Stephen Nomura Schible: I wanted to make an intimate portrait of Ryuichi Sakamoto


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Japanese composer, pianist, and producer Ryuichi Sakamoto has always resisted an easy definition or description. Taken into account his illustrious and vast output which has spanned over different decades and fashions, he has been at the center and outer fringes of shaping contemporary music. For many, he is one of the greatest exponents of modern music and always on the cutting edge of music. Sakamoto is responsible for a plethora of important and intriguing cross-cultural explorations and has influenced generations of musicians and listeners. Surprisingly, until now, there hasn't been a documentary that would research any subject related to the work of this immensely creative person.

Renowned producer and director Stephen Nomura Schible whose credit feature a production of Sofia Copolla's Lost in Translation and an Eric Clapton documentary Sessions for Robert Johnson provides an absorbing portrait of this enigmatic and renowned composer. This fascinating film is the result of Schible having followed Sakamoto around the world for five years, filming him in a variety of situations. But rather than making a bombast portrait and a panoramic overview of his colorful and varied career, he was given access to Sakamoto's inner sanctum. As a result, the film doesn't follow typical biographical narratives but we are given a portrait of a great artist at this point of his career and the very elements and essence of what makes him both a great artist and a human being.

Singer and protester Nina Simone once has said: "An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." So when Schible approached Sakamoto for the first time with an idea of a documentary, he was on the streets organizing protests and providing support for areas that in 2011 were hit by a great earthquake and tsunami which also damaged the nuclear plant at Fukushima and additionally polluted the environment. Sakamoto is a child of the '60s and '70s when an artist's duty was to address various social, political and environmental anomalies, so in this documentary, we can see him on the front lines protesting social injustice and environmental issues. And these are only some of the actions for raising awareness about these issues that he has taken over the years. By showing Sakamoto's side as a socially engaged activist, the film provides a more profound portrait of this musical genius whose work has astonished and delighted music fans all around the globe.

As seen in the documentary, Sakamoto is every bit the contemplative human being one might expect. In his humble presence, it seems apparent that he is very devoted to his craft. Coda offers an intimate view of the recording process both in studios and in various unusual locations around the world, be it on the streets of New York or at countryside locations far from urban areas. He feels music with every fiber of his being, and it's a gift to witness him working on what came out to be the album "async." It's a joy to watch him alone in his home studio, building his tunes, element by element. The documentary also addresses various points of his career as it glimpses towards such as the Yellow Magic Orchestra, his film music scores such as the Oscar awarded film by Bernardo Bertolucci The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky (also directed by Bernardo Bertolucci) or director Alejandro Innarity's The Revenant.

The film Coda was premiered in 2017 at the Venice Film Festival while the second film async at the Park Avenue Armory which captures the performance of Sakamoto's music was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2018.

By not walking the well-trodden path of making a typical documentary director Schible's film emerges with an engrossing portrait and an expansive study of Sakamoto's creative impulses and preoccupations that have shaped his unusual imagination and music.

All About Jazz: Where did your love for Sakamoto-san's music begin?

Stephen Nomura Schible: I was born and raised in Tokyo and I grew up listening to his music. Coincidentally we both moved to New York around the same time, in the late 80's, and I always deeply respected him for being an artist from my hometown who developed such an amazing international career.

AAJ:When and how did you first meet him, and what was your impression of him?

SNS: I met him during the first day we started shooting. This was during rehearsals for a music festival called No Nukes that he was hosting in Tokyo shortly after the onset of Fukushima in 2012. I remember during the second day of shooting my cameraman was late and so I started operating the camera and filming Mr. Sakamoto myself. He came up to me and said: "you're going to make a theatrical film out of this right?" Back then I wasn't sure yet if the project was going to become a TV documentary or a theatrical film. It was one of those things that just started spontaneously. He seemed to have a clearer idea than I did somehow.

AAJ: Why did you want to make a documentary film about him?

SNS: I learned about his activism in Japan in the aftermath of Fukushima. Knowing his history, of how he was once considered to be a kind of pop-icon who represented Japan's technological advancements through his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra, and seeing how he had changed to become an environmentalist and an activist in the aftermath of the disaster made me think that there was a unique story arch, that there was a story to be told somehow.

AAJ: Sakamoto has had a long and illustrious career with many diverse releases and stories behind him and yet you decided to do a portrait of him now at this point in his career with several glimpses towards his past. Can you talk about the approach you took in structuring this documentary?

SNS: There are so many facets to his career and it was very difficult to try and incorporate all of his history into the film. I also didn't want to make a kind of biopic that would only appeal to those who are a part of his fan base. I wanted the film to be more universal and to have appeal to those who do not really know him too well. It took some time to sort out the structure for our film and I spent a lot of time with my editor Hisayo Kushida as we gradually mapped things out. Though ultimately we wanted our audience to first meet him in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster back home in Japan. We started to see the footage of the tsunami piano which appears in the beginning as a kind of anchor point, as we found that it represented a lot of themes that we wanted to explore in the film.

As we began filming, Ryuichi became ill with cancer, so that changed a lot of things in terms of our intentions for the film. We ended up with a prelude comprised of his time post-disaster, as artist/environmental activist leading to his illness. Then the main part of the film became the story of how he recovers from his illness and returns to his art, and ultimately finds his new expression through what became his latest album async. Within that framework we inserted glimpses into his past, but we mainly focused on who he was in the late 70's and 80's (a kind of pop-icon who represented cutting-edge technology), the evolution of his career as a film composer, and the evolution of his awareness of crises starting in the mid- 90's, which continued to crescendo until Fukushima. Ultimately I wanted to land with a purely musical moment, and that is why I called the film Coda. I wanted the film to shift to a kind of pure moment where words and notions become rather irrelevant and his artistic expression speaks for itself.

AAJ: The film touches on so many various storylines and topics of who he is, everything that he does that contributes to him being an artist (from musician to an environmentalist, from a protestor to humanitarian). What was your primary aim in making of this film?

SNS: I wanted to make an intimate portrait of Mr. Sakamoto as an artist and as a person, which reflects upon the greater issues that surround our times. I wanted to make a film that is sincere, truthful, and simple, yet also deeply moving somehow.

AAJ: As someone who was granted an opportunity into Sakamoto's inner sanctum and working environment, what can you tell me about Sakamoto's work regime and creativity?

SNS: He works very fast and he often creates several different songs at the same time; it was hard to know what he was doing sometimes until he shared the ultimately completed album with us. He is extremely knowledgeable of the technical aspects of his craft and it was inspiring to see how he applies his knowledge and technical capabilities to his work.

AAJ: What were some of your fondest memories from the shooting of the documentary?

SNS: There are so many. Though being in the small room at Mr. Sakamoto's house with the baby Steinway and getting to speak to him as well as hear him play was very special. We spent weekends with him like that for most of the summer of 2016 as he was composing for async. Shooting at the concert in Northern Japan where he played Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence early in the film was also a very moving experience.

AAJ: What were some of the challenges involved in the making of this project?

SNS: The main challenge was that it became a much longer process than we had anticipated due to Mr. Sakamoto's unexpected bout with cancer. The film ultimately took over 5 years to complete. Having a long production period is very difficult, especially if you raise funds as you shoot, as we had to. Shooting in the immediate proximity of the damaged nuclear plant at Fukushima was also very difficult and scary. AAJ: Was there anything you wanted to include in the film but had to cut out?

SNS: There were so many things that we couldn't include, simply because we had so much great material that we would have had an impossibly long film if we kept everything. Though I am happy with the ultimate shape that the film became.

AAJ: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

SNS: I hope they are moved by the film, and that they feel it is truthful.

AAJ: The film Coda showed Sakamoto working in his studio and out in the countryside or various streets recording sounds and manipulating them i.e. the process of working but you also recorded his performance in NY when he performed the music from his async album (async at the Park Avenue Armory). Do you feel that with the live footage, the film has succeeded in depicting the full cycle of the artist's vision?

The live footage was meant to express a culmination point in CODA. It was the first public performance of his new work. It represents a point of completion. So in that sense, yes.

AAJ: The Coda documentary is not the first music documentary that you have worked on. Years ago you directed and produced Eric Clapton: The Sessions of Robert Johnson. That was your directorial debut. How do you look back on making of that documentary?

I have very fond memories of getting to work with Eric Clapton. I was very lucky to get to work with him in that way. My first chance to ever film a live performance was with him and his band—Billy Preston, Steve Gadd, Nathan East, Chris Stainton. It was such an incredible experience.

AAJ: What sparked the idea of doing that documentary?

I met Eric through a mutual friend Hiroshi Fujiwara and was asked to help with the production of a music video for his Robert Johnson tribute album. I started to think that it would be nice to make a documentary as I learned that Robert Johnson was really a prominent influence on Eric Clapton. I thought something interesting could come out of the process of filming Eric pay tribute and homage to his own guitar hero.

AAJ: What are some of the experiences you have learned from working on that documentary about another towering musical figure such as Clapton that you have used in the making of Coda?

The experience of getting to interview and film Eric Clapton perform gave me the confidence I needed to film CODA I suppose. Also, Ryuichi saw the film I made with Eric and apparently liked it enough to consider giving me the chance to film CODA. Getting to work with musicians and music of that caliber changes your thinking, I suppose. So I am very lucky to have had the chance to work with Ryuichi and Eric who are both my musical heroes in such a close way.

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