Admirers of the highly respected Japanese musician (and occasional actor) will enjoy “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” a leisurely look at a multi-talent best known in the west for composing memorable original scores for directors from Bertolucci and Oshima to Inarritu and Miike. Stephen Nomura Schible shot this documentary over a five-year span, during which Sakamoto survived a serious cancer scare. That lends some drama to a tastefully elegiac portrait that otherwise demurs from any discussion of its protagonist’s personal life or background. Those not already acquainted will also have to look elsewhere for any general overview of his career or influences, a foreknowledge assumed here.
The result won’t hold much appeal for those requiring an introduction, but should please fans with its drifting, lyrical, and thoughtful tenor, echoing so much of this artist’s music. U.S. distributor MUBI will mostly be preaching to the converted with a single-screen theatrical launch this weekend at Lincoln Center, followed by streaming release.
Then 60, his floppy bangs already silver, Sakamoto is first glimpsed here in 2012, tracking down a piano he’d heard survived the earthquake-triggered tsunami of the prior year (from what it sounds like, after being “swept away” but left more-or-less intact). The Fukushima nuclear accident occasioned by those natural disasters ramped up his anti-nuke political activism. But all that — and most professional pursuits — got put on hold when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer in 2014.
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We get a feel for how this emergency heightened the artist’s sense of fragility and temporality, not just in personal terms but in the bigger picture of national and global environmental issues. This seems connected to his interest in ambient sounds and their combination with man-made ones, as exemplified by that water-damaged grand piano. Seeking further inspiration for his own new music, he also becomes fixated on the use of Bach organ chorales in Tarkovsky’s original “Solaris,” seen in several excerpts here.
The doc then appears to go in a standard, backtracking biographical direction, albeit very spottily via select archival clips. We see part of a 1979 performance (whose synthy disco-prog-jazz hasn’t dated well) by Yellow Magic Orchestra, but get no contextualizing on how they and member Sakamoto in particular laid path to a great deal of later electropop and dance music. His prodigious soundtrack work is represented by just three films here: Oshima’s 1983 “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” in which he also played a leading role; and two by Bertolucci, “The Last Emperor” (for which he won his Oscar, and in fact only nomination to date) and “The Sheltering Sky.” Anecdotes about these working experiences are revealing, particularly when we learn that alarmingly short-notice requests by Bertolucci and his producer Jeremy Thomas resulted in some of Sakamoto’s finest compositions.
But such insights are few. Mostly Schible is content to show the subject puttering around his various homes (including a New York City one where he had full view of the Twin Towers on 9/11), taking his quest for musical knowledge to a few exotic locales (such as the Arctic Circle), and musing philosophically on various topics. He’s intelligent and personable, to be sure. But this is the kind of movie too awed by its subject to dare getting very close to him. We’re given to understand that Sakamoto went out on a limb, perhaps risking his health after a long forced layoff to score Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (“I couldn’t bring myself to say no, I admire him too much,” he confesses). Yet with no other interviewees offering commentary (a few additional luminaries show up in archival footage), and the film’s somewhat hazy, amorphous structure, we just have to take it on faith that he’s weathered an ordeal and is now as busy as ever. “Coda” ends up a strange title for a portrait of a man who it turns out is by no means finished yet, creatively or otherwise.
In synch with the dolorous, melancholy tilt of his best-regarded film music, Schible and his collaborators provide a meditative pace and some lovely outdoor photography. It’s a handsomely crafted portrait overall, yet one whose middleweight content flatters the subject without ultimately quite doing him justice.