The story is set in ancient Japan, where a young boy named Kubo cares for his sick mother in a village. A spirit from the past turns Kubo's life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo who, in order to survive, must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, a legendary Samurai warrior.

Plus… Kubo has a shamisen!!

Spreading the three-stringed fun!

I can only think of one other film which featured a shamisen player, and that was the 2004 anime called Nitaboh (which is the story about Nitaboh, the alleged founder of the Tsugaru style).

Nitaboh was a really enjoyable film, but because the target audience was anime-inclined, those who watched it most likely already knew about the shamisen.

Of course that’s great, but I'm especially excited about Kubo because being a feature film with an all-star voice cast and great story, it will introduce thousands of people to the shamisen and hopefully inspire some to learn it too!

Case in point; On one morning in May, I was walking to a local gig in sunny Santa Cruz and what did I see when passing the movie theater? A giant poster with a shamisen staring right back at me! Yay!!

“So who's playing the shamisen?”

That's the main question many members of Bachido had about the film. After all, with an epic film featuring such an epic instrument, we were all praying that the LAIKA team would choose truly boss shamisen shredders to represent all of us. And sure enough, they did!

Kevin Kmetz and Hibiki Ichikawa were the official shamisen talent hired for the soundtrack of “Kubo and the Two Strings”. Knowing their incredible skill, I'm even more excited to hear the film scores of “Kubo and the Two Strings”!

Words from Kevin Kmetz

“I recorded all my tracks from my home here in Misawa. Probably the funniest thing was that I didn't realize how epic this movie would be until the trailers started popping up on youtube. Even then I was actually genuinely confused. I thought "No way! This cant possibly be the movie I have been recording stuff for!”

I'm looking forward to seeing it when it finally comes out! All in all it was a tremendous honor to be involved in the making of Kubo and I am looking forward to the day my daughter is old enough to actually sit and watch it with me. The folks at LAIKA let me hear some of the soundtrack and it was amazing! Hibiki san also sounded great and I was really glad to meet him in Berlin during the last ShamiCamp.“

Words from Hibiki Ichikawa

I am really honored to take part in the project of Kubo. I had a recording with a wonderful Academy Award Winning composer, Dario Marianelli, and had a very unique experience. He focused on the traditional techniques of Tsugaru Shamisen such as 'Suri' and 'Hajiki' when he recorded the sound. I am sure the music will be one of the outstanding features of the film. I hope those who get interested in the shamisen spread in the world after the film is out.

Connections between animation and building shamisen

I had the great pleasure of being invited to the LAIKA studio (where "Kubo and the Two Strings” was created) to demonstrate the actual playing of shamisen for the animators to could confidently animate the shamisen/playing with aesthetic accuracy. It was a great experience to visit the directors, producers and the incredibly talented animators involved in this production.

In that youtube video, they don't exaggerate the difficulty of animating such action-filled scenes. Talking with the animators was very fascinating and touched me on a personal level, especially seeing how it related to my experience with building shamisen.

When I was around 16, I started my first shamisen without any instruction or masters. Besides watching a few tourism videos (which showed a shamisen maker building a shamisen), there was really nothing to learn from, nobody to tell me what to do.

If a problem arose (especially with skinning), the only way of solving it was just to think of various solutions and alternative methods of application. It was a great process of self-discovery.

Likewise, I observed a similar feeling with the creative animators and character/prop designers (except what they create is incredibly more difficult than a shamisen!) The intense open-minded creative flow required to create such detailed characters and ambient effects, (how to make realistic fur, for example) as well as cope with the natural laws of physics while animating was astounding.

And similarly, when problems arose (like a law of physics was conflicting with the particular scene they were trying to make), nobody could instruct the animators. It was up to them to figure out a solution to make the scene work. This required a very open-minded approach to let ideas and solutions form.

And again, I'd be flattering myself to think my adventures in shamisen building was anywhere near the amazing things those talented animators do on a daily basis, but from a very broad and philosophical level, I could feel how instrument making was very similar to stop-motion animation. Likewise, similarities with writing songs! When problems or blocks arise, keeping in an open-minded ‘let all ideas in’ mindset is a great way to persevere with any art. Life has so many connections!

Long story short, there's so much anticipation for 'Kubo and the Two Strings' (like finding out what happened with the third string?) and I can't wait to go to the theater, savor the amazing creations of the animators (and everyone else involved!) and listen to the groovy beats from Kevin Kmetz and Hibiki Ichikawa!

Join me in the theater on August 19th! (or later if you are outside of the states, oops!)

3 comments

Awesome post Kyle! Thanks.

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I'm just learning about this instrument, but is the character playing a Tsugaru Shamisen? I guess the studio musicians are? I ask because the pegs on the character's shamisen seem smaller.

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I found the answer on your website. Thank you!

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