This performance-driven documentary tracks the lengths to which organisers and players went in February 2020 to put together a show featuring mostly female taiko drummers from both Asia and the US. (Taiko are Japanese barrel-shaped drums that come in a range of sizes, from roughly bucket-sized to airplane-engine sized.) Taiko also refers to a whole style of performance that has grown up around ensembles playing together in overlapping or contrapuntal rhythm patterns, sometimes supplemented with singers, dancers and other traditional Japanese instruments. Professional taiko performers are traditionally men – who perform in relatively little clothing because it’s fierce, sweaty work but perhaps also so that viewers can admire the players’ muscular physiques. Like many traditional Japanese performance styles, women were excluded from it until recently and, inspired by touring companies of taiko drummers, it has taken off in the US, not just among Japanese expats but among wider Asian-American communities.
Enter Jennifer Weir, the CEO of TaikoArts Midwest, who is one of the film’s producers and a woman of Korean lineage who was adopted by Americans. Weir and her wife Megan Chao-Smith, who is also a drummer, conceive a plan to put on a showcase featuring some of the best female taiko players they can rustle up, including luminaries such as Chieko Kojima and Kaoly Asano from Japan as well as Sacramento-born Tiffany Tamaribuchi. The film basically tracks them through the ups and downs of bringing the company together, rehearsing despite language difficulties, finding a venue that can accommodate their numbers and putting on a show that acquires the name HERbeat.
Once the music finally kicks in, which in the last act is shown in satisfyingly hefty chunks, the magic starts. All the other let’s-put-on-a-show shenanigans that lead up that – which includes endless shots of people looking stressed and having intense conversations over, say, should they have a few men in the show or keep it women only – is frankly a bit boring. Directors Dawn Mikkelson and Keri Pickett are not necessarily into asking probing questions, which means some of it feels a little hagiographic. It would have been interesting to learn a bit more about taiko from a musician’s point of view: how do they score the pieces, how does choreography fit into it and so on. Presumably, it would have been harder to sell a documentary that just showed the HERbeat performance in its entirety, but personally that’s what I would have rather watched instead.