A Scene at the Checkpoint: Remembering Ryuichi Sakamoto

A reflection by the director of "Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda" on the origins of his documentary and his relationship with the great artist.
Stephen Nomura Schible

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017) is now showing on MUBI in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada. Ryuichi Sakamoto: async at the Park Avenue Armory (2018) is showing in the United States and Canada.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017).

I think the inspiration to make Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017) first came to me in April of 2012. Ryuichi Sakamoto had curated a series of performances at a space called the Stone in the East Village, and I went to see him perform there with the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide. The Stone is small, and the show was sold out. I was asked to sit on the floor somewhere between the two artists, literally close enough to touch Otomo-san's effects pedals and a leg of Ryuichi's piano—that's how intimate the Stone can be. As they explored the fringe between music and noise, their performance somehow evoked images of Fukushima in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in my mind. The images, if you could call them that, weren't much more than the blurry fragments of a daydream. In hindsight, it feels like they ultimately seeped their way into Coda.

Ryuichi performed mostly while standing that night. He used a mallet at times to strike his grand piano's strings directly while he altered its tuning by introducing objects like a fork or coins in between them. Years later I learned that this was a method known as "prepared piano," an invention typically attributed to John Cage, whom Ryuichi admired. Still,  I also recall hearing someone in the audience mutter disappointedly, "Why can't he just play that piano?" 

He was perhaps a typically rude New Yorker, or a fan hoping for his more melodious work. Though I hope Ryuichi would forgive me if he were to learn that I'm admitting this now, there was also a part of me that wondered along similar lines. Why couldn't he just play, after all? I think the dreamy images that left a haunting impression somewhere in my mind, along with  the man's question on that night, became like embedded seeds that were left to germinate throughout a five-year-plus process to ultimately take form as Coda and its companion concert film, async Live at the Park Avenue Armory (2018).

Proposals were drafted and sent not long after the performance at the Stone and we somehow began shooting during rehearsals in Tokyo for No Nukes 2012, an anti-nuclear music festival which Ryuichi hosted in early July of the same year. I started filming quite impulsively with the help of friends—without a specific plan or any concrete financing in place. I remember Ryuichi approached me quite casually on our second day of shooting as I was behind the camera. "Is that a movie camera?” he asked. I think I told him that the specs of the camera were adequate for theatrical release. Then he rephrased his question, asking me if my intention was to make a film that will eventually be shown in theaters. It was as though he knew what I didn't know myself yet at the time: that what we began was to eventually become a film. Maybe they were just his kind words of encouragement, but in the end some of what we shot during that sweltering summer of protest in Japan the year after the cataclysmic earthquake became part of the opening sequence for Coda.

Ryuichi was erudite, scholarly. Many called him kyoju, or professor in Japan, after all. There was another side to him that was intuitive, though, one closer in tune with his gut instincts. He believed in the sincerity of spontaneity, like many true artists. It was fun to work with him because you often didn't know what to expect next. He told me that the first take was always best when it came to recording music—because he enjoyed the freshness of phrases as they first found their expression. In fact, he disliked it when things felt too rehearsed. Concerning our collaboration, he didn't seem to appreciate it when I showed up with a predetermined plan of some kind. I don't mean to say that he was difficult. On the contrary, he was often too kind with me. I believe he just wanted our process to feel genuinely sincere.

I remember interviewing him while we were passing through the Shinjuku district of Tokyo in a taxi one day, fairly early in our process. I asked him if he ever thought about writing music that would move people—related to themes that were inspired by his environmental concerns. He may have sensed that I was secretly hoping for a nice emotive climax to our project, like some kind of musical culmination point. He warned that it's wrong to use the emotional power of music as a means to an end, citing the appropriation of Wagner by the Nazis. I think his concerns were not with music per se, but with the potential dangers of human desires and intentions which were difficult to trust based on our abysmal track record as a species. Still, he was serious. Perhaps his concerns may also have had something to do with the reason he was confronting the piano on that night at the Stone as though he was having an allergic reaction to it. 

There is a tsunami piano that appears in Coda, which Ryuichi first encountered in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, during January of 2012. As I interviewed him, I showed him footage of the piano that had been rendered out of tune by the force of the tsunami, because I felt it represented themes that we'd want to explore. He shared that he had come to like the sound of that tsunami piano because it was "retuned" by nature. He spoke eloquently about how he had come to have a strong aversion to the piano, which was his instrument, after all, because he disliked how it was manufactured through the use of industrial force. Man's will was imposed upon matter extracted from nature in order to shape its parts and components. Technology had brought us the pleasurable sounds and the mechanical convenience of the piano. The exponential growth of technology had also brought us exponential perils—and his awareness troubled his conscience. 

I coincidentally found myself filming with Ryuichi on the third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster's onset in the area’s restricted zone, and Otomo Yoshihide, whom I saw on that night at the Stone, also joined us as we journeyed through the no man’s land. In our microbus, Otomo-san eventually began to improvise with the Geiger counters as we reached the perimeter of the failed nuclear plant, as if to make music with their warning sounds. We used that sound as a part of the scene in Coda where Ryuichi walks along an abandoned beach in the zone—juxtaposed with the sound of crashing waves as our musical crescendo of sorts.

Subsequently on the same shooting day, we were brought to a checkpoint before leaving the zone. Filming there was prohibited, so I stood around feeling useless as I watched Ryuichi getting screened for radiation by a worker who asked him to spread out his arms like he was about to get crucified. "Too bad we can't film this," Ryuichi said to me, as his throat was screened with a clicking Geiger counter. All I could do was watch and blink, wishing my eyes were a camera. Though perhaps he sensed it could have been a scene too. 

Later during the same year, he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. The process of Ryuichi’s recovery and return to music became the main plot for Coda. Sometimes I wonder if he could have lived longer had he chosen not to partake in his activism, which wasn’t without controversy or substantial stress for him back home, if he could have "just played the piano," as many of his vocal critics in Japan had said. The image from that time at the checkpoint still lingers in my mind as the one that I never got to film or share with our audience. I want to put the image to rest but it’s stuck in my head, as though I’m somehow haunted by it. I suppose that image of Ryuchi is all my own to bear, now that he’s no longer with us—but I truly miss him as a friend.

This essay was originally published in the late June 2023 issue No. 1924 of Kinema Jyunpo (Japanese Film Magazine).

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