While Japanese composer Ryûichi Sakamoto may not be a household name for the casual moviegoer, most have probably been exposed to his work at some point. Throughout his illustrious career, Sakamoto has scored films for the likes of Nagisa Oshima, Oliver Stone, Pedro Almodóvar and Brian De Palma. He collaborated with Bernardo Bertolucci on two films, sharing an Oscar win with David Byrne and Cong Su for their work on the soundtrack of The Last Emperor and most recently scored Alejandro Iñáritu’s The Revenant. He was an influential electronic music pioneer, made his acting debut alongside David Bowie and is a well-known political activist opposing nuclear power in his native Japan. Audiences could be forgiven for not knowing much of this backstory, but those who don’t may well find that director Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary Ryûichi Sakamoto: Coda is heavy on hero-worship but light on detail.
The biographical broad strokes are there, but Schible’s film is more concerned with evoking atmosphere than on establishing narrative. As such, it’s a distinctly niche documentary that favors those with a pre-existing affinity for Sakamoto and his work. Filmed over the course of five years, Schible devotes much of the first half of his film to Sakamoto’s surprise cancer diagnosis and subsequent sabbatical from producing music, a hiatus that is as onerous to the composer as the disease its intended to treat. As he waxes poetic about a warped piano that survived a tsunami or records the ocean on a dangerously irradiated beach, we get the sense that sound is Sakamoto’s lifeblood and that it will be retirement rather than cancer that eventually does him in.
If Schible errs on the side of aesthetics, Sakamoto proves a sufficiently engaging and likable subject to mitigate the occasionally frustrating lack of context provided by the director. Despite his fascinating career and laudable activism, it’s Sakamoto’s almost childlike obsession with sound that drives the film’s most compelling moments. Watching him take a violin bow to a cymbal or dip a microphone into a glacial crevasse — “I’m fishing for sound,” he says with a chuckle — the audience gains more insight into Sakomoto’s worldview than any talking head interviews could reveal.
While the somewhat moribund Coda of the title might suggest that Sakamoto is slowing down in the wake of his cancer scare, that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case. Despite the relatively morose tone of Schible’s film and the elegiac air of Sakamoto’s most recent work — a chorale inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s use of Bach in Solaris — the composer seems as vital as ever. His myriad health concerns not withstanding, Sakamoto appears to be reinvigorated by his return to music and his continued environmental advocacy. Household name or not, Schible’s portrait of Sakamoto makes a strong case that the composer’s tune hasn’t quite played out, even if the documentarian’s venerate approach may amount to little more than preaching to the choir.