Film

In “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” a Legendary Musician Searches for the Sublime

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In the opening moments of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, we see the famed Japanese musician fiddling with a broken piano that barely survived the 2011 tsunami in Japan. After pressing the keys, he remarks that it feels like he’s “playing with the corpse of a piano that drowned.” To Sakamoto, that’s not such a bad thing. He loves the melancholy purity of music from unlikely sources: the rhythmic trickle of melting water inside an Arctic glacier; a violin bow scraping against a gong; a pair of finger cymbals chiming in a windstorm.

But he, and the film, keep coming back to that piano, and what it represents. As Sakamoto explains it, a piano is a man-made expression of nature hammered into a predetermined form. “The industrial revolution made the production of an instrument like this possible,” he reflects. “Six planks of wood overlaid and pressed into shape.” When a piano goes out of tune, it’s merely all that wood struggling to return to its original state. As he sees it, the tsunami piano — forgotten, twisted, drowned — has merely been “retuned by nature.”

Sakamoto clearly sees something more in that piano’s journey, something that perhaps reflects his own experiences. And director Stephen Nomura Schible’s understated and moving Coda does a fine job of presenting the composer’s remarkable career as a revelatory journey. Sakamoto gained worldwide fame in the 1970s and ’80s as a member of the pioneering Japanese synthpop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, then branched out on his own as an artist, along the way composing some of the most notable film scores of the era — from Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (for which he won an Oscar) and The Sheltering Sky.

Around this the time, as Sakamoto recalls in Coda, Tokyo itself was becoming something of a global cultural phenomenon — a buzzing, blazing poster child for the electronic age and runaway capitalism. As an international figure, Sakamoto himself reflected that eclecticism, the delirious world music fusions that technology made possible: He worked in pop, funk, jazz, dance, often with other big-name collaborators from around the planet.

And yet, for all that, his music has always had an austerity to it. It is at once intimate and expansive, deploying the simplest melodies and motifs to conjure images of existential vastness. The modest piano theme at the heart of The Sheltering Sky could just as easily be the tune of a children’s lullaby, and yet Sakamoto uses it to convey a state of endless spiritual unease, matching the sensuous immensity with which Bertolucci shoots the Sahara desert.

In recent years, Sakamoto’s work has become more minimalist, even as it’s engaged more with the world around it. A New York resident, he witnessed the 9-11 attack (he even photographed the event), and the album Chasm grew out of his response to both that and the Bush administration’s subsequent invasion of Iraq. His 2009 piece “Glacier” was inspired by the reality of climate change. After the 2011 tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, he became a visible figure in the Japanese political movement against nuclear power.

Schible started making his film in 2012, and Coda skips deftly across the years, incorporating intimate footage of the composer at work as well as archival footage from his earlier years. Along the way, it captures — in its gentle, oblique, glancing way — a personal crisis: Sakamoto was diagnosed with stage 3 throat cancer in 2014 and stepped away from music for a year. We see him contemplating a return, and he was indeed coaxed back to score Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant, a film about immensity and desolation and abandonment against a brutal, almost primeval landscape — a perfect setting for Sakamoto’s swelling walls of sound and lone, drifting melodies.

And somehow even this fits into Coda’s central theme, and the composer’s journey. Is nature retuning him as well, the same way it retuned that piano, reclaimed part of the Japanese coastline, and reasserted itself into his technologically enabled soundscapes? For him, the search for simplicity has become a quest for immanence. By the end, although he has been healthy of late, Sakamoto notes that he has no idea how many more years he has left — it could be a year, it could be ten, it could be twenty. He is fond of quoting a passage from The Sheltering Sky (both Paul Bowles’s novel and Bertolucci’s film), around which Coda shows him building the 2017 song “fullmoon,” one of the most austere and beautiful works of his career:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Directed by Stephen Nomura Schible
MUBI
Opens July 6, Film Society of Lincoln Center

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