A month ago I fell in love with the sound of the shamisen, I thought it was a shame that Agatsuma’s beautiful shamisen music hadn’t featured in any anime I had seen. Then I discovered this! Nitaboh is all about a young boy who becomes blind after illness and learns the shamisen. He eventually masters it creating his own distinctive sound, and the film shows his struggles to achieve his dream.
I found the movie very moving, there are many teary moments! The challenges Nitaboh face seem insurmountable but for the most part it is a positive story about achieving your dreams.
As with other historical anime it’s a welcome glimpse into an unknown world. I enjoyed learning about the Komusoh (blind Zen priests), Goze (blind female poets/musicians) and the Todoza (religious guild of blind musicians). It also worked well on an emotional level. Nitaboh’s blossoming friendship with Yuki, the endearing symbolism of the half shell; his father explaining that social status means he cannot join the Todoza; Kikunozuke, who recognises Nitaboh’s genius and generously provides the thick-necked shamisen, and the rivalry from other musicians trying to ruin his life and label him as unorthodox.
The film peaked for me after about an hour and 12 minutes, when Osho the priest takes Nitaboh to attempt Itako (seven days and nights of praying and fasting, so that he can discover his distinctive shamisen sound), when Nitaboh sits on the rocks confronting the waves in the storm it’s truly inspiring. I enjoyed this so much because I wasn’t expecting it – the amazing performance at the end felt inevitable but I’m glad his struggle wasn’t portrayed purely as a fight against the other jealous musicians.
I love the colours used, the purple water of the sunsets and the rich scenery interspersed in the music scenes. The musical development explained by ‘Shu Ha Ri’ (conserving, breaking tradition then departing from tradition) gave the film surprising depth. However, I’m giving this an A not an A+ overall because it lacks something magical seen in anime such as ‘Mushishi’, and feels about 20 minutes longer than it should have been.
If you are not sure what Shamisen music is, or simply want to hear more by Agatsuma, I highly recommend ‘Rainbow Wind’ (here), ‘Accustom’ (here). The Shisen Vs. Shamisen perforance is also impressive (here). Shamisen seems to be entering lots of metal circles recently – not sure if this is a good or bad development! Mike Penny and Greg Walsh are American shamisen players well worth a listen Mike/Greg.
My favourite images: