By Ben Kenigsberg
July 5, 2018
More than halfway through the documentary “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” the Japanese pianist and composer offers an insight that captures the tension at the heart of his art. Discussing the components of a piano, he explains how, since the industrial revolution, pianos have been made possible by imposition of civilization on nature. Machinery presses wood and strings into shape.
“We humans say it falls out of tune, but that’s not exactly accurate,” Mr. Sakamoto says. When the instrument’s tuning goes awry, it means “matter is struggling to return to a natural state.”
The conflict between industrial and natural elements, and Mr. Sakamoto’s embrace of both, runs throughout “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” an uncommonly engaging artist portrait from Stephen Nomura Schible. The creative process is notoriously difficult to capture on camera, but by the end of this documentary, you will feel as if you not only understand Mr. Sakamoto intellectually, but also share a sense of the excitement he feels when discovering just the right match of sounds.
Based on watching him at work, Mr. Sakamoto is more liable to approach a cymbal with a bow or a coffee mug than he is with a drumstick. He embraces computers to help with composition and, in footage we see of him as a younger man, praises their ability to play fast, difficult musical phrases. But he also strives to incorporate natural sounds into his work. We see him recording audio of melting snow in the Arctic, the way it would have sounded before human disruption.
His environmental activism is presented as a function of his art. He visits the Fukushima contamination site and, as the movie opens, plays a piano that survived the 2011 Japanese tsunami damaged but intact. (“I felt as if I was playing the corpse of a piano that had drowned,” he says.) He later admits it took him time to appreciate that piano’s sound.
A wry and genial subject, with a wispy crop of white hair, Mr. Sakamoto shares memories of composing music for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” and is shown writing the score for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” an assignment he accepted while battling throat cancer. Most behind-the-scenes documentaries have their share of dishy anecdotes — Mr. Sakamoto recalls how, on “The Sheltering Sky,” Mr. Bertolucci made him rewrite a section of the score on the fly while a 40-member orchestra waited — but part of what’s exciting about “Coda” is that it increases your appreciation for Mr. Sakamoto’s influences, too. Mr. Sakamoto is particularly passionate when analyzing the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s use of Bach, water, wind and footsteps in “Solaris.”
It helps that Mr. Schible has enough respect for Mr. Sakamoto to let his performances play at length. (There is footage of him playing last year at the Park Avenue Armory.) The music is the thing, but it’s wonderful to hear the man as well.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda NYT Critic's Pick
Director Stephen Nomura Schible
Star Ryuichi Sakamoto
Running Time 1h 40m