Photo/IllutrationA variety of samisen made using an artificial skin called “Ripple” and illustrated with drawings are offered from Komatsuya Ltd. The two instruments in the middle of the front row are Shaula models. (Michinori Ishidaira)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

SAGAMIHARA, Kanagawa Prefecture--Hideo Komatsu has made a career out of making exquisite samisen, but around 10 years ago he noticed that sales of the traditional three-stringed instrument were drastically falling off.

At a loss over what to do to keep his business alive, Komatsu, 64, wondered what the market was like overseas for the instrument that produces haunting sounds and screams Japanese culture from ancient times.

And then, he realized he might have a problem.

Samisen traditionally use dog and cat skins for the body that, like the guitar, resonates the sounds. He also was aware of sentiments overseas about animal welfare.

Through trial and error, Komatsu's company succeeded in developing a synthetic fabric which he named “Samisen Jinkohi Ripple” (samisen artificial skin Ripple) three years ago, praying it would produce pleasant melodies.

His company, Komatsuya Ltd., also collaborated with a world-famous illustrator to attract global interest.

“We put a lot of love into making samisen for players and listeners alike,” said Komatsu, the company president. “We want to promote Japan’s wonderful melodies throughout the world.”

Based in this city’s Midori Ward, an area much admired for its natural greenery, the company mainly manufactures, repairs and distributes samisen under Komatsu's watchful gaze. He has been involved in the industry for more than 40 years.

Komatsu started learning how to play the instrument when he was 22 and worked as a sales representative at a company that sold samisen. He decided to strike out on his own at the age of 38 because he was determined to create samisen of the highest quality.

Komatsu founded Komatsuya in 1992. At the time, “minyo” folk songs were hugely popular and his samisen flew off the shelves.

But sales started to drop drastically about 10 years ago, reflecting the advancing age of players. This triggered Komatsu's quest to find international markets.

Initially, fellow industry members thought he was mad, saying that natural skins and leathers were the only way to achieve the right sounds. They said his decision lacked common sense.

“I still haven’t been able to produce the rich sounds that are 100 percent the same as the samisen made using dog or cat skin, but I plan to continue my research,” Komatsu said.

Komatsuya finally managed to release a new samisen in collaboration with Yoshitaka Amano, a globally sought-after illustrator responsible for the “Final Fantasy” video game series, in November of last year. Komatsu asked Amano to illustrate the bodies of his samisen, which he was only too willing to do.

Shaula models featuring an alluring-looking female character have generated considerable interest overseas, but the product is anything but cheap.

A deluxe edition, which has a limited run of 200, sells for 3 million yen ($27,600), excluding tax. Still, Komatsu is confident of the road ahead.

"It is a work of art made using high-grade materials," he said. "It will be a gem in any collection for Amano’s fans.”

The Shaula has also attracted widespread interest in Britain after it was featured in a fair to showcase Japanese culture.

Komatsuya also offers the Shami-Komachi, a samisen, which is designed as a souvenir and is made with the artificial Ripple skin. It is also moderately priced, starting at 19,800 yen before tax.

“I want to pass samisen on to future generations of children and grandchildren,” Komatsu said.

For more information about Komatsuya, visit the official website at (https://shamisen-komatsuya.com/en/).