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For years, for me, the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto was some throwaway music reference. In the movie High Fidelity, I always intended to look up but never did. I took note of his work recently when I saw The Last Emperor, for the first time in more than a decade, but it wasn’t until this week when I saw the remarkable documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda that I finally came to understand his genius.
Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a massive star in Japan since the early 1970s and on the fringe of American popular culture throughout that time. Sakamoto was that tape music snobs would pass around on college campuses in hushed tones as no one wanted his genius tainted by exposure to the squares. Not, that a mainstream audience was ever going to go for Sakamoto’s wordless 70s and 80s soundscapes, brilliant though they may be.
The fringe of American popular culture is right where Sakamoto belongs, among a group of discerning and devoted fans. His work is that which you experience for pleasure and you study for hidden meanings amid the seemingly improvised soundscape, aware that amid seeming chaos is a plan at work, sounds intended to and crafted with remarkably detailed intent.
The documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is conventionally intended to capture what may be the final work of this incredible performer. In 2017, Sakamoto revealed that he was battling throat cancer and is uncertain how much time he has left. With his remaining time he is throwing himself back into playing music and capturing the sound of nature and man, the real and the manufactured, woven together to create unique, sonic experiment.
We will watch as Sakamoto finds a pair of wonderful inspirations, a lifelong love of the work of director Andrei Tarkovsky and a piano that somehow survived the 2011 Fukishima earthquake, tidal wave and nuclear disaster. It is theorized that somehow when the tidal wave hit the school where the piano was located, the piano floated rather than being subsumed. It sustained damage and is badly out of tune but Sakamoto is drawn to the ghostly way the piano remains able to be played.
The documentary, directed by newcomer Stephen Nomura Schible, has conventional touches, such as flashbacks to Sakamoto’s rising stardom in the 70s and a second act tour through his life as a performer, actor, and composer, covering his time working for director Bernardo Bertolucci in the 1980s and his most recent work, the score for Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu’s remarkable, The Revenant, a movie that plays extremely well to Sakamoto’s nature-scapes.
The opening and closing acts of Ryuichi Sakamoto are slightly less conventional. They consist of scenes of Sakamoto, totally alone, composing. It’s eerily voyeuristic at times as Sakamoto sometimes doesn’t know that the director has been filming and is caught up in his studio creating his wondrously unique music via his incredible computer and piano work. Sakamoto was among the first to embrace computers as a musical influence and instrument and today he appears to use computers as a way of never having to work with another human being.
That’s not to say that Sakamoto is antisocial or introverted, he appears perfectly at home with people or alone in his empty, well-appointed apartment studio. It seems more reasonable to say that Sakamoto can’t begin to explain to another artist how he wants his work to sound and thus he retreats to his home studio and the computer where he can toy with nature sounds, cymbals, the piano and even the sound of rain on a bucket, in ways he doesn’t have to explain.
Sakamoto does appear somewhat withdrawn but much of that comes from the nature of struggling with cancer, even in remission, at Sakamoto’s age, the disease takes a toll and it is a struggle to keep up the energy he needs to socialize, especially when he feels that energy is put to better use working on what may be his final full length album. There is also the emotional toll of being in the world, a world that Sakamoto finds so consistently inspiring.
The trips to Fukashima in Coda appear to have a cost, not because he’s exposed to radiation, although that is a concern, but more because of the depth of compassion and inspiration that Sakamoto has. He feels for the people and for the environment of Fukashima and for that piano and the emotion is clearly overwhelming even as he struggles to remain apart from emotion enough to follow his muse.
I absolutely fell in love with the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto while watching Coda. I have obsessively listened to his work since seeing the movie and his soundscapes are now the soundtrack to my writing and my relaxation of late. It’s only been a few days but I have been devouring his catalogue and I have yet to remotely tire of it. Sakamoto’s strange, experimental style captures something indescribable for me, it’s like the actual, literal sound of inspiration.
Late in Coda, Ryuichi Sakamoto talks about the nature of a piano, how it is an example of man bending nature to our will. It occurred to Sakamoto once that a piano is referred to as being out of tune but to him that isn’t correct. The piano isn’t out of tune, it’s attempting to return to it's nature, it’s nature as opposed to the way we’ve bent its pieces to our will. Something about this scene struck a chord with me so deeply that I teared up.
I can’t explain why but perhaps it’s similar to the effect of Sakamoto’s remarkable music, you may not be able to put into words how beautiful his composition is, but you recognize the beauty all the same. I can’t describe Ryuichi Sakamoto to you in a way that communicates his genius, I can only tell you how it made me feel which was moved and relaxed, touched and at peace.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is my favorite documentary of 2018 and simply one of the best movies of year. The documentary is exclusively available through the streaming app, Mubi.