Director Tad Nakamura (left) and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro during a post-screening Q&A. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Director Tad Nakamura (left) and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro during a post-screening Q&A. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and filmmaker Tad Nakamura worked on the documentary “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings” for three years, becoming friends and learning a lot from each other in the process.

The award-winning film, completed in 2012, follows Shimabukuro on tour across the U.S. and Japan, and also looks at his family life. Interviewees include his mother, Carol, who began teaching him ukulele when he was 4.

A Dec. 21 event at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum provided a rare opportunity to see the film, listen to a Q&A with Shimabukuro and Nakamura (only their second joint appearance at a screening), and enjoy a mini-concert. The event was co-presented by JANM, Angry Asian Man, First Pond Entertainment, and Visual Communications.

Nakamura noted that the venue had special significance because his documentary “Pilgrimage” (2006) was screened there and a scene from “Life on Four Strings” was shot there during the Asian American Music Festival in 2010. Also known for “Yellow Brotherhood” (2003) and “A Song for Ourselves” (2009), Nakamura was joined by his parents, filmmakers/documentarians Robert Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka, and other family members. The elder Nakamura directed some of the earliest films by and about Asian Americans, including “Manzanar” (1971).

Shimabukuro, whose wife, physician Kelly Yamasato, was pregnant in the film, reported, “My son, he’s two years and four months now, and his name is Chase. I wish I didn’t name him that because he truly lives up to his name. It’s been great.

“I haven’t cut back so much … probably still doing the same amount of shows but in less space. It’s really kind of streamlined, the way that I travel and the way that I tour, so that helps me to spend more time at home. So if we go out for 14 days, we do 13 shows and then I’ll come back home and spend time with the family. And it’s great too because with technology, we have Skype and all that, so that really helps.”

Going back to the beginning, Tad Nakamura said, “What I like about the film is that the first time the audience kind of gets to see Jake’s personality is at the elementary school in the Bay Area when he’s interacting with the students. Actually, that’s the first time I met Jake and the first time I ever saw him perform …

“This film was commissioned and created from Center for Asian American Media (in San Francisco). Don Young, who’s the producer of the film, before I was on board, talked to Jake, got him on board, and then got me on board to direct it. So I had heard of Jake but it wasn’t like I’d known all this information about him. I didn’t really know the extent of his story, so it was a really blank slate for me.”

The project started when Young saw one of Shimabukuro’s videos on YouTube but couldn’t find much background information on the Internet.

“It piqued his curiosity, so he had this idea to make this film … I was very honored because no one had ever approached me and no one had ever wanted to do a film on me before — and no one has since,” Shimabukuro recalled.

“He told me about Tad and I was very excited to meet Tad … The moment we met, we really connected, and I think all of you know Tad and his reputation … his mom and dad, how iconic they are here … The other connection was one of my mentors back home in Hawaii, my uncle Arnold Hiura (a writer, editor and media consultant) … I found out that he and Tad’s family were very, very dear friends … So the stars were truly aligned.”

Deleted Scenes

Being filmed constantly took some getting used to, Shimabukuro said. “Probably the reason the film took so long to shoot was because I was such a novice and I messed up so many shots.”

Whenever he walked into a building, he would hold the door open for the camera and sound guys following him. “They kept telling me over and over, ‘Just pretend we’re not here’ … But it’s hard to ignore someone, especially when they’re right there in your face.”

Jake Shimabukuro's performance included his cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
Jake Shimabukuro’s performance included his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

One scene that didn’t make it into the film was shot at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. Nakamura said he spotted some “ojii-chans” playing mah jong and thought, “It would be cool if Jake’s sitting there playing with them.”

Shimabukuro said he gave it a try despite having serious reservations. “These guys are like hard-core, they look like Japanese mafia or something … I start walking toward these guys … As you get close, you can feel this vibe, like you are not welcome … I’m trying to play Japanese songs, something they might recognize … They just didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

While filming in Hawaii, Nakamura wanted to show that Shimabukuro was just a regular local boy. “One of Jake’s passions is fishing, the real deal with the spear and diving and stuff. So we had this whole shoot, we hired a pretty well-known underwater photographer, and we took Jake to Kamana Beach Park. We have him sharpening his spear, getting ready, stretching.”

Why wasn’t any of that footage used? “There was no fish that day,” Shimabukuro explained. “I don’t know what happened. Usually when I go out I can catch a decent amount of fish for dinner. Nothing, there was nothing.”

He was only able to catch a manini. In a barbecue scene where Shimabukuro’s family is cooking meat, “that’s the fish you see on the grill,” he said. “You probably missed it because it’s so tiny.”

“That was about a $5,000 manini,” Nakamura joked.

The film also takes Shimabukuro back to New York’s Central Park, where he played George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2006. A video of that solo performance went viral on YouTube, getting more than 13 million views to date and launching his career into high gear.

Of his return to Central Park, Shimabukuro said, “It was cold. My socks were all wet because I didn’t know you can’t walk through snow in Converses. We don’t have snowshoes in Hawaii … (But) it was really neat to go back there because that’s sort of where that chapter for me started.”

The crew visited the Tohoku region of Japan after the devastating 2011 tsunami, including Sendai, hometown of Shimabukuro’s manager at the time, Kazusa Flanagan.

“I was just hoping to bring some aloha, bring some music to the people there,” Shimabukuro said. “It was very encouraging because when we went to visit some of the shelters, especially the kids, you would see them just light up when you hand them a ukulele and they strum something.

“But unfortunately, a few days before the Sendai concert I got really sick … I had chills and fever … Luckily, I’m not a singer. If I were a singer we probably would not have been able to do the show … As soon as I hit the stage, it was just like that the body aches and the chills and the fever, it was gone. I felt really good. I probably played more intense than any of the other shows.”

He added, “A lot of people turned out for the show despite all that was going on, and it was a very emotional show. There were a lot of tears in the audience. But people were just so fired up, they were so excited just to have music, to have someone coming over to Sendai … It was extremely inspiring for me and it was a great lesson. It taught me a lot, and after the show I got to meet some of the folks in the Sendai area.”

“You were not looking good before the show, but you absolutely came out and just killed it,” Nakamura told Shimabukuro.

Lessons Learned

Regarding lessons that he learned, Nakamura said, “Certain musicians, they’ll just tour for a summer when their album comes out, and then they won’t tour that much, but Jake tours literally year-round every year. Overall it was great for me to see as another artist, to see the discipline that he puts into his craft. He’s extremely talented, but what I got to see and probably most people never get to see is the amount of time and travel and things like keeping your immune system up …

“When I would shoot shows, he really does mesmerize his audience … My conclusion was that Jake pays attention to his audience in each of his venues. That’s what I wanted to do with those first two scenes, him going from a huge, beautiful 2,000-seat orchestra hall (Segerstrom in Costa Mesa) to an auditorium of elementary school kids. He’ll put the same exact effort into it but then he’ll guide it differently, so as a performer he’ll read the audience first and really prioritizes the audience …

“A lot of performers will say, ‘You guys paid to see me and this is what you get.’ I think Jake’s the opposite. He wants to give the audience what they want … Sometimes it will even be the same song, but they way he plays it will be much different according to the audience. I think when it comes to musicianship, when it comes to performance, that’s a very pure form of performing … So whether you know it or not, I think your ears and your eyes kind of sense something pure that you haven’t really seen too much.”

Shimabukuro had just as much praise for Nakamura: “It really was an honor to work with him. I was truly inspired by his work ethic and his passion … the way he sees things, the way he hears things, the way he feels when he edits. I think that’s really where his gift is, when he puts a story together, the way that he looks at a clip. He knows where to cut … not just visually but also what’s happening musically or what’s happening in dialogue. His timing, his precision with that is so incredible …

“To see what it’s like in the raw stages and to see the final cut — it’s amazing what a difference that makes, even if it’s just a split-second too long or a split-second too short.”

Shimabukuro entertained the audience with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; a traditional Hawaiian song from the Big Island; an original piece titled “Ukulele 5-0”; “Sakura, Sakura,” described as “my humble attempt at trying to make my four-string Hawaiian ukulele sound more like a 13-string Japanese koto”; and another original piece, “Go For Broke.”

Discussing the latter song, Shimabukuro observed, “One of the similarities with Tad and myself … is our relationship with our parents. I think especially being a Japanese American, we always feel this responsibility or we put pressure on ourselves to make our parents proud, because we think of all the sacrifices that not just our parents but our grandparents and our great-grandparents … made so that we could be here living in this country.

“During the making of the film I had expressed to Tad that some of my heroes were the Nisei soldiers, the Nisei veterans of the 442, the 100th Battalion, the MIS, the 1399th … because they were such a special generation … Their story really touched me because I realized that being a Japanese or an Asian American, I have a better life living in this country today because of the sacrifices that they made. It’s kind of the same thing, the way I think of my parents and grandparents.”

Shimabukuro remembered living on Lauiki Street, which was behind the 100th veterans’ clubhouse. “I didn’t know anything about it when I was a kid, but my buddies and I would ride our bikes around the block, and all we knew was that was the building with the ice-cold water fountain. We’d sneak in there a lot, drink water, and if we heard someone coming, we’d run out. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered what the building was about and I learned their story, and it really hit home for me.”

“Life on Four Strings,” which has been broadcast on PBS, is now available on DVD and via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. For more information, visit

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