Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2018) DIR. Stephen Nomura Schible
By Belle McIntyre
The title of this film implies a chapter after the final chapter. But the subject of this film is very much still in this life. His music has probably been heard by far more people who don’t know his name, than those who do. This is only one of the reasons this film is so worth seeing, The fact that the man is thoroughly inspiring, thoughtful, passionately humane, insightful and a brilliantly talented artist are a few of the other reasons. His story is told in his own words in English and Japanese, and it is a fascinating one which reveals the influences and events which shaped his life and his art.
The film opens with 2012 footage of the aftermath of the great Japanese disaster in Fukushima as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. This event ratcheted up his anti-nuclear activism, which had begun in the 1990’s and inspired a requiem for the atomic bomb called “Life”. Filmed over 5 years, during which time he gets diagnosed with stage 3 throat cancer, he speaks candidly about the effects of these two events on his life and outlook. He is such a philosophical and pragmatic thinker. The fragility of life becomes one of the foremost elements of his world view. His responses to issues he feels strongly about have resulted in specific work. For example “Chasm” and “Only Love Can Conquer Fate” were written after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion. “Glacier” was written to address climate change and incorporates sounds which he collected from nature, such as the sound of a melting glacier in the Arctic circle.
The film is somewhat meandering as it covers meaningful accomplishments spoken to the camera or as if the camera has snuck up on him in the creative process, whether composing at the piano, or on the electronic synthesizer, or using unorthodox techniques of creating sound, such as bowing a cymbal. The camera follows him as he tries to capture sounds in nature with a recorder, such as raindrops, wind through trees. There is a charming scene when he puts a bucket over his head to enhance the sound of the raindrops from inside. I was reminded of the environmental artist, Andrew Goldsworthy, who uses nature as his medium with an almost childlike awe.
His musical life as a composer and musician has spanned most of the genres of his period. He began in the 1970’s with The Yellow Magic Orchestra, a hugely popular techno music band, which continued into the 80’s. As he tells it, he was asked to be in the David Bowie film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as an actor and only agreed if he could score it as well. He got the job and another phase of his career was launched. He went on to win many awards for his film scores, including an Oscar for The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. He also worked again with Bertolucci on The Sheltering Sky. Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky was an important moment in his evolution. His last film, The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu was the first work that he had taken on after his cancer diagnosis. He reasoned that he could not pass up the opportunity to work with this director whom he admires so much. The stories around these collaborations are totally fascinating and told with great enthusiasm.
This is a portrait of a man who deeply loves what he does and the joy that he takes in finding the right combinations of sounds is so palpable that I do not expect that he will stop making music any time soon. His compassion and humanity infuse all of his work and that is in short supply today. We can only hope that he stays in remission.