It begins with a piano, still waterlogged and soggy long after drowning in the tsunami that washed away large swaths of Fukushima, Japan in March 2011. For years it sat forgotten in its makeshift mausoleum, a high school speedily evacuated when the nearby nuclear power plant went critical in the aftermath. But now it tinkles once more into life at the hands of an aging man who bends down and gently strokes the strings, the tips of his fingers strumming out an ancient spidery whine. Leaning back, he plucks out a fragile melody, careful to lift the stuck keys back up after each note. It’s perhaps the first music to fill the space since the terrible waters came. And it’s exactly the kind of music Ryuichi Sakamoto now lives for. After beating Stage III throat cancer into remission, the great composer and film scorer has become obsessed with images and sounds of life and death; the chiming of the piano he finds particularly alluring and maddening for its fleeting impermanence. And now he finds one in an impromptu graveyard, dead and rotting. And yet, what beautiful music it makes. What beautiful music…
Stephen Nomura Schible’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is one of the more entrancing musical biographies to ever grace the Tribeca Film Festival. Not content recounting Sakamoto’s stunning and prolific career as film scorer, classical composer, ambient experimenter, and anti-nuclear activist, the film’s a pensive character study of a man seeking to find his peace in a world and existence slowly yet inevitably falling apart. It is remarkably tunnel-visioned: if he has family, we don’t see them; if he has collaborators, we don’t meet them. If he has any likes or loves other than his obsession with sound and its place in a decaying universe, it’s as if they don’t exist.
Filmed over a period of five years, Schible takes a decentralized and non-chronological look at Sakamoto’s life. A passage where he obsesses over re-interpreting Bach chorals might lead to a story like the time he had to write forty-five songs in the span of one week for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), a herculean feat that won him an Oscar for Best Original Score. Archival footage of Sakamoto performing with the pioneering synth pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra might cut to a scene of him moodily commenting on the futility of technology. An unexpected trip to the Antarctic where he captures field recordings of melting antediluvian glaciers ravaged by global warming might flow into recollections of witnessing the 9/11 attacks firsthand from his Tribeca apartment and a slideshow of the photographs he took of indifferent pigeons fluttering across the skyline of smoke and death. And a scene where he gives a speech at an anti-nuclear power protest in front of the Japanese Prime Minister’s apartment might switch to a scene of him struggling to chew and swallow a modest breakfast of sliced fruit.
One of the earliest scenes sets the tone for Schible’s temporal interrogations of Sakamoto’s life: a concert held for survivors of the Fukushima Incident where he plays “Forbidden Colors,” the adaptation of his theme for Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) that became a modest pop chart hit. The piece was from the first film score he ever wrote and from a time in his life where he admits to being a petulant, angry young man. And now he plays it once more decades later in the washed-out ruins of a devastated community, his body wracked by cancer. Could the angry young man have imagined that the theme that led him all across the world playing concerts and scoring Hollywood blockbusters would lead him once again to the Japanese countryside? To the same kind of irradiated ruins his family sought to rebuild from after World War Two?
Sakamoto keeps his cards close to his chest. But he seems happiest during scenes where he takes a microphone or his iPhone out into the wilderness simply to harvest sounds. Here’s an abandoned trailer in a forest with scattered plastic toys which he bangs on like a drum set. Here’s a back porch in a rainstorm, the sounds of which he futilely tries to record using giant buckets as microphone dampeners. And here’s Sakamoto heaving random objects into his office so he can hit them with sticks or stroke them with cello bows. It’s almost as if he sees sounds as the souls of things, and only by prying them loose can he find the truth in the world around him.
The Japanese speak of mono-no-aware, a general awareness of the impermanence and inherent transience of all things. Living things grow and die; people age and cease to be. All that’s left of the people in this temporary world are the stories, loved ones, and work they leave behind. Few films since the heyday of Yasujirō Ozu have so perfectly captured this idea as Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. It regards the world much as Sakamoto does: as from within a glass bell-jar—slightly apart from it, but nevertheless entranced at its loveliness and beauty. But above it all is a resignation towards its own ephemeralness. Sakamoto knows that one day his life and memory will fade from this world like the notes from a drowned piano. But while he’s here, he will play them as sweetly and boldly as possible.