Even if you are not familiar with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto or Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (starring David Bowie) you will probably recognize “Forbidden Colours,” which he wrote for the soundtrack. A vocal version even charted in the UK. It is unusual when a classical-ambient piece develops such a life of its own, but it is even rarer still for such a cerebral composer to attain rock star status. Stephen Nomura Schible documents the composer at a pivotal juncture in his life—commencing work on score for The Revenant after enduring successful cancer treatment—in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (trailer here), which had its North American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
You can think of Sakamoto as a Japanese David Byrne, but with stronger orchestral chops. He won an Oscar for The Last Emperor, a BAFTA for Mr. Lawrence, and a Golden Globe for The Sheltering Sky. He also scored Little Buddha, Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri, a couple of De Palma misfires, and the Binoche-Fiennes Wuthering Heights. His music is particularly well-suited to grandly operatic canvasses, but he still releases his own albums. However, his fight against cancer understandably slowed him down.
During the early scenes of Coda, Sakamoto still tires easily. Nevertheless, he has returned to work on both the Revenant score and a Paul Bowles concept album he shelved years ago. Around about the second act, Sakamoto renews his commitment to the Japanese anti-nuclear campaign, newly invigorated in the wake of Fukushima. At rallies, Sakamoto advocates a complete ban on nuclear power throughout Japan, yet he never suggests where the rolling blackouts should start each day or how long they should last. Seriously, it is absolutely impossible for Japan to do former without instituting the latter.
Be that as it undeniably is, there is great poignancy in Sakamoto’s spiritual journey into the exclusionary zone, both to bear witness in general and to search for a battered but intact piano that reportedly survived the devastation, taking on mythic significance as a result.
Throughout Coda, Schbile clearly tailors his style to Sakamoto’s aesthetic. Frankly, it is exactly like what you would expect a Sakamoto doc should be. It often looks and not infrequently sounds like ECM albums (which he, like Byrne, should have an affinity for). It is also fascinating to hear a composer of Sakamoto’s stature talk so candidly about his creative process. In fact, it would have been an even stronger film if there were more of Sakamoto on music and less of Sakamoto on nuclear power.