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.
I love jazz because it is simply a music of my heart since I was about 12 years old.
I was first exposed to jazz when I heard Sonny Boy Williamson play harmonica. My introduction to jazz went through blues music.