‘Life on Four Strings’: A Conversation with Director Tad Nakamura

by | May 22, 2013 at 5:13 PM | Cinema Asian America, XFINITY ASIA, Xfinity On Demand

"Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings."

This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Tad Nakamura’s thrilling, must-see profile of Hawaiian ukulele sensation, Jake Shimabukuro. “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings” is a one-hour documentary, fresh from its broadcast on public television, is available to view for free, courtesy its producers, the Center for Asian American Media.

A beloved musician entertainer and musician in Hawaii and Asia from an early age (with four albums under his belt by age 30), Shimabukuro catapulted into the international limelight in 2006 when his impromptu performance of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields went viral in YouTube. A virtuosic musician who has bended the ukulele to sing the sounds of jazz, rock, bluegrass and classical, Shimabukuro’s musicianship and dynamic live performances have won him fans worldwide, through both his solo performances, and collaborations with everyone from Bette Midler to Jimmy Buffet.

Nakamura’s intimate documentary goes behind the scenes and on the road to explore Shimabukuro’s childhood in Hawaii and the cultural and personal influences that have shaped his unique sound, and the ukulele revolution he ignited. Through intimate conversations and tour footage from Los Angeles to New York to Japan the film captures the solitary life on tour: the exhilaration of performance, the wonder of newfound fame, the loneliness of separation from home and family.

What do you look for in a documentary subject, and what was it that drew you to Jake as someone you both wanted to send a lot of time with and whom you thought could carry a feature length documentary?

TN: I look to document specific times, events or people that can inspire an audience to think about the world around them and how they can contribute to it. I like ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things. I knew Jake was an extraordinary musician but it wasn’t until we started working on the film that I realized he was actually an ordinary dude, and better yet, he was an ordinary fourth-generation Japanese American, local guy from Hawai’i, someone I could really relate to.

You’ve made a number of films which explore Japanese American history, and through them have helped to reframe these stories for a younger generation. Life in Four Strings is a kind of departure, where it isn’t so much a historical inquiry, but a film more about the present and the future. How do you see it fitting within your body of work?

TN: On one hand this film is different from my previous work as you stated. On the other hand, it is still documenting a story within the Japanese American community. I like to think that I was able to bring a Japanese American perspective to Jake’s story that enabled me to pick up on subtle cultural aspects. For example, in the film Jake talks about how he feels he doesn’t deserve the complements that he gets, and in his mind he turns those complements into expectations, and if he doesn’t fulfill those expectations he feels he has let people down. That is a very Japanese American way of thinking, something that many of us can relate to.

As an Asian American filmmaker I hope to present dynamic images and stories of ourselves that we don’t see in mainstream media. In the same way that I want us to see ourselves as community activists as in my previous films, I also want Asian Americans to see ourselves as artists and musicians who know where they come from and use their skills to create positive change. In that sense I feel that this film fits within my body of work.

Jake is on one hand an international star, but as we see in the film, he is also a fairly quiet, down to earth person. What were some things you discovered in the film, both about him, and perhaps yourself, that were surprising?

TN: I was surprised to learn about Jake’s working class background. I didn’t know that he was raised by a single mother who had to work three jobs to provide for her two sons. Hearing about how he felt he needed to be “the man of the house” and take care of his mom and little brother really gave me insight into why he has worked so hard to be successful.

I was also surprised to discover how Jake’s career really developed organically. Instead of having a specific plan or strategy to sign a record deal or grow his fan base, he continuously worked on becoming a better ukulele player so when opportunity came his skills and personality were able to take full advantage of them. For example, now days many musicians strategically use YouTube to “get discovered”. When Jake’s video of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral, he had no idea someone had even posted the video, he didn’t even know what YouTube was! But unlike many YouTube sensations, Jake was able to follow-up his viral video with a recording and touring career.

Your previous films have primarily been set in the US mainland, with the exception of A Song For Ourselves, which was set in both Hawaii and Los Angeles. What differences if any, have you noticed in making Asian American stories outside of the mainland?

TN: The two places that we filmed outside of the mainland were Hawai’i and Japan. Because the population of both of places are majority Asian, there were some subtle differences. Seeing an Asian director with an Asian / Pacific Islander crew seemed perfectly normal to people in Japan and Hawai’i, where as on the mainland people might not be so used to seeing that.

Production in Japan was a little more challenging due to the language barrier. Neither myself, the producer Don Young, or any of our crew spoke Japanese so we were totally dependent on our Japan Production Managers Taro Goto and Makiko Wakai for all the logistics. Anytime you show up with cameras in a community you’ve never been to, you always need to conscious about your presence and potential of invasion space or exploitation of images. So when we arrived in Sendai, Japan only five months after the tsunami and earthquake, we really needed to be aware of our own presence.