Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): On his talent and inspiration


Documentary film “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” was a rather curious experience for me. Although I am not a big fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto and I actually winced during some of his several musical experiment scenes in the documentary, I came to admire his artistic talent and philosophy more as observing a number of calm, reflective moments in the film, and I was alternatively soothed and entertained by this very considerate documentary.

After the prologue part showing Sakamoto’s anti-nuclear activities in Japan after the Fukushima accident in 2011, the documentary moves forward to 2014 and then shows Sakamoto going through a major crisis in his life. After diagnosed to have a throat cancer, he suspended his ongoing work on a new album as beginning his therapy, and we see him spending another quiet day in his cozy apartment located in New York City. Although he seems to be on his way to recovery, his illness and the following therapy affected him a lot, and he is still not so sure about whether he can work as well as before.

However, he soon comes to see that he has lost none of his talent and inspiration. When he was asked to compose the music for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2015), he was reluctant, but he eventually agreed to work on the movie, and that brings new energy to him. As working again, he comes to be interested in completing his new album, and we observe the creative process in his small workplace. At one point, he tells us about his longtime admiration of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky including “Solaris” (1972), and he makes some good points on not only the mesmerizing utilization of J.S. Bach’s chorale prelude for organ, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 but also Tarkovsky’s deft handling of various natural sounds in that great SF film.


During one scene, the documentary shows us how he gets his inspiration. While wandering in a forest, he searches for any interesting sound worthwhile to be recorded, and there is a small nice moment when he happens to come across an abandoned spot and then pays some attention to the sounds made from several objects at that spot. We also see him trying to capture the sound of raindrops in a rather amusing way, and we later get an awe-inspiring scene involved with the sounds he collected during his trip to an Arctic area in 2008. His collected sounds may be plain and simple at first, but they are quite effective when they are mixed into one of his notable works, and I was quite impressed when the result is juxtaposed with the icy landscapes on the screen.

The documentary also looks around Sakamoto’s exceptional music career as required. During his early years, he became prominent thanks to the worldwide success of his electronic music band Yellow Music Orchestra, and then he came to try film music with Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), in which he also played one of the main characters. In his opinion, film music does not have much freedom from the beginning because he must stick to a viewpoint different from his, but he also recognizes how it can be demanding but stimulating as leading him to new possibilities. In case of his Oscar-winning work in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” (1987), he was initially instructed to compose the source music for one scene while also playing a supporting player, but then he was asked to compose the score for the film in a very short time, and he managed to compose no less than 42 pieces of music before the recording session began in London.

In contrast, he came across an unexpected moment of inspiration while working on Bertolucci’s subsequent work “The Sheltering Sky” (1990). As reading the last pages of Paul Bowles’ novel of the same name which the movie is based on, he sensed what the movie exactly needed around its ending, and the result was another notable work in his film music career, which is not that extensive but still thrives as shown from his recent success in “The Revenant”.


Around the early 1990s, Sakamoto became interested in environmental problems, and, as shown from several archival footage clips shown in the documentary, he was quite active in his support of the victims of the Fukushima accident. Besides joining a big protest against the reoperation of an old nuclear plant, he also went inside the contaminated area for himself, and he later gave a modest but meaningful concert for more public awareness.

During that time, he came across an abandoned piano which managed to remain intact while surviving the tsunami which caused the Fukushima accident, and that piano brings out another creative moment from him. It does not sound that good to our ears, but its ‘naturally tempered’ sound feels interesting to him, and that leads to another curious aural moment in the documentary.

Although I am not still drawn much to Sakamoto’s musical style which feels a bit too grating to me at times (I cringed especially during one scene where he makes a shrill metallic sound with a cymbal and a bow), I enjoyed what is thoughtfully shown in “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda”, and director Stephen Nomura Schible did a commendable job of presenting his subject with respect and admiration. As far as I can see from the documentary, Sakamoto is a guy who is not only a wonderful artist but also a decent and sensitive human being, and I hope he will keep contributing more to our world as moving onto whatever will come next in his remarkable artistic career.


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