When The Revenant got twelve Oscar nominations a couple of years ago, I was struck by the fact that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film wasn’t nominated for best score, the one category it deserved to win. The mournful, ethereal music of Ryuichi Sakamoto was everything Iñárritu’s overbaked pseudo-western wasn’t — understated, evocative, and ultimately rousing.
The Revenant isn’t screening in the Quad Cinema’s short tribute to the Japanese composer, but some of Sakamoto’s greatest work is. A classically trained pianist and ethnomusicologist, he had already achieved international fame as a member of the pioneering Japanese synthpop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra when director Nagisa Oshima hired him to star in and score the 1983 P.O.W. drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. His music for the film is at times playful, even bordering on pop — particularly in the catchy main theme — and at times discombobulating, almost atonal. The seesawing mood makes an ideal match for Oshima’s heated, surreal tale of obsession and torment.
Scoring diverse films, Sakamoto has revealed himself as surprisingly good at pastiche: His music for Pedro Almodóvar’s High Heels (1991) is the noirest noir that ever noired. His traipsing boleros and Vertigo homages in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) are unforgettable. (Also included in this retro is a rare 35mm screening of Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 The Handmaid’s Tale, a first go at adapting Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel.)
But I’d argue that Sakamoto’s best work came in collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci. An opera fanatic, the director often had lush, unabashedly melodramatic scores in his earlier pictures (think back to Georges Delerue’s rhapsodic melodies for The Conformist, Ennio Morricone’s sweeping marches for 1900, or Gato Barbieri’s crashing jazz crescendos in Last Tango in Paris). He clearly connected with Sakamoto’s ability to mix the lyrical and the ethereal, to nestle brisk compositions within stretches of melancholy ambience.
In 1987’s The Last Emperor (the score for which, composed in collaboration with David Byrne and Cong Su, won Sakamoto an Oscar), the simple, childlike melodies of the early scenes speak to the internalized life of the protagonist, who was crowned emperor of China at the age of two and lived in seclusion in the Forbidden City through his teenage years. When the monarch Pu Yi (played by John Lone) finally leaves his palace and confronts the outside world, Sakamoto comes rushing in with an orchestral blast of ominous yet strangely stirring strings. The film and its score are a meditation on the majesty and menace of power. Every note of triumph for Pu Yi hastens his downfall and damnation.
Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) might represent Sakamoto’s greatest work yet. Set in North Africa in the years after WWII, this adaptation of Paul Bowles’s cult novel strikes yet another balance — this time between the sensual and the existential. As husband-and-wife American travelers, John Malkovich and Debra Winger (both excellent) are seduced by the rapturous beauty of the Sahara’s silky dunes. And yet the desert’s fearsome grandeur also forces them to confront their own mortality. To match their journey, Sakamoto creates a circular theme that always returns to the same few minor notes, even amid vast, droning soundscapes. The effect is that of a slow-burn, existential nightmare built out of moments of great lyricism. It’s about as perfect a match between movie and soundtrack as I can imagine.
Forbidden Colors: Ryuichi Sakamoto at the Movies
May 12–15, Quad Cinema