Director Stephen Nomura Schible’s understated and moving Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda does a fine job of presenting a legendary composer’s career as a revelatory journey. Sakamoto gained worldwide fame in the 1970s and ’80s as a member of the pioneering Japanese synth-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, then branched out on his own as an artist. Along the way, he composed some of the most notable film scores of the era -- from Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (for which he won an Oscar) and The Sheltering Sky. His music has always had an austerity to it. It is at once intimate and expansive, deploying the simplest melodies and motifs to conjure images of existential vastness.
Schible started making his film in 2012, and Coda skips deftly across the years, incorporating intimate footage of the composer at work as well as archival footage from his earlier years. Along the way, it captures -- in its gentle, oblique, glancing way-- a personal crisis: Sakamoto was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer in 2014 and stepped away from music for a year. We see him contemplating a return, and he was indeed coaxed back to score Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant, a film about immensity and desolation and abandonment against a brutal, almost primeval landscape. It’s a perfect setting for Sakamoto’s swelling walls of sound and lone, drifting melodies.
And somehow even this fits into Coda’s central theme and the composer’s journey. Is nature retuning him as well, the same way it retuned that piano, reclaimed part of the Japanese coastline and reasserted itself into his technologically enabled soundscapes? For him, the search for simplicity has become a quest for immanence.