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Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus: Film Review

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is an elegant and moving tribute to (and from) a world class musical talent.

When the death of Ryuichi Sakamoto was announced in March this year, his loss was rightly mourned by music fans around the world. Sakamoto ultimately succumbed to cancer but, taking a leaf out of the books of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, he decided to leave a record of his work for the world to appreciate before he passed. Thus, we get Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus, a simple but beautiful tribute to his undeniable musical genius.

Directed by Tokyo-based filmmaker Neo Sora, Opus sees Sakamoto sat at his piano, performing twenty pieces of music from across his repertoire. The project was entirely curated by Sakamoto himself, and from the start his goal with this film is apparent. The film opens with the camera on Sakamoto as he performs a piece, but he is being shot from the back. The composer isn’t concerned with his face being seen, but he wants the music to be heard. There is little to distract from the music, not even in the visuals. Opus is shot in crisp black and white by Bill Kirstein, giving it a look that recalls the similarly grief-drenched One More Time With Feeling, Andrew Dominik’s documentary on the creation of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album ‘Skeleton Tree’. Both films share subjects that are broken but unbowed, and using their loss to inform their work.

The affection the film has for Sakamoto’s compositions is readily apparent; the clear, cool sound mix immerses the viewer in the music. Works from his final album 12 segue back to his days as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, jumping forward to filmic triumphs such as The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Unlike One More Time With Feeling, Opus features no interviews or sidebars. It is purely a series of performances. Automatically, this puts casual viewers at a disadvantage, but the beauty of the performances cannot be denied. They play like lullabies, dulling any cacophony to relax the patient viewer. The selections of music come from all over his career, but they are all played with patience and skill, with a simplicity that recalls the works of Michael Nyman at his most powerful.

loud and clear reviews Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus film 2023 movie venice
Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus (Recorded Picture Company / 2023 Venice Film Festival)

When Opus was shot in late 2022, Sakamoto was already beginning to succumb to his illness, and the film makes a point of showing us that reality. The film breaks at a couple of points for the composer to catch his breath (“I need a break”, he says, before briefly playing scales to stay warmed up). Despite his ill health, Sakamoto is determined to continue, and Sora keeps a tight focus on his playing. Watching his hands move across the keys is a beautiful sight; player and instrument are in a delicate harmony. Sakamoto’s pieces often require the player to play pianissimo, and Sora captures the grace of his movements with long takes and unhurried camera moves, in tribute to his ability.

Opus might not teach anyone anything new about the composer, but Stephen Nomura Schible’s excellent 2017 documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda will teach you most anything you wish to know. Sakamoto used Opus to serve as a tribute, a performance piece, and a time capsule. His works will endure, and Sora honours his subject’s memory by presenting them in as simple and beautiful a manner as possible.

17/01/52 – 28/03/23. R.I.P., maestro.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival in September and will be released in US theaters on March 15, 2024.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus (Janus Films)
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