Among the inspirations acknowledged by the eternally curious subject of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda are the organ chorales of Bach, the films and photographs of Andrei Tarkovsky, the spoken words of Paul Bowles and J. Robert Oppenheimer and a range of environmental sounds gathered first-hand from places as far-flung as an Arctic Circle glacier or Lake Turkana, Kenya, where the world’s oldest human remains were discovered. Made over a five-year period during which the Japanese composer was diagnosed and treated for stage 3 throat cancer, this is a gentle, reflective portrait that seldom gets personal and yet somehow feels quite candid.
At the start of Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary, Sakamoto is seen at a high school in Northeast Japan, tinkering with a Yamaha baby grand that survived the 2011 tsunami. “I felt as if I was playing the corpse of a piano that drowned,” he says.
A deep dive into the artistry of an original thinker.
While surveying the devastation in the area, he dons a hazmat suit and tours the restricted contamination zone of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, later joining a massive protest outside the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo when the plants are reopened. The film then cuts to Sakamoto visiting a shrine in memory of the earthquake and tsunami victims, and performing in a recital at a former evacuation site, playing an exquisite arrangement for piano, violin and cello of his melodious theme from Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
All that is packed into the pre-titles section of the film, establishing its subject as a humane, socially engaged activist while touching on just one notable achievement from his influential and wide-ranging five-decade career in music. It also serves to illustrate how such factors as environmental crises, nuclear power, global warming, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War have fed directly into his work over the past 25 years.
Sakamoto can appear thoughtful and serious, deep in concentration one minute, then funny and awed with childlike delight the next. The androgynous beauty of his younger years is glimpsed in a quick pan past a Warhol portrait or a clip of him appearing opposite David Bowie in the 1983 Oshima film. But at 65, his handsomeness is no less striking, with his mop of silver hair, owlish glasses and cool wardrobe of neutral tones. Even his meds are laid out on a stylish linen napkin, while his health-conscious meal of fruit is arranged with the harmonious balance of an art piece.
All that aesthetic attention to detail might sound like a pose, but instead it appears integral to the man and the artist. While Sakamoto never speaks of his marriages, relationships or children, his forthrightness about his creative process is remarkably illuminating. Observing him collect sounds in a forest, or try out different vessels to catch plinking raindrops outside his door in Tokyo (he splits his time between Japan and New York), there’s a moving sense of being let in on a very intimate part of the artist’s work. Those glimpses are as much an insight into Sakamoto as his direct-to-camera account of his cancer diagnosis and his outlook post-treatment.
Nomura Schible shows minimal interest in conventional biographical detail or strict career chronology. Nor does the documentary make any claims to be comprehensive. And there are no talking-head comments with famous collaborators; Sakamoto himself is the sole interviewee. Yet, out of the film’s loose, discursive structure, an expansive view of the subject’s eclectic output, and of the thought that goes into each new piece, comes together.
Significant attention is given to his synth-pop years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as part of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a vanguard ensemble that was a precursor to Daft Punk and other electronic acts. Appropriate clips and anecdotes illustrate his work on film scores including Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (which won Sakamoto an Oscar) and The Sheltering Sky; and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant, for which he admits he cut short his cancer-treatment hiatus to collaborate with a director he admires. There’s also wonderful archival footage of the younger Sakamoto conducting key film pieces, smartly interwoven by editor Hisayo Kushida with scenes in which they were used.
Some of the loveliest moments in the doc are in Sakamoto’s home studio, watching as he works the computer console, layering disparate elements into dense, hypnotically swelling soundscapes, but always returning to the piano as the center of his work.
Examining the various parts of his Steinway, he speaks with the eloquence of a poet and the knowledge of a craftsman about the way in which components from nature are submitted to a lengthy process of industrial technology to construct a piano. And how the “tsunami piano” — notes from which are incorporated into some of his recent chorale pieces — in a strange sense reverses that process. Coming from an artist now accustomed to contemplating his mortality, that observation has a haunting resonance.
Production companies: Cineric, Borderland Media
Director: Stephen Nomura Schible
Producers: Eric Nyari, Yoshiko Hashimoto
Directors of photography: Neo Sora, Tom Richmond
Editor: Hisayo Kushida
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Doc & Film International