Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a joyous ode to sound and a soundtrack-guru's life

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

From synth pop pioneer, to Oscar-winning soundtrack composer to avant-garde electronic experimentalist, Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, has been a global musical force through five decades.  

If you liked his soundtracks for Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (in which he also starred opposite David Bowie), or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, you’ll end up admiring this gentle, endlessly curious man even more after watching the documentary Ryuichi Nakamoto: Coda, .

Shot over five years by Stephen Nomura Schible, the film eschews any kind of traditional resume and without input from colleagues or family, the film features Sakamoto as the sole interview subject. We see Sakamoto, now silver-haired, in round glasses and with a beard stubble, talking directly to the camera or working in either of his Tokyo and New York apartments or engaging in globe-hopping excursions from the North Pole to east Africa, to gather sounds and ideas.  

 The composer on Fukushima-damaged keys: "Like playing a corpse of a piano that drowned."

The composer on Fukushima-damaged keys: "Like playing a corpse of a piano that drowned."

At the beginning of the film, we see Sakamoto at a Japanese high school, examining a piano that was ruined in the disaster of the 2011 tsunami that caused widespread contamination from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. Sakamoto’s handling of the water-damaged instrument is both excited and reverent as he listens to its dissonant tinkling:

 “I felt as if I was playing the corpse of a piano that drowned,” he says later.

The scene establishes a motif of mortality in the film. During the shooting of the film in 2014, Sakamoto was treated for Stage 3 throat cancer, and he speaks candidly about a need to do leave work behind that he “won’t be ashamed of,” should he suffer a relapse. 

As well, he has been increasingly urgent in his political activism in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

Be warned: This is not a film for those looking for a comprehensive picture of the musician’s career, or those impatient to get to the goods.  Schible, who was a producer on Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, takes his cue from Sakamoto’s contemplative, non-linear mental style. Background material is typically introduced through Sakamoto’s apparently free-form recollections. When he talks about Japan’s reputation as a technology leader in the seventies, we’re provided with a clip of the androgynous-looking young Sakamoto onstage in 1979 with playing with the Yellow Magic Orchestra synth trio. We get a few anecdotes about his past work over the decades, with footage of the films involved, He recalls how Bernardo Bertolucci demanded a rapid musical rewrite for The Sheltering Sky and when Sakamoto said it was impossible, Bertolucci appealed to his ego by saying that Ennio Morricone could do it.

Sakamoto not only writes movie scores, he’s passionate about film: He accepted the assignment to write the score for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant while undergoing cancer treatment, he says, because he couldn’t refuse a director he admired so much. He’s speaks with a kind of awe about the late Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, and the integration of sound and Bach’s music in Solaris.

Despite the foreboding title and somber subjects, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is an often-joyous film, as we share the composer’s sense of wonder at the possibilities of sounds. He samples sounds of raindrops in a coffee cup, stroking a violin bow across a cymbal, or simply sitting, rapt, in front of his computer, as he creates hair-raising washes of sound. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. Directed by Stephen Nomura Schible, with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Ryuichi Sakamoto is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.