Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda perfectly captures the somber side of the beloved composer but fails to better engage the other facets of his work and history.
Director Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda perfectly captures the somber side of the beloved composer but fails to better engage the other facets of his work and history. It’s an intimate portrait, peppered with some truly stirring moments with the man himself, but overall it feels entirely too meditative for a man whose career has been so exalted and influential.
Schible spent the last five years with Sakamoto, beginning not long after the Fukushima disaster and the musician’s own status as an icon in Japan’s growing social movement against nuclear power. In that time, Sakamoto was diagnosed with cancer, and what perhaps began as a more kaleidoscopic look at his life and career grew more sullen and curious, a mapless moment in time captured with compassion and poise. Much of the film follows Sakamoto as he records and produces async, his 19th solo album.
Alongside musings and observations about contemporary Japanese culture in comparison to Sakamoto’s early adulthood in Yellow Magic Orchestra, the film quietly watches Sakamoto work, gather sounds for sampling and wax poetic about the inner workings of a piano. Those sequences, when we’re privy to a majestic side of Sakamoto’s creative process, feel the most special. The natural way he switches back and forth between analog and digital, found sounds and skilled instrumentation, it’s a sight to behold. But when the film looks back at his life, with scenes from films he’s scored intercut with archival footage of his life as a techno-pop innovator, it’s hard not to want to delve deeper into his past to better reconcile it with his present.
Perhaps a more typical cradle to the grave approach might have felt too pedestrian or rote, ticking off chapters in his life like subheadings on Wikipedia, but Sakamoto’s musical history is so fascinating and so filled with wrinkles and interesting excursions that focusing so much on him in his twilight years feels reductive. For those who only know him as the purveyor of gorgeous but sullen soundscapes for prestige pictures, this documentary is the perfect project to extrapolate the emotions his work engenders.
But for anyone who knows the full breadth of his place in 20th century music history, Coda leaves the viewer wanting more, and not in an artful way. It ends up feeling like the overlong behind-the-scenes featurette of a concert film Blu-ray than a fully-fledged piece all its own. Still, it’s difficult to complain about spending so much screen time with an artist who is as vital and affecting as Sakamoto remains. Getting a chance to watch him work is worth the price of admission alone, even if there’s a lot left to be desired.