An apt swansong for the creative great – Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Film Review)

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Whether known through his award-winning scores to classics like The Last Emperor, or his pioneering of synth-pop in the ‘80s, Ryuichi Sakamoto is as clear-cut great. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, the Japanese musician decided to halt his ever-thriving career in order to focus on treatment. As this fascinating documentary details, Sakamoto isn’t one to let life pass him by – even as it threatens to claim him. ‘Coda’ itself is a musical term, referring to the concluding passage of a particular piece. And though Sakamoto does indeed reflect on past experiences – the highlights from a truly stellar career – Coda actually ends up suggesting quite the contrary.

The film opens with Sakamoto inspecting the strings of a damaged piano. “I heard about a piano that survived the tsunami… I had to hear its sound,” he tells us. Proving there are still sounds worth hearing from the devastated instrument, it’s a beautifully modest opening sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

As with all the greats, the creative process often transcends the boundaries of that particular field. Indeed, Sakamoto describes his approach to be ‘cinematic’, and after watching him go about his work, you certainly get the feeling that the composer envisages much more than notes on a stave when it comes to creating music. Sitting at home in his New York apartment, Sakamoto watches Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and becomes obsessed with crafting his own reading of the soundscape presented by the venerable Russian.

Indeed, despite being inescapably intertwined with music specifically, Coda also offers a fantastic glimpse of the more filmic aspects of Sakamoto’s career, presented through behind-the-scenes footage and anecdotal recounts. His debut score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which won the BAFTA for Best Film Music, only came about because Sakamoto had the audacity (“being young and petulant”, he says) to tell director Nagisa Oshima he’d only accept an acting role if he could score the film too.

Sakamoto divulges the barely plausible backstory to his work on The Last Emperor – describing how he was only signed on as an actor, and that post-production troubles left producer Jeremy Thomas pleading with Sakamoto to write a score (45 songs in 1 week – a creative output that Sakamoto admits was only possible due to the naivety of his youth).

There’s also a significant portion dedicated to his work on The Revenant – a recent addition made possible thanks to the documentary’s lengthy and accommodating production length (shooting for Coda began in 2012). With Sakamoto beginning the treatment for his cancer in 2014, production on The Revenant clashed with his planned year-long hiatus from work. Such was his admiration for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Sakamoto says he couldn’t resist ending his hiatus to work so that he could work with the director. Of course, the film’s core essence – that of man’s struggle with the natural world – is one that you can imagine Sakamoto exploring with ease.

Indeed, besides his various contributions on an artistic level, Sakamoto has also become a vehement figure of social activism – particularly for the anti-nuclear movement. He charts Japan’s plight from the mid-20th century, as it’s transformed into the leading hub of cultural and technological advancement. An inevitable by-product of this progression, Sakamoto notes, has been the thriving nuclear industry. He visits Fukushima, site of the fatal nuclear disaster in 2011. With his discernible white locks poking out from his protective hazmat suit, Sakamoto wanders around the desolate site – recording sound from the wreckage, and taking photographs on his iPad. Indeed, if not for the oversized Apple product, Sakamoto could well be traversing the very ‘Zone’ from Tarkovsky’s Stalker, such is the post-apocalyptic bleakness of Fukushima.

Whilst Sakamoto’s passionate appeals for a nuclear-free future might usually paint some sort of technophobe caricature, watching the ins-and-outs of his creative process reveals the artist is quite the opposite. First known for his pioneering of ‘electropop’ with his group Yellow Magic Orchestra, Coda offers archival footage of a young Sakamoto raving about the advantages of automated keyboard software on his computer (“It’s so fast!”). Little has changed since, with Sakamoto working on his new album (“async”) on the latest Mac software in his apartment – while he attaches various little microphone clips to his smartphone when he’s out and about, recording idiosyncratic sounds on-the-move to incorporate into his music later on.

Like the piano that he discovers from the wreckage of a tsunami, there’s still life left in that which nature has tried to claim – and it sounds more mesmerising than ever.

Dir: Stephen Nomura Schible

Cast: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Prd: Stephen Nomura Schible, Eric Nyari, Yoshiko Hashimoto

DOP: Neo S. Sora, Tom Richmond

Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Country: USA, Japan

Year: 2017

Runtime: 101 minutes