As not only a musician, pianist and award winning film composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto is also known as a writer, actor and activist. Starting his career in the electronic music trio YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), Sakamoto began his solo career in 1978 with the electronic fusion album Thousand Knives. Since then, he explored wide variety through his experimental style from electronic to classical, even techno and hip hop music. As a musician who loves to paint from broad palette of genres, he has encountered jazz many, many times. Other than involving in jazz festivals, some of his albums also highlighted jazz. For example “Etude” from his album “Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia” (1986) which stands as one of our all time favorites.
In the film world, Sakamoto has won an Oscar, BAFTA, Grammy and two Golden Globe Awards. His first film work where he also played as an actor along with David Bowie, Takeshi Kitano and Tom Conti is “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (Nagisa Oshima, 1983). The main theme was adapted into the single “Forbidden Colours” which became an international hit. After that, Sakamoto’s successful compositions were heard in “The Last Emperor” (1987) which earned him the Oscar with David Byrne and Cong Su, “The Sheltering Sky” (1990), “Little Buddha” (1993), “Snake Eyes” (1998), “Femme Fatale” (2002) and “The Revenant” (2015).
Music documentary Coda, directed by Stephen Nomura Schible who’s known as the co-producer of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and 2004’s “Eric Clapton: Sessions for Robert J” took us to explore the journey and creative process of Sakamoto. Not just in making music, but also his life efforts as an iconic activist in Japan’s social movement against nuclear power. Yet overall, Coda depicts Sakamoto’s return to create a masterpiece through his latest 2017 album, “async”, which considered one of the finest records of his career among the struggling process following his stage III throat cancer diagnosis in 2014.
Portraying Sakamoto both as a music auteur and a common man struggling with his disease, the best thing about Coda is that Schible never once approaches the cliches in music documentaries. It’s neither about the whole Sakamoto’s career since his early years, nor his personal life, but cinematically followed every process that took us to know more about his subject as an inspiring and very personal piece.
Starting with a scene in a damaged high school caused by tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, the film pictured Sakamoto found a broken baby grand piano and made sounds out of it. Coda captured Sakamoto’s search of natural sounds in amazing details, from his New York basement studios to his journey exploring nature in glacier site in Kenya, Lake Turkana, where he recorded the sound of glaciers and dipping a rod with a microphone attached into the Arctic waters to record the ‘fish sounds’.
Along with the music process, Schible also observed Sakamoto’s concern as an anti-nuclear activist from the contaminated zone in Fukushima to a protest at the Prime Minister’s residence, also his melancholy switched to the spirit in facing the cancer diagnosis, treatment and special healthy diets. All is been told honestly with distinct aesthetic details you won’t find in most of music documentaries, including some glimpses of arts from Warhol to Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem.
Capturing this intimate explorations, directors of photography Neo Sora and veteran Tom Richmond’s camera works run smooth with Hisayo Kushida’s editing to keep the 100 mins duration flow at the right pace, while his pieces of compositions comes like the soundtrack of life. At the end, Schible described a long journey not from an artist, but a man from going through his life crisis to the triumph of finding new musical expressions.
Quiet yet harmonic, melancholic yet spirited. Like one of the most wonderful sequence where Sakamoto recited his melodious “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” theme at a shrine to remember and paid respect to the tsunami victims, Coda will resonate long after the documentary ends as a man’s intimate contemplation of life.