Review: ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda’

Savour each note with the acclaimed Japanese composer

3 mins read

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
(Japan/USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Stephen Schible

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda sings with a whisper. This quiet and contemplative film offers a portrait in pianissimo of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. The 66-year-old artist delves into his passion for music after surviving cancer and seeing his nation devastated in 2011 by an earthquake and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear disaster. To sing is to give life, though, and Sakamoto hits every note as if it’s his last. As he shares his art and his philosophy on life with director Stephen Schible, Coda is philosophically poignant melody about relishing each day on Earth.

The doc looks mostly at Sakamoto’s film compositions, although he’s done everything from eccentric techno-pop to contemporary orchestrations. Working in so many mediums leaves so much terrain to cover in a body of work that spans four decades, so the streamlining of the film allows Sakamoto to share his approach to art with a clear focus. His film compositions include the beautiful Oscar winning score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece The Last Emperor, the David Bowie drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and the sweeping Debra Winger/John Malkovich romance The Sheltering Sky. Schible gives each of the major compositions their due. Without beating the subject over the head or patting Sakamoto on the back, the doc lets viewers appreciate how a few smartly composed lines can transport audiences to foreign places and swell their emotions.

Coda also observes Sakamoto as he tinkers with the notes on his score for Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant. The haunting chords of the revenge drama provide thrills and chills as the music evokes the air of melancholy that hangs atop Japan. However, the music of The Revenant illustrates how a good Sakamoto tune is akin deep philosophy. The deep chords summon the quest for answers on which the composer embarks in his remaining years. The film is often at its best when it simply lets the music do the talking.

It’s a treat, too, to see how the music comes about. Sakamoto has a peculiar habit for innovation. His soundtracks are true experiments as he finds music in every tool and object on Earth. For example, one scene observes the composer quirkily put a bucket on his head and stand in the rain. The drip drip drips are notes of inspiration that blend effectively on Sakamoto’s tracks.

The film admittedly holds some notes a bit too long and the quietly contemplative pace is an acquired taste. Give the film a little patience and it has its rewards, especially since Sakamoto teaches the audiences to slow down their lives and savour every moment. And even when it meanders, the music’s always great.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on August 3.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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