“Three String Samurai” (previously released as “Overdrive”) is a quirky, lighthearted comedy peppered here and there with clever innovations borrowed from cartoons, theater and silent film. In structure, the film follows the plot of any number of martial arts movies, complete with the eccentric old teacher, an inept student who undergoes torturous physical training, rival schools, and an evil master to overcome in a final duel. All the familiar tropes are here, but what they are tortuously training for, rivaling and dueling over is mastery of the shamisen.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, the shamisen is a long-throated string instrument frequently seen being plucked with a large pick (bachi) by a geisha in classic Japanese films. Its most recent stylistic development happened at the turn of the last century with the invention of the flashy, quick-fingered Tsugaru style, introduced to the West by the Yoshida Brothers in that Wii commercial a few years back.
In the film, Gen Asuda (Shuji Kashiwabara) is lead guitarist of the most popular rock bank in Japan, Zerodecibal. He ends up drunk in a taxi after being thrown out of the band by singer/ex-girlfriend Mishio (Ran Ran Suzuki). The cab driver turns out to be Goro Igarashi, a Tsugaru shamisen master with a habit of kidnapping promising musicians as apprentices – former “students” include Yo Yo Ma, Eddie Van Halen, and Jimmy Page. Convinced Goro is unhinged, Gen is about to leave when he meets the man’s unbelievably cute granddaughter, Akira (Sayuri Anzu). Hormones being the incredible motivator that they are, Gen decides to stay on as Goro’s pupil. The story moves on from there in a predictable fashion.
Working within a generic formula works here for director Takefumi Tsutsui, allowing him room for creative play as well as the opportunity to showcase the spectacular musical talents of the various shamisen players. After a poorly constructed apartment scene shot with an awkward handheld technique, the film quickly picks up its standards. Tsutsui is a veteran editor who understands how interrupting the flow of cinematic time with well-placed, interesting passages can effectively create tension to push a story along. In a move straight out of Asian theater, a colorfully dressed female singer drops in to provide the occasional narrative recap. Semi-surrealistic in tone, the film’s comedic moments are charmingly enhanced with whimsical animation, and the requisite learning-by-doing-kitchen-chores sequence, played out as a silent film comedy, is as surprising as it is fun to watch.
Appropriately cast, (especially captivating is Anzu’s performance as Akira,) the film’s momentum stumbles somewhat when the action moves to follow lesser characters. In the end though, this is a movie about music and musicianship with a score by Koji Endo (Happiness of the Katakuris) and that’s where this film really shines. As a vehicle for presenting top-level shamisen players of the Tsugaru style, “Three String Samurai” will thrill anyone who enjoys discovering new sounds.