Known to Western audiences mostly for his Oscar winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Stephen Schible’s documentary on Japanese musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is an exhilarating showcase of creativity, resilience and poignant confrontation of the unknown.
Opening with Sakamoto performing his now revered tune from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in real time, the infectious nature of this music sets the heartfelt tone for the remainder of the film. However, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda isn’t content just to be a biography of the musician. In fact, outside of a few snippets of his early career in which he was at the forefront of Japanese pop, electronic and experimental fusions in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there’s virtually no history lesson of the man. Instead, the film remains firmly planted in the here and now, choosing to observe and record how the 66-year-old veteran molds his creative impulses today. It’s a break from traditional documentaries, but one that yields startling results.
Part of the immense power of the film is eventually relayed through several long observations of Sakamoto recording his work. Endlessly wandering desolate locations like the Arctic Circle or a rain-drenched forest to record sounds, the infectious child-like glee that sprays across his face when he finds and molds the audio recordings into his atmospheric music is the crux of the film. Just watching him delight in recording the sound of water trickling through an ice-melt and then smiling to say that it may be the oldest recording in the history of mankind, one can’t help but bristle with anticipation at just how this will be used in his later ambient works.
Just as interesting is Schible’s exploration of Sakamoto’s humanitarian work. Beyond his decades-long career as a composer, Sakamoto is an ardent supporter of protests against global warming; he also dabbles in photography. Even in this field of work, however, the artist can’t resist the gravitational pull of music and its influence within his life. Nothing quite compares to the portion where Sakamoto visits the Fukushima restricted zone.
Among the rubble and debilitated structures, he wants to see a piano that’s survived the flood (complete with water line marks). He plays it gently and later finds the exact moments to add this artificial survivor’s sounds into his latest work. It’s a stunning moment of resiliency and it showcases the vibrancy that has kept Sakamoto living for so long now, even after certain life-threatening things crop up along the way.
Like so many artists, we generally understand their art is often synonymous with life. In the case of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, not only does the artist make it clear he’s still breathing because of his art, but he also wants to show us the possibilities art can reveal to the world. See this film. It’s a masterpiece.
Part of this review was originally written as part of my coverage for the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival.
The film opens for a limited engagement in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, July 13 at the Texas Theatre. Visit http://www.thetexastheatre.com for information.