To spend an hour or two in the company of one of the most creative and profound minds on the planet is a rare gift, and Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA proves it is far too great an opportunity to turn down. The film presents a portrait of the Japanese musician and composer of the same name, weaving together moments from his life, captured during the five year shoot, alongside archive footage from some of his greatest achievements. Debut filmmaker Stephen Nomura Schible explores Sakamoto’s creative process and environmental activism following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, through to the composer’s struggle with cancer, and his comeback album, async, in 2017.
The documentary sets a poetic and philosophical tone from the outset, when Sakamoto seeks and plays a piano flooded during the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The eerie grey backdrop and grubby waterlines act as minimalist reminders of the tsunami’s devastation, but Sakamoto himself underlines the human impact of the tragedy when he comments he feels like he’s playing the corpse of a piano that has drowned. His evocative words elevate the detritus to a poignant spirituality; indisputably connecting his very being with the wreckage. As Sakamoto experiments with the impact of the water on the keys, each wrong note acts as a stark reminder of how humans’ unchecked desire for mastery and control can often spill over into chaos and destruction.
Sakamoto raises thought-provoking ideas throughout the film, but these would lack impact without Schible’s innovative and captivating sound design binding the documentary fragments together. Taking inspiration from the prolific musician, CODA brings the ambient sounds surrounding Sakamoto to life; successfully positioning the audience as if hearing through his ears. As rain drops fall on a bucket on his head, or footsteps tread carefully on the sand, the documentary amplifies the musicality of everyday soundscapes; refining the viewer’s sensitivity and appreciation not only for things usually taken for granted, but for the composer’s sensory intuition, as well.
Some of the most affecting scenes feature Sakamoto alone in his brownstone in New York, filmed during his cancer treatment and recovery process. Whether creating music by any means necessary – including brushing mugs on cymbals and incorporating recordings of the ice caps melting – or speaking with the documentary crew, he appears vulnerable and at his most contemplative. The spectre of death never seems far away, though, and from man-made and environmental disasters, to 9/11 and his battle against cancer, it is unsurprising that Sakamoto’s recent album has been one of his most personal and melancholic.
It is heart-wrenching, however, when he laments the piano’s fallibility in producing a perpetual sound. Sakamoto admits to a fascination with creating a sound that doesn’t dissipate over time, and, after a pause, considers this as a metaphor for eternity. CODA respects its subject enough not to push this any further, but the notion infuses the film’s elliptical structure and the musician’s latest performances. Sometimes it is not the loudest or longest sound that has the most impact, though, and in its quiet exploration of creativity and dedication, CODA certainly delivers one of the most sincere and reflective documentaries about an individual in a long time.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA is in cinemas now