Welcome, welcome to day number one of Hotsui Matsuri! Kicking off our blog summer festival, we’re going to be talking about something that I personally love, and that I’ve been seeing a lot of anime focusing around in the past few years: traditional Japanese instruments. Because yes. I am that person who would go watch an entire koto performance by myself if I could (and I have one or two times at cultural festivals). So today, I’m going to happily walk you through some traditional instruments, and what anime you can watch to experience them.
The Koto is a large thirteen string instrument that dates back to the 16th century and is the national instrument of Japan. It’s played by moving the finger pieces, known as bridges, up and down the strings and plucking said strings to produce notes. In recent years there have been koto with more strings–seventeen, twenty, and twenty-one.The frame is traditionally made from wood and the bridges were traditionally made from ivory–however, now bridges are either plastic or wood. It was said that the instrument resembled a great dragon. The sound of a koto is impressive, and like any string instrument the musicians who play this are amazing. The elegant sounds it produced were largely heard as court music. If you want to watch an anime about this beautiful instrument, I recommend Kono Oto Tomare which brings to life wonderful performances.
Though the koto is the national instrument, I find most people I know thinking of the shamisen when thinking of Japan. Which is fair because it too is a beautiful instrument. The shamisen, unlike the koto, is a handheld instrument with simply three strings. It is slightly resembles a banjo, but is derived actually from the Chinese sanxian. Shamisen music can be found in both kabuki performances as well as puppet shows and plays. The strings are struck with a bachi–though there are some forms where the musician chooses to pluck the strings directly with their fingers. The shamisen is played more widely in both traditional and non-traditional music, opposed to the koto which has largely remained found in traditional music. To enjoy an anime about the shamisen, I’d recommend Mashiro no Oto.
Whereas the shamisen is more associated with Japan in the western world, I also find that many get the shamisen confused with the Biwa instrument. Like the shamisen, the biwa is a handheld string instrument, but the Biwa features four strings rather than three, and has a much rounder body and shorter. Like the shamisen, it is played using a bachi. The biwa was used in China as the pipa before spreading through East Asia and reaching Japan in the 7th century. This instrument is essentially a lute and its used in storytelling–like a bard’s instrument. The most famous story told using biwa is The Tale of the Heike, for which the heike-biwa is named for. To find biwa in anime, you can watch either Dororo for Biwamaru–a traveling old man witnessing the tale of Hyakkimaru, or watch Demon Slayer which features Nakime–a biwa playing demon.
A bit of a confusing one, because when I say taiko, you are probably imagining a very specific kind of drum. However, the term taiko is actually broad–meaning simply just drums. Wadaiko refers to those varius large drums that you’ll see used for performances called kumi-daiko. Taiko drums are used in a variety of ways–from kabuki peformance to gagaku, and even kagura (a form of dance associated with Shinto). Taiko is also found prominently in the music and dancing found at Bon Festival’s. There are many different kinds of taiko drums and they are used widely. Outside of Japan, kumi-daiko are incredibly popular and there are many practicing taiko troupes. This instrument that is from the 6th century, if not earlier, is well loved throughout the world. If you’re looking for an anime featuring wadaiko, I recommend Aki no Kanade.
That about wraps up my post on traditional instruments! I only covered four non-wind instruments, but that there’s plenty more! Perhaps a post for another year. Because I personally love music and traditional music from all cultures. I find the stories behind them fascinating, as well as the sounds beautiful. I hope this post helped you understand some traditional Japanese instruments. We’ll see you tomorrow for day 2 of Hotsui Matsuri!