Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
2018, NR, 102 min. Directed by Stephen Schible.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 17, 2018
The creative process is an activity that has always presented a presentational challenge to the medium of film, attempting to render that which is intangible into physical terms. A writer sitting at a desk for hours at a time, a sculptor whittling artwork from a mound of clay, an actor studying lines – unless filming an action painter like Jackson Pollock flinging oils onto a blank canvas, the creative process is generally a static and largely unvarying image of an artist’s hands responding to and executing instructions from the imaginative mind. The image usually explains little of the source of inspiration or the artist’s intervention. Yet when the image succeeds, a powerful perception can be reached, allowing the viewer to better grasp the ontological relationship between the object and its creator. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda aspires to such a goal, and, against all odds, even achieves it on a few occasions.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a portrait of the great Japanese music composer. Instead of aiming for biographical overview, this film strives to capture a sense of what makes Sakamoto’s music tick. (Hint: It’s not a metronome, but rather, the sounds of nature.) Sakamoto has composed scores for dozens of movies (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, The Revenant) and TV projects, and had his songs appear in dozens more (Call Me by Your Name, Black Rain). He has acted in a few films, was a member of the techno-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra (appearing onstage in neon makeup), and is a dedicated environmentalist and anti-nuclear activist. He’s been awarded an Oscar, a couple of Golden Globes, and lots of other honors. But this film is not the place to look for a career assessment. Instead, first-time director Schible, who filmed over a number of years, wants us to appreciate the wellspring of Sakamoto’s creativity, which is, quite literally, nature.
We listen along with Sakamoto to the sound of rain falling into a teacup, nod understandingly when we see Sakamoto stand outside in the rain with a bucket over his head while soaking in the resonance, and watch as he pokes a microphone through a hole in the Arctic tundra to exult in the “pure” water sound. We see him tuning his “tsunami piano” and visiting Fukushima and anti-nuke demonstrations. He was in New York on 9/11 and notices how music stopped for a time afterward; Schible also conducts interviews with Sakamoto during a long period when the composer was battling cancer and not working, coaxing out the composer’s thoughts on mortality and creativity.
Those who are interested in how documentarians capture artistry on film will find good examples in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. It helps to come to the film with some foreknowledge of Sakamoto’s career, however. The film takes 20 minutes before providing a clear indication of what makes Sakamoto an original subject for a film study. Nevertheless, days later, when you can’t get the musical theme of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence out of your head, you’ll come to understand Sakamoto’s importance.