Stephen Nomura Schible's Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017) is showing exclusively September 7 – October 7, 2018 on MUBI in the United States and Canada.
I began making CODA in 2012, when the wounds of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of Northeastern Japan were still relatively new. It wasn’t long after I first learned that Ryuichi Sakamoto was about to become a vocal anti-nuclear advocate back home in the wake of Fukushima. I suppose I intuited that there was a story to be told. I began shooting quite suddenly and impulsively. The varied economic interests in Japan that wield political control do not typically favor popular artists who speak out about issues deemed taboo, particularly nuclear contamination. So his vocal stance wasn’t without friction. Most of the mainstream Japanese media, which otherwise follows Ryuichi’s career quite ardently, was reluctant to touch his activism in depth. So I saw a void to be filled. To my surprise Ryuichi graciously granted access, and that was the start of what became our five-year process. Fukushima made me feel like my world had been turned upside down, that nothing will ever quite be the same again. I sensed Ryuichi shared the same sentiment. Yet I never wanted to make a political film. More than anything, I wanted to observe how this change would manifest in his art. I wanted to make a portrait film about one of Japan’s greatest artists coming to terms with his creative expression in the aftermath of the cataclysmic disaster.
I grew up in Tokyo during the 70s and 80s. So I knew that Ryuichi was once seen as an icon of a certain technology-driven ethos during Japan’s economic boom period through his work with the techno-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra. It was a time when technology was seen primarily as a source of prosperity and happiness. I became interested in how he was taking a stance later in life, driven by an awareness related to technology concerning environmental destruction.
There were unexpected turns of events despite such initial interests and intentions, to the point where at times it seemed quite impossible to continue filming. The most significant challenge was Ryuichi’s illness. When we learned our subject had cancer, our process became like a journey without a map or compass. We didn’t know if he would survive, or how we can continue making our film. All of us involved in the film had to feel our way through, as we carefully improvised our way forward step by step.
Ultimately Ryiuchi’s composing process became our guide and brought us to the form that the film organically acquired. Overall, I wanted CODA to explore how Ryuichi’s awareness of crises had developed and how it brought change to his musical expression. I sought to achieve this by gradually building towards a more musical cinematic language, using sound as a building block, to the point where the audience can hopefully feel the story through their ears as well as their eyes. I committed to a slower pace, primarily so sounds can be given the space to linger and to be felt. Though I think this choice was also related to my experience of visiting the contamination zone in Fukushima together with Ryuichi. The most frightening aspect of my experience there was that the immediate danger I was in could not be felt. The five senses cannot be relied upon to sense nuclear contamination without the aid of technological gadgetry—you cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell it. Our species has created dangers that we can no longer even feel, as a byproduct of our manipulations of nature in the name of technological advancement. This realization may have triggered my creative longing to express in a way through which I hoped to evoke deep feeling of some kind through the film.
My hope is that those who journey with this film may find it to be like an opening of perception, allowing for a chance to imagine how Ryuichi hears the world, and to witness how he ultimately triumphs to find new creative expression in the end. Ryuichi believes all sound is musical—even environmental sounds that are typically not perceived as music. This philosophy inspired his latest compositions, and our own editing style. The sound of a broken piano, the wailing of Geiger counters, the sound of melting arctic ice, as well as Ryuichi’s beautiful melody sketches—all were cut together as musical phrases of sorts. They were treated as artifacts of time, from which we carefully sculpted our film.