The Austin Chronicle

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus

Not rated, 103 min. Directed by Neo Sora.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 29, 2024

Before I knew Ryuichi Sakamoto’s name, I knew how his music made me feel. As an eight-year-old watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (too young), I had to flee to the movie theatre lobby, so overwhelmed was I by the sensory intensity of the film, bolstered significantly by Sakamoto’s theme music – grave and imperial, then uneasy, forlorn.

You won’t hear an exact re-creation of his multi-instrument Last Emperor score (for which he won an Academy Award alongside additional composers David Byrne and Cong Su) in Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus. The concert documentary features exactly one instrument – a grand piano – and one performer – Sakamoto himself. You also won’t hear from the artist, who communicates solely through his music. You won’t even find out the composition titles as Sakamoto plays them, an omission which felt unnecessarily stingy to me. While many viewers will want to go into the experience cold, I think some context deepens the experience.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus was conceived as a final artistic statement from a man knowing death was near and his ability to adequately perform his great works was waning; adding further poignancy, the film is directed by his son, Neo Sora, and produced by his wife and manager, Neo’s mother Norika Sora. Filmed over the course of a week at the NHK Broadcasting Center’s 509 Studio in Tokyo, the film – a hushed, hypnotic thing – pulls non-chronologically from different eras of Sakamoto’s career, including Yellow Magic Orchestra, his influential electronic pop outfit, and his film compositions, including 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (in which he also costarred as the tortured POW camp commander, Captain Yonoi).

Barring intimate familiarity with Sakamoto’s canon, the 20 distinct compositions featured here bleed into a larger whole, with only the briefest demarcations between them. Cinematographer Bill Kirstein led a team navigating three 4K cameras around the space; the thoughtful camera movements and Takuya Kawakami’s cutting mimic the way the eye travels during a live performance, taking in the size of the room, the way Sakamoto’s foot moves on the pedals, his hands on the keyboard. Corny but true: The concert doc format provides the best seat in the house. The effort on Sakamoto’s part is palpable, though. At the end of one song, the sound cuts out but we see him cough, his body sagging. Another song ends in frustration, his fingers in close-up seemingly not moving the way he wants them to. The effect is plain: The artist is spent.

Some interpretations are startling. “Tong Poo,” from his Yellow Magic Orchestra days, is a real bop; transposed to solo piano here, it at first sounds worryingly like something you might hear while you’re shopping for gloves at Nordstrom. Then Sakamoto grows more animated. The lower register rumbles like a stomach growl, and he gets into the groove: The artist is feeling himself.

Filmed in magnificent monochrome with the kind of richness that reminds you black and white are colors too, Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus will put you in a contemplative place. Knowing the film’s unspoken coda unavoidably informs the experience: Six months after filming this performance piece, Sakamoto died from cancer. Within that context, even a song titled “Happy End” seems to gesture at a gloaming. In an artistic statement accompanying the press notes, Sakamoto said he intended the setlist to suggest “the progression of time from morning into night” – a subtlety lost on me until a lighting cue late in the film created a perfect circle of luminescence, like a full moon. An ephemeral effect, but the point is made, here and in the Latin aphorism that caps the film, its only explicit authorial statement. The gist? The artist is gone. The art endures.

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