Stephen Nomura Schible’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda was filmed over an eventful five-year period of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s life, during which the Japanese musician was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer, went through treatment, and wrote and recorded async, his first album in eight years. The documentary follows Sakamoto as he contemplates his near-death experience and works on the album, on which he wrestles with his mortality and the fleeting nature of life. Unfortunately, Sakamoto, a curious artist with an insatiable need to create, is more fascinating than the listless film made about him.
As is evident by Sakamoto’s candid interviews, async was of profound importance to him, helping him reconcile with his illness. The Japanese synth-pop pioneer and Oscar-winning film composer had beaten throat cancer in 2015, and the sparse, elegiac notes that open the album have an almost restorative power to them, a sense of perseverance as they cut through the white noise. The jovial pop-fusion aesthetic that made Sakamoto an icon of Japanese music has been replaced on the album with something more contemplative and melancholic, yet somehow more hopeful.
But while async is an earnest, revealing work, Schible’s documentary feels artificially intimate, rendering Sakamoto’s genuine spirituality and empathy awkward and disingenuous, as if he’s posturing for the camera. The editing feels chicanerous, as when Sakamoto kneels before a pantheon to honor the victims of the Great East Japan earthquake and resulting nuclear disaster; the camera placement and cuts make the whole scenario feel staged. Surely Sakamoto’s feelings are genuine—his music has always drawn from tragedy, from the pain of the world around him, and wrestles with the turmoil of current events—but here, the camerawork and editing make them feel unnatural, as if Sakamoto were putting on a performance.
Compare Coda to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun, one of the best music documentaries of the last few years. With Junun, the uncompromising Anderson uses the documenary medium to explore his own eccentric obsessions: a cow dawdling in the street, Jonny Greenwood hunched over a laptop, and the bevy of Indian musicians jamming undistracted by the film crew. Anderson isn’t intrusive, and nothing feels feigned. Coda has no such vision, no sense of spontaneity, yet it’s chronicling a man of undiluted, unwavering vision, a singular artist who deserves a film as passionate and innovative as he is, not something so banal, so shiftless. Detours to the Arctic and Africa are given unsatisfying context—something about the vastness of the world. Sakamoto recorded part of async in the Arctic, and one wishes more time was spent on his process, the way he captured wintry sounds using an array of unusual instruments, and less on visualizing his musings with shots of Arctic freighters and the smoldering Twin Towers on 9/11.
Unlike Sakamoto, Coda isn’t formally daring. It takes on a fairly standard form: old handheld footage mixed in with contemporary interviews, interspersed with shots of its subject seemingly acting natural. A highlight of the documentary is watching Sakamoto try to capture the sound of rain, putting a bucket on his head while standing serenely and inquisitively. Schible’s film could have benefited from more unguarded moments such as this.
async is a reverie on the transience of life, and like life it’s sometimes serene, sometimes unsettled. “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” says writer Paul Bowles on the album, in an audio sample from Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky (Bowles provided the film’s narration). Coda includes the scene from which the dialogue is taken—Sakamoto’s favorite moment from the film, which he scored—and to behold Vittorio Storaro’s magnificently assured camerawork only emphasizes how aesthetically unremarkable Coda is.
The film too often relies on lazy synchronicity, drawing awkward parallels between Sakamoto and the films he’s worked on. “I’m really not sure how many years I have left,” he says, as scenes from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant play, a bearded and battered Leonardo DiCaprio traipsing through the frozen mountains while Sakamoto’s words linger like sustained notes. It feels sophomoric. Elsewhere, scenes of Tarkovsky’s beautifully somnolent Solaris, whose ethereal soundscape inspired async, pass across the screen, making Coda feel like a hodgepodge of clips from better films.
There are moments of earnestness, such as when Sakamoto, his silver hair agleam, is laying dejected and bored in his book-encased New York living room, lamenting his malady and lapse in productivity. Since he began his career, in his early 20s, he hadn’t had a lull in his creativity until his diagnosis. (He even took a hiatus from his treatment to score The Revenant.) And archival footage of Sakamoto’s early band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, offers enticing glimpses of the musician’s nascent years.
Less intriguing, we also get the scenes of 9/11, as Sakamoto muses solemnly about the tragedy. It’s not his musings that irritate, but Schible’s hackneyed visual technique. The last third of the film tries to lend context to async and Sakamoto’s inspirations, to encapsulate his feelings on life and death, the way the album does, but nothing leaves an impression. Coda doesn’t enhance the experience of listening to the album, and doesn’t elucidate on Sakamoto as an artist or human. That the film is such a waste of an opportunity seems the biggest injustice to its subject, a man who wants to take advantage of every moment, because one never knows when it’s all going to end.