When it comes to the instrument of the Shamisen my first introduction to it was through the Japanese pop band Monkey Majik. It was with the song titled “Change”, in collaboration with the Yoshida Brothers (brothers performers of the Tsugaru-jamisen style), became a song I instantly liked a lot. A main reason this being Shamisen gave the song a unique sound that stood out to other music I listened too from Japan. However, other than that I simply didn’t care to listen to other pieces of Shamisen music since it’s not the sort of thing I would listen to regularly. Monkey Majik on the other hand I like their stuff a lot. For some who choose to venture into the 2004 anime film Nitaboh will probably be their first introduction to the Shamisen. While the film has plenty to offer on the music side there’s not much else that’ll stick with you once the film ends.
Nitaboh follows blind musician Nitaro through his life as he discover his passion for the Samisen, and honing his skill. Narratively, the film somewhat avoids the pitfall that musical biopics would go with. The formula usually has the lead character discover a passion for music after a performance of some kind, this performance inspires the young lead to become a musician, rising to fame through small performances, and eventually having a rival to compete against. Thankfully Nitaboh doesn’t have the whole fame getting to musician head, hitting rock bottom, and eventually reigniting their passion for music. However, it doesn’t do anything wholly different from a music biopic either by remaining with the basics. It also has a passive leading character which for a story that doesn’t much in terms of conflict won’t be shown struggling through much either in his life story.
One standout feature about the story is the setting taking place during 19th century Japan at the end of the Edo era, and the story somewhat touches on the change Japan was experiencing at that time. The changes occurring during that time, like the change in the way music is played, are far more interesting than what film actually intends to cover. It brings up how unorthodox people thought the idea of a blind man becoming a musician was to people during this era, western influence on Japanese culture that is simply mention, and partially mentions the changing landscape of Japan. However, it’s only ever on the surface, and since it’s not the main focus I can’t really knock it down for that.
Nitaboh biggest flaw is simply not trying enough to flesh things outside of Nitario, which is ironic given it’s main character Nitaro survived through many hardship as a child into adulthood. Hardships that aren’t shown pulling the classic montage into eventual timeskip to get pass the boring stuff of seeing a young Nitaro struggling to support himself on his own, and right into adulthood where he seems better off with hardly anything resembling a conflict. This timeskip cheapens the journey, and ultimately detract from its portrayal of Nitaro dedication to his crafts. Lending to make Nitaro overcoming the stigma he faced of being a blind Shamisen player fall severely short of resonate. By not establishing much in the way of some kind viewpoint there isn’t much growth to discuss from when Nitario was a child who was enraptured playing the Shamisen to an adult who desires to do more with his love playing the Shamisen. Most you’ll get in terms of depth in this area is the times of changing line.
Another issue with the storytelling would simply be it’s modest aim. It doesn’t tell a grand story, nor sensationalize it events through any means making it a down to earth in its depiction. At the same time for something that demands you pay attention to it for 100 minutes there isn’t a whole lot to take in. If the film was half of its current runtime you could have gotten the same story. It wants to express the power of music, and how it touches people hearts, but Nitaro impact on these people lives, or his interaction with the town folks isn’t shown much. People gather to listen to Nitaro play the Shamisen, and that’s about it. Only once does the film has a character speak about how Nitaro dedication to pursue his craft influenced him to do the same. Aside from this one character, hardly anyone else in the film expresses the same gratitude.
The one area Nitaboh is successful in is characterization. No one in the film is complex to any degree, though that’s mostly because how modest it is. Nitaro has a conflict, learns from it, and pushes himself physically, and mentally to resolve it. There isn’t much to him, but his arc is competently written, and doesn’t come across as half baked in his journey. Some aspects of his characters, like the lack of focus of him dealing with his blindness, or quickly getting over the death of a love one hurt Nitaro in the long term. Making him come off as impersonal when it comes to his friends, and bonds, but what is shown successfully is his love for the Shamisen, and his passion for it. While it’s hardly expanded upon, there are several point in the movie Nitaro does point out the unfairness of the world he lives in, and his philosophy on his style.
Side characters on the other hand hardly add much to the film’s narrative. There’s sorta a romance between Nitaro, and Yuki whom meet each other when they’re children. They show some feeling towards each other, but neither of them over confront the other about these feelings. Another aspect to this sorta being a romance is these characters friendship generally spend little time with each other before spending a long amount of time apart from each other. When they are together, only the first thirty minutes is successful in setting up their friendship, and the rest of the film doesn’t bother to evolve it much. Other than Yuki, the other two supporting character Nitaro interact with simply enjoy his music, and help him out. Only one gets influence by him to do something while the other one is just there to help progress the story. Much like some of the world events it brings up throughout the film, side characters just help push the story forward, and that’s all.
Nitaboh is animated by WAO World studio, and in terms of animation its fine. Character designs are simple, but unique enough to tell apart through the entire film. Movement is okay, and backgrounds are pretty much okay too. The animation doesn’t have much happening visually on screen keeping things simple for the most part. There’s one exception to this rule in during the first act that has Nitaro father riding through a storm on his boat, but other than that the animation isn’t lively. It is cheap at times like having a large crowd listening to Nitaboh play the Shamisen just remain still. The direction of Akio Nishizawa is exactly what the film needed. He over play, or senatalizie any aspect of the story that doesn’t need it. Of course, parts of the third act are debatable for being somewhat silly like Nitaro talking to his dead loved ones through a shaman, or the extreme training regimen he went through. Luckily, the film doesn’t venture into over the top territory with those moments.
Sounds though is the one area it excels in. While not much of a listener to traditional Japanese music it gives the film it’s own identity where it can’t stand out in other areas. The noteworthy pieces of music in the film is obviously whenever the Shamisen is in used, and letting the viewer absorb the music. Besides being a cool sounding instrument it has such a commanding presence. Going heavily for an atmospheric approach to its sound design which it soars in flying color. In terms of acting only Satoshi Hino, who plays Nitaro stands out. Easily because he gets the most screen time, but also because he come across as the most understanding of his character. It could have been easy for Satoshi to over act his performance since he’s playing a blind character. Hino approach to the character is not portraying him any different than he would from any other character with eyesight. Bringing out some likable aspect of Nitaro personality that over acting could have overshadowed.
Nitaboh is a modest movie with modest aims, but with modest handling of its material it never tries to make something of itself. What is here isn’t enough to justify a general recommendation to view the movie, especially with some of the more important aspects of Nitaro life aren’t developed much. Simply coming off as a history lesson instead of a engrossing look into a man’s life, and how never he gave up on his passion. If you want a down to earth story that is somewhat difficult to find anime Nitaboh has you cover, but in general it’s a piece of anime that unlike the person its based after, doesn’t have as much going for it.