By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Producer, arranger, keyboardist, songwriter, composer, electronic music pioneer, actor: Japan’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died in late March this year after a long battle with cancer, was all of these things, together and/or separately. His musical work in film represents a significant portion of his always-fluctuating career, and the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) decided to honor him with a series of screenings.
“My favorite record of his,” said NWFF’s Managing Director Christopher Day, “might just be ‘async,’ the album he was profiled making in [the film] ‘Coda.’ It’s just a dense yet subtle masterpiece. ‘B-2 Unit,’ from 1980, has to be a very close second. They don’t get more influential than that, yet it remains as challenging as I can only imagine it sounded upon its release.”
Day was also quick to praise Yellow Magic Orchestra, the synthesizer-driven trio Sakamoto belonged to, off and on, between their founding in 1978, and their final dissolution in 2012.
“YMO changed electronic music forever, and rarely has there ever been a more perfect union of musicians, all exploring the possibilities of a new kind of pop music,” Day enthused. “Each album is a road map of what was to come with electronic music and I feel we still haven’t caught up with what they started as a group.”
The first film in the tribute, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” from 1973, plays May 20-21. This was Sakamoto’s first film score, for the bristling tale of David Bowie as a defiant POW in a Japanese camp during World War II. Directed by Nagisa Ōshima, the film also features Sakamoto onscreen, as the captain in charge of the camp.
Christopher Day allowed that he only saw the film for the first time in 2017.
“Sakamoto’s score is the stuff of legend, and the confidence of its opening theme is just staggering, carrying the kind of melody that feels as though it’s been around forever, unafraid to explore its core melody for all its beauty. The rest of the score is every bit the equal to the famous theme as well, a perfect synthesis of sound and vision, fit for an opera.”
Playing May 25-27, the documentary film “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” from 2017, was directed by Stephen Nomura Schible. It finds its subject reflective, fearful, and cautiously optimistic, after his cancer diagnosis. The camera follows him around as he muses on life, death, philosophy, and music-making, as he prepares ‘async,’ which turned out to be his next-to-last solo release.
“I saw this film during its initial festival run, and was just so enraptured by it being one of the finest examples of witnessing an artist work that I’ve ever seen captured on film,” Day recalls. “It certainly helped being a huge fan of Sakamoto of course, but even if I had never heard of him, just the quiet joy of watching and listening to someone explore the world of sound, with such curiosity and enthusiasm is truly inspiring.
“[‘Async’] happens to be my favorite work throughout his incredible career, and this film certainly plays a part in my love of this record. I also have only seen this one time, so I’m very excited to revisit it.”
The tribute concludes May 27-28 with the historical 1987 epic “The Last Emperor,” telling the tale of Puyi, last monarch of China. Sakamoto had a supporting role onscreen, and his ambitious, symphonic works for the score elevated him to new levels of praise. He shared the Oscar for Best Original Score with his musical collaborators, David Byrne and Cong Su.
“I actually still haven’t seen this in a theater,” said Day. “I’m very excited to let the incredible sound and cinematography wash over me in a way I haven’t experienced yet.
“Nonetheless, like ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,’ Sakamoto’s contribution to the score is so sumptuous and its melodies so indelible, I feel like they’ve been a part of the lexicon of film music forever. His symphonic work is both stunningly ‘widescreen’ and remarkably gentle, while still hiding little harmonic subtleties in each piece he contributes.”
Day was at home, in March, when he heard news of Sakmoto’s death.
“I immediately put his music on. He had shared news of his illness, but it hit hard nonetheless. Thankfully, he left behind such a rich catalog of film and music to say the very least, there is so much to explore…I hope people become more familiar with his work however they can.”
The Ryuichi Sakamoto tribute screenings run May 20-28th at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue, between Pike and Pine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit nwfilmforum.org.