Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)

Review #1,523

Director:  Stephen Nomura Schible
Plot:  A documentary about the life and music of the legendary film composer and electronic/ambient music pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Out of competition (Venice)
Runtime:  100 mins
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Doc & Film International

Premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a fine example of a documentary about a person who is relatively famous in his field that achieves a difficult balance—pleasing die-hard fans as well as converting new admirers.  

Stephen Nomura Schible, the director, approaches Ryuichi Sakamoto with a sense of trying to unearth his process of creating art, in this case, music, while at the same time situating the artist—by virtue of the artist situating himself—in the larger context of world affairs, in particular, causes of a political and environmental nature.

Opening with the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, resulting in the nuclear reactor meltdowns in Fukushima, Coda puts us in touch with a bit of recent disaster history, and subsequently, Sakamoto’s discovery of a piano that stayed largely intact and did not sink in the catastrophe.  

After that, it cuts to a sequence of Sakamoto performing arguably his most famous film piece, the main theme to Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983).  This prologue perhaps best shows that difficult balance that Schible successfully achieves to draw the viewer—uninitiated or otherwise—in.  

For much of Coda, we marvel at Sakamoto’s music-making and experimentation with sounds.  Although known for his delicate touch on the piano, the composer also creates soundscapes using a variety of instruments and often combines them with natural sounds recorded (e.g. rain, footsteps on grass, water flowing) to produce ambient-like music.  His brilliant work for The Revenant (2015) best illustrates that kind of style.  

Bringing in a bit of philosophy while lamenting on the state of the world today, Sakamoto’s introspective take on things suggest an artist who thrives on creating art that speaks to Man’s mortality—and his very own as well after a brush with throat cancer a few years ago which he thankfully recovered from.

In addition, the documentary works as a time capsule of Sakamoto’s artistic endeavours since the 1980s, with several highlights including, of course, the international success of Oshima’s film, as well as his collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci in The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990).  Images from these films are accompanied by Sakamoto’s breathtaking compositions.  

Coda is not entirely elegiac or melancholic, as Sakamoto finds moments of humour as he fondly recalls the stories behind his works, particularly one laugh-out-loud moment involving Ennio Morricone.  This is an excellent film on a musician whom I deeply love—a must watch!

Verdict:  This will please both die-hard fans and new admirers—an introspective if at times elegiac glimpse at a master musician at work.





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