Theater of Cruelty

Meaningful notes from a Japanese master

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Regissør: Stephen Nomura Schible
( Japan,USA, 1h 40min, 2018)

In Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, director Stephen Nomura Schible presents an intimate meeting with an artist and activist. I feel privileged to be let so close into his creative universe.


Tail is a portrait of composer and community activist Ryuichi Sakamoto (66). After watching the film for the first time, I walk home in strange and darkened streets in the Polish city of Krakow. The music from his last record, Async, continues to pulse inside – but also outside. The tones are lightly scattered along the way back to the hotel.

Yes, I get so excited Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, which I see for the first time this evening during the Krakow Film Festival, that I must also bring with me the next show three days later. And I'm not alone in the excitement. When the festival prices are distributed get Tail the coolest in the best music documentary category. In addition, the director, Japanese / American Stephen Nomura Schible, receives the award Golden Heynal, and the film is also the absolute favorite of the students.

The triumph and fall of technology

Ryuichi Sakamoto's career started with the techno-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978. A few years later, his musical talent should reach a much larger audience with the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Nagisa Oshima. Here, too, Sakamoto has a role, playing with, among others, David Bowie.

All the highlights of the career are naturally included in the documentary. The artist is also a strong voice for nuclear disarmament. This may not be as well-known as his work as an artist, but it is gratifying and inspiring that this side of him is devoted so much space in Schibles award-winning documentary.

"Artists know things early on, like canaries in a mine, I guess." – Sakamoto

Tail opens in earnest with bird song over a meager and vacated landscape in Miyagi, northeast of Japan – back in 2012. Sakamoto is here because he has heard of a piano that "survived" the tsunami the year before. Now he tunes the musical instrument taken by the fierce masses of water.

"I had the feeling of playing the body of a piano that had drowned," he says as we follow him on a journey through the Fukushima area, which was severely hit by the natural disaster of 2011, which required more than 15 800 human life.

The Geiger counter is next to him and beeps, the radiation is still high and shows up against the 20 becquerel. Dressed in protective gear, Sakamoto enters schools and partially collapses buildings and photographs. The calendar in City Hall shows 11. March 2011, the day when the world collapsed on the Japanese peninsula. "Authorities have rebooted one of the reactors that destroyed the tsunami," the composer says. He likes it badly. He sees a news feature on the tablet: No nuclear power! Do not restart the plant! it is shouted tactfully from protesters. He himself is one of them. Sakamoto is critical of the government: "They started the plant in Oi again. The Japanese people have to start telling the rulers, "he says. "We Japanese have been silent far too much for the past 40-50 years."

Another fight

Somewhere in the film, the opening poster comes and indicates a complete stage change. The year is 2014. An x-ray flickers across the screen. Sakamoto's own personal battle with advanced throat cancer, and he speaks honestly and openly about the disease.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda Director: Stephen Nomura Schible

The composer and pianist is at this time 62 years, and not since the twenties has he had to take such a long break from work. The cancer treatment takes the forces. But not all. He has been commissioned to write the music for The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and he composes music for Yoji Yamadas Nagasaki: Memories of My Son. He also writes music for his upcoming solo album (Async). As he works, the thoughts come to mind: How long will he live? He doesn't take anything for granted anymore – he wants to create more music that he won't be ashamed of leaving the world – "music that makes sense."

The Russian director Andrej Tarkovsky, and especially his film Solaris (1971) – where the sounds of water, wind and other environmental sounds are prominent – is a great inspiration for Sakamoto. He himself records the crackling of leaves under his feet, or of the rain on the windowsill, or the sound he hears when he steps a bucket over his head and the rain drips down. He travels around the world to collect sounds, among other things fisker he sounded at the North Pole. He also finds inspiration in Tarkovsky's small photo book Polaroids. A dream is to make music for a movie that does not yet exist, says the artist. Sakamoto has also fulfilled many others' visions, which he believes is positive: "It can open up for your own inspiration."

Corals for our time

A composer who makes sense is in the eyes of Sakamoto's Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach wrote many hymns, called corals. It is said that Bach prayed as he wrote each of them, the Japanese composer says, calling the music of the Baroque master melancholy.

"There was a lot of hunger, sickness and oppression in his day. He might also have felt, "Why doesn't God do something?"

The environmental state of the world began to unsettle Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1992.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda Director: Stephen Nomura Schible

"I got the feeling that something was wrong without being able to say exactly what. Artists know things early on, like canaries in a mine, I guess. The environment is not destroyed on its own. It is related to human activity, so we can do something about it. It depends on what choices we make. Concerns began to influence my work. "

Until then he had refrained from making music with themes on social and political issues, but in 1999 came the opera LIFE which deals with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In a clip from the opera, parts of the well-known speech of the atomic bomb's father, Robert J. Oppenheimer, are reproduced: "I am becoming Death, the destroyer of worlds.»

Ryuichi Sakamoto's days can be heavy, and the illness also lingers on him throughout the film. We see him tormented, but also how he enjoys his own music.

"Yes, yes, this is exactly what I was looking for!" he says, time and time again, listening contentedly to the tones that have come about in the meeting between the music that lives in him, and the sounds he has found around him.

Kaisa Ytterhaug
Kaisa Ytterhaug
Ytterhaug is a freelancer in Ny Tid.

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