Shakuhachi: One Sound One Life (2019)

A conventional documentary about an unconventional instrument—the ancient shakuhachi—and the people who seek spiritual clarity through playing it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dir. Helen Qin
2019 | China | Documentary | 87 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin, Japanese & English
PG (passed clean)

Plot: This film records the lives of Shakuhachi players, makers, and learners in China, Japan, and the United States, to witness the people devoted to the career of Shakuhachi. 
Source: Beijing Joy Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Light – Music, Spirituality
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Screener – Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2020
Spoilers: No

Screening at the Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2020 – for more details:

I’ve been fascinated by the shakuhachi since young when it was first introduced to me through the music of Osamu Kitajima and Kitaro.  The sounds that it can produce are incredibly dynamic, from subtle beauty to invigorating power, or in other words, from ‘zen’ to ‘samurai’ mode. 

In five chapters, director Helen Qin tells us more about the people whose lives revolve around the ancient instrument.  From various shakuhachi players in Japan and China, to a shakuhachi-maker, to a sensei of the instrument, Shakuhachi: One Sound One Life is about the impact of music when it is used for healing or to seek spiritual clarity. 

There is a bit of background to the historical significance of the instrument, which is useful, but the bulk of the documentary is filled with talking heads that are occasionally intercut with live performances in various locations such as temples, performance halls, etc. 

There is a segment on John Neptune which I personally find resonating, partly because I own one of his late ‘90s concept albums called ‘Asian Roots: Takedake with Neptune’, where all instruments used were made of bamboo, including the shakuhachi. 

A conventional documentary about an unconventional instrument, Qin’s work won’t raise any eyebrows, but it should whet the appetite of audiences who are into documentaries about music.

Grade: B



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