Film Review: RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: CODA (USA/Japan 2017) ***

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda Poster

A portrait of genius music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.


Stephen Nomura Schible (as Stephen Schible)


When I was teaching aerobics in my fit younger days,  I used movie themes from a cassette given to be at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) for the cool down session.  Two of the themes were from MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE and THE LAST EMPEROR.  Little did I realize that the musical score from these two films were composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, the subject of the new documentary by director Schible.

One of the most important artists of our era, Ryuichi Sakamoto has had a prolific career spanning over four decades, from techno-pop stardom to Oscar winning film composer.  The evolution of his music has coincided with his life journeys.  As the film opens, the audience is sadly told that Sakamoto is suffering from cancer and no longer able to work as diligently into the long the hours he was used to.

Besides the musician, Sakamoto is revealed to be an environmentalist.  Sakamoto became an iconic figure in Japan’s social movement against nuclear power.  As Sakamoto returns to music following cancer, his haunting awareness of life crisis leads to a resounding new masterpiece.  This film is an intimate portrait of both the artist and the man.

The film’s most interesting segments involve Sakamoto’s work in film.  Film works comes suddenly, he says.  His work on films like Bertolucci’s THE SHELTERING SKY is outlined in detail.  Bertolucci told him to change the score for the introduction of the film that he did not like.  Ennio (Morricone) could do it, he was told.  If Ennio could do it, so can I, Sakamoto muses.  After re-writing the score within half an hour, Sakamoto himself was surprised at how great the music became.  Sakamoto also talks about the work he did for director Andrei Tarkovski (for SOLARIS), blending in environmental and nature sounds to the music.  Sakamoto has great admiration for Takorvski and likens him to be a composer as well.   Schible’s doc includes several shot from films that Sakamoto had worked on, such as SHELTERING SKY, SOLARIS and THE LAST EMPEROR.  These segments illustrate the perfect blending of sight and sound.

Needless to say, the film’s most inspirational moments are the ones where the audience gets to hear Sakamoto’s compositions.  Sakamoto incorporates natural sounds (like melting ice) into his music compositions.  Which are nothing less that incredible!  The audience also sees the composer a a human being, frail from his illness and talking about things that matter to him.  

Director Schible is an American Japanese film-maker who grew up in a bilingual and international household in Tokyo.  As he is actively involved in Japanese culture and media, he has found Sakamoto’s life-long struggle as an anti-nuclear activist to be awe-inspiring and brings the influence into the documentary.  especially for Japan, a country with tight control on political media, thesis a story that needs be told.

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: CODA is a quiet yet comprehensive examination of a composer’s life at the end of his journey, full of insight and inspiration.


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