The incredible composer, pianist, and environmental activist Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away earlier this year, on 28 March, 2023. Filmed over a week in September 2022, Sakamoto recorded a few songs a day at NHK 509 in Japan – a studio long beloved by the composer – straining against his ill health. The result is Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus, a stunning concert film directed by his son, Neo Sora, and captured in contemplative black-and-white by cinematographer Bill Kirstein. It was to be Sakamoto’s last performance.
For what he knew might be his swansong, Sakamoto selected 20 pieces spanning his illustrious career. There’s ‘Lack of Love’, a part-electronic track here rendered entirely acoustic; a new, slowed version of the jubilant ‘Tong Poo’; his Oscar-winning theme for Nagisa Ōshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. To hear Sakamoto’s music is to open one’s body and soul to his inimitable gift for drawing out great beauty from seemingly the simplest of arrangements. His music was often minimalist in the way that poetry is: universes of meaning within phrases that only a great mind would know to string together.
A concert is ephemeral; one is filled with gratitude that this film is not. Kirstein’s attentive yet never intrusive camera elegantly frames Sakamoto’s face – that familiar shock of white hair and tortoiseshell glasses. It studies his hands’ assured touch of the keys; glides slowly across the studio floor in a wide shot that reveals a forest of tall microphones all around the studio, fully capturing the audio-spatial dimensions of Sakamoto’s geographies of sound. This plays in tandem with Yukiko Yoshimoto’s beautifully curated lighting design, evolving to subtly mirror the emotional contours of each piece.
Sakamoto and his instrument are variously shrouded in different configurations of light and dark, black and white, much like piano keys. One breathtaking shot towards the end of the film is lit overhead such that the black of the piano’s body and Sakamoto’s clothes melts into darkness; only his face and the strings and hammers of the piano, reflected in its open lid, are visible. The border between man and instrument appears to dissolve.
Sound design is of course important here: beyond the technically excellent acoustics of this set-up, microphones positioned close to the sheet music resting on the piano and Sakamoto’s foot on the pedal create a delicate intimacy with the performer. We hear his intakes of breath, that musician’s apostrophe where silence is suddenly replaced with sound. We even hear the piano pedal being depressed and lifted, the rustle of sheet music between songs.
It’s hard not to feel like Sakamoto is in the room with you. At the screening I attended, someone in the audience was moved to call out “Bravo!” at the conclusion of one piece. The rest of us subsequently broke into applause. By coincidence, this too was where Sakamoto takes a small shuddering breath, and says quietly, “Can I take a break? This is tough, I’m pushing myself.” For all the film’s immense beauty, it is devastating to think that Sakamoto was knowingly playing this music for the last time. How did he bear it?
The last piece he plays is ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’. Those initial sparkling, clear notes of its motif, so recognisable and devastating, float like iridescent droplets suspended in the air. Sakamoto’s face creases with feeling, as if on the verge of tears. The end credits are accompanied but an outro piece fittingly titled ‘Opus’. The camera frames Sakamoto in the bottom right of the screen, with a perfectly distanced full body shot to make it look like he and his piano are right there on stage with us in the cinema. We clap and clap. He disappears, but the piano plays on.
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