YIDFF 2023 Special Invitation Films

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus
Sora Neo (Director)

Interviewer: Markus Nornes

Collaborating on his thing

Markus Nornes (MN): I feel like I should start by saying I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you. Somehow it feels like an intrusion.

Sora Neo (SN): It’s OK. It’s been like, six months at this point, and I’ve been doing a lot of interviews.

MN: Was it hard to do the filming?

SN: Not really. A lot of people ask me this. Obviously, he was sick at the time, but at the same time we could not have known that he would pass several months after that. It felt like he could have just kept going. He seemed to go, you know. There was no sense of mortality around him, and with all that rigamarole going into the filming, that wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of our minds. We were just trying to do a good job.

MN: So now in an immediate kind of retrospect, how is this film going to fit into your relationship?

SN: I’m really glad to have had the opportunity for a collaboration with him before he passed. Yeah, it felt like a nice combination since he became ill on his previous documentary Coda (2017), when he first got cancer. The director, Stephen Nomura Schible, was going to stop filming. But my father was the one who suggested to Mr. Schible that he shouldn’t stop. What a dramatic moment, right? Imagine the subject of your documentary gets cancer. You should film that. The director didn’t really want to intrude at such a sensitive time, so they suggested that I should get a camera and just film inside the home. I was right out of college, so that’s basically where my relationship with my father as a filmmaker started. Then there were a few videos where they’d ask me to shoot a little, since he was ill and they worried about barging into his home with a huge crew of strangers. Stuff like that.

MN: Tell me about how Opus came about.

SN: We’ve been talking about it as if it’s a collaboration, and it certainly is, but really it’s just his thing. It’s something he wanted to do while he had the energy. He was growing more and more ill, and lost the ability to do live concerts. Flying somewhere far away, then sitting down for two hours straight in front of a piano—it was just too much. So, this was his idea, one final concert while he still could. But it would be in the form of a film, where it could be shot over the course of eight days, three or four songs per day. And then edit together what feels like a seamless concert.

MN: He obviously chose the songs.

SN: Very much so. We chatted about it and, hoping to create some kind of visual throughline, I suggested the concert sort of span the course of one day in terms of light. So it starts dark and then brightens as if the sun comes up, and then it goes back down into evening and finally returns to night. And then you have the next day. He liked it because that concept also was very much reacting to his everlasting obsession with passages of time. I mean, who isn’t obsessed with the passage of time?

MN: Let me tell you, you get more and more obsessed as you get older, sure.

SN: In fact, there’s still going to be some more of his work released, and one is literally called “Time.” It is a kind of a theatrical performance piece that he worked on with Takatani Shiro. Anyway, he was very concerned with and thinking deeply about the concept of time. I think in crafting the initial setlist, he had a rough idea of the songs he wanted to play. But then when he heard my proposal to structure it like a day, he reordered the songs to better express that concept of the passage of time. Actually, we asked him to decide on the set list a lot earlier than he usually does just because we had to prepare. He usually doesn’t decide the setlists until the day of the performance. And even during performances, he was known to reshuffle things on the spot. This might have been the first time where he couldn’t do that. Maybe like a month or two before shooting, we pleaded with him to set things up so we could make the storyboard. I think he struggled with that.

MN: I was so curious about his selection because I’ve been listening to his music for almost forty years.

SN: Wow. Okay. Yeah, it’s longer than me!

MN: Yes, longer than your time on the planet, I’m afraid! Anyway, when I heard the music, it didn’t really click with my engagement with his music over time, over the course of my life. It wasn’t chronological, and favored work since the turn of the century. And the selections and variations were softer and more contemplative—not exactly “Soul Train” material. And he places “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” near the end, which was the first song of his I encountered.

SN: Yeah, it seems that’s the one that everyone wants. It’s like candy for the audience. At one point in his life, everyone just always wanted him to play that in concerts.

MN: It must have been annoying. But doesn’t it also suggest that it must have been a really important experience for him?

SN: He found it very annoying for a while, but at some point in his life he went to a concert by a musician he really liked, some folk singer. They didn’t play the song he was waiting for, the most stereotypical song by the band. At first he was really irritated, but then came to understand the perspective of his own fans. After that he put “Merry Christmas” back into service, including at the end of performances, as a climax. I think this was him having come around to a new approach where he put all his emotions into it.

Beauty in black and white

MN: Because it was a film score from the beginning of his career, I also thought its positioning here felt perfect. Let me ask you about the photography. Was black-and-white his idea?

SN: That was my idea.

MN: Maybe because of the hair? (chuckles)

SN: Yeah, if he didn’t have the silver hair, then I don’t know if I would have made that choice! Actually, as we were finishing the film and color correcting, we were like, wow, so glad he had silver hair, you know.

MN: He’s beautiful. The film is stunningly beautiful.

SN: Thank you. Maybe my one creative contribution was to do it in black-and-white.

MN: You’re permitted to take more credit than that. I mean you were orchestrating an incredibly talented creative team, starting with your dad, of course, but also the cinematographers. I noticed A, B and C cameras in the credits. Were there different cameras, or a hierarchy or something like that?

SN: Not really. It’s just the typical way you label cameras in a multi-camera shoot; the A camera is usually the primary one, but there was no real hierarchy here.

MN: How premeditated and orchestrated was the camerawork?

SN: Fairly orchestrated, but also with enough room for improvisation. Just because it’s necessarily a live performance, and there are certain things that you don’t expect that could happen. First, cinematographer Bill Kirstein and I came up with rough points for A, B, and C cameras within a given song. For example, A camera, which Bill ran, should roughly be on three set points over the course of a song: at the first point it’s wide, and then for the second we dolly up to his face, and then finally the third would be after a tilt down to his hands. But within that very rough structure, Bill could improvise as he shot. And then responding to whatever Bill was up to, the B and C cameras would capture other angles that could be used, especially if the A shot wasn’t sustaining the sequence. But I told everybody the most important thing was to react naturally and emotionally to the music as they shot. Considering all this, we had to choose camera operators that we trusted a lot.

MN: Yeah. I was curious about the choice of Oda Kaori. I really think she’s one of the best young documentary filmmakers in Japan.

SN: I totally agree with you. I’ve worked with her in the past. I’ve asked her to shoot some stuff that I’ve done in the past. I agree Oda’s one of the best filmmakers in Japan right now. Looking at her work, you can tell that she has a certain perspective, how she looks at things, and the types of things that she chooses to look at through the camera. Her lens is very unique and her visual compositions reflect those interests and her personality, and so I thought that I wanted to see what she would want to see about him and about the performance.

MN: And as an experimental documentarist it’s the perfect profile for camera C, since there’s wiggle room and that needs to respond on the spot.

SN: Exactly. And, you know, she’s not a professional camera operator, right? It might have been the biggest camera she’s ever held! It was really great for her to be capturing these moments and the shots that she just was really interested in, while at the same time we had a truly professional cinematographer in his own right, who was able to capture extremely beautiful, smooth movements and make perfectly composed images. Bill is kind of a painter; he really paints with the camera. So it felt like a very good balance of camera operators.

MN: And then how about the editing? Was it hard?

SN: The editing was not hard. Because we had a great editor in Kawakami Takuya. Many of the films he’s edited have come to Yamagata, and he’s also worked with Oda as a sound recordist. It was very much like a close kind of group of friends that I relied on. I really trust Kawakami’s sensibilities. He really has a keen sense for priorities about what is more interesting to look at and when to cut out of a shot. And because he’s done so much documentary editing, even if, like, a shot is slightly shaky or not quite technically perfect, he knows to leave it in if it’s revealing of something about the environment, a feeling or whatever.

The concert-in-amber documentary

MN: Last night when you introduced the film on Yamagata’s opening night, you asserted that it’s a “concert film.” And, I don’t know, I noted a slight defensiveness about the way you pushed that idea on the audience.

SN: The film has been presented and written about as a documentary of the last concert of Sakamoto, and I think there are some people who expect, let’s say, a story. I’ve found that some people have been disappointed that they didn’t “learn” anything about his life through the documentary.

MN: Right. They wanted The Last Waltz (1978).

SN: Yeah, yeah. Interviews. Exactly. Or behind the scenes footage of the musician, struggling with illness. But that’s not the intention of the film. There are plenty of articles and interviews that people can rely on for that.

MN: Coda. YouTube!

SN: I agree. Ultimately, the idea was to do a concert. He wanted to do a concert and you can look at Wikipedia to find out who he is. If you’re at a live concert, you listen to the music. There was a little bit of a conversation about whether we should include more background and context, but we ultimately wanted to keep it just about the music. And I think you can glean enough “information” from just seeing his body on screen.

MN: I think it was a good decision. In that concert film genre it does line up well with works like Stop Making Sense (1984), which is just in theaters again. But in its current incarnation that’s actually an anniversary film, right? Now it’s looking back at a moment forty years ago, just years before they broke up—making the film more like The Last Waltz. This got me thinking about how Opus fits in a documentary genre that doesn’t have a name. And that’s documentaries that are preserving someone’s performance. Not just documenting and presenting, but preserving. I especially thought about this because of the quote at the end, “Art is long. Life is short.”

SN: When he passed away his management team released a statement and introduced this quote, which he loved. It was his final message. So we put that at the end because it seemed to sum up the theme of the movie.

MN: Have you ever read the original?

SN: Yeah, I looked it up and it’s way different than I expected. I didn’t realize it was about medicine.

MN: That’s the thing. Because it’s Hippocrates, right? He starts with this lovely aphorism at the beginning and then pages and pages of all the ways your body can go wrong. In that sense, it’s a secret way “Art is long. Life is short” is perfect for Opus.

SN: I didn’t think about it that way, but you’re right. Yeah.

MN: Actually, the rest of the quote—before all the disease and bodily functions—is also apt for the film. “Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgment difficult.” It really sums up the life of an artist like Sakamoto.

SN: Yeah, that’s cool. He should have used the whole thing. (laughs)

MN: It seems Opus fits into a subset of this preserving-in-amber documentary genre where the filmmakers are preserving something about their own lives at the brink of death. I’m thinking especially of Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) and Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which Agnès Varda finished for her husband Jacques Demy. Both of those are more experimental works reflecting on one’s life through a refractive crystal made of words, poems, fiction and music. For Sakamoto, it is less like a crystal than a polished pane of glass. It’s so direct, with a devotion to absolute clarity. Fidelity. The intimate photography, the forest of microphones, it all seemed to be an attempt to capture something about Sakamoto’s life in music in as direct a manner as possible.

SN: I think my intention was to do that and to just remove, as much as possible, anything extraneous.

MN: Yes, the sharp but glowing figure of Sakamoto in deep black space.

SN: It was interesting. At the beginning of production, there were going to be even more microphones. Something like forty or more. Zak, our incredible recording engineer for music, initially gave me a hand-drawn plan of where he was going to put the microphones, and it was like a dome of microphones around the piano! And I said to him, unfortunately, if we do this there’s no place to put the cameras. Then there was a little bit of pushback, as we obviously needed to capture the best sound. But the image is fairly important as well (laughs). It was awkward.

Ultimately, we left it up to Sakamoto and his team: do you want this to be a pristine recording as for an album, or are you more interested in making a feature film? In the end, they chose to make the medium for Opus cinema. So I had to ask Zak to reduce the mics so we could place lighting and move cameras around. He was fine with it and is so good at his job the sound was fantastic.

MN: The microphones look like they were placed for the camera, but they must have been in place for the sound.

SN: They were placed for the sound. You know, something that both Zak and I were particularly interested in was capturing sounds that would usually be taken out of a recorded performance. Breath and clothes and nails and creaks—all these things. We thought it communicated his physicality. Also, Sakamoto and Zak were very interested less in the note itself than its decay—the way it echoes and reverberates throughout the space. This is another reason why he liked to play slower in his old age. Zak was particularly good at knowing where to place microphones in order to capture those very subtle transitions from what was the reverberation of a piano note into silence or noise. It’s those in-between moments where they both found an abundance of musicality. Those are also places where really high and really low harmonic frequencies exist, which to me are really beautiful and almost sound electronic. Actually, this is very strong in “Opus.”

MN: Do you mean the film or the last piece?

SN: The last piece. Somehow the combination of the notes he plays with this specific piano in this specific place creates these really, really high-pitched harmonic frequencies. When you listen to it closely in the high-frequency range, it really kind of feels like an aurora or something. It’s just very beautiful. It lingers in a way that creates its own harmonies. And it’s the miking that allows us to hear that.

MN: Indeed, the fineness of the sound and image capture here sets Opus apart from most concert films. Even if those films have good sound, they’re generally visually rough and ready. It’s the opposite of Jarman’s beautiful soundtrack, which sends you off in every which direction. Here, the stunning beauty and clarity of sound and image have a laser focus on his body and the sounds it’s producing. You feel like you have a mysterious access to the music in his mind. There’s that stunning moment where he stumbles and his fingers aren’t cooperating with his mind. It would have been powerful in any film, but I think it was really amplified by the fineness of sound and image.

SN: Yeah. Maybe what’s different about other concert films is that they have audiences, you know, and so you have to work to other priorities. You have to account for audiences so you don’t ruin their experience, and that can be quite detrimental to filming. We were lucky as filmmakers in that sense. I mean, obviously having audiences affords filmmakers other kinds of feelings, starting with the energy of the room. But without any audience members here, I think the camera can render the subjective experience of an audience member, at a concert, being pulled into the music.

MN: There’s an imagined audience.

SN: Exactly.

Translating it . . . whatever it is

MN: This is kind of like a translation of the idea of music in Sakamoto’s mind, through his body and received by an imagined audience. Actually, in your bio I noticed you are thinking about the relationship of translation and documentary.

SN: Yeah, I really am. I think translation is a pretty good metaphor for cinema. There is an active interpretation of one set of inputs or stimulants into another. There is a constructedness about it. Actually, I’m mainly a fiction filmmaker, so in approaching the filming of Opus I thought of it in those terms. Going in, we had strong ideas about each shot, a story-like structure. We had rough storyboards for how things should be. We practiced the camera movements with a stand-in to refine them. We were able to do multiple takes for every song. We didn’t mix them, but it gave us the luxury to take time to get things right. Most documentary filmmakers don’t have this luxury—there’s one chance to get it right, and sometimes it’s the flaws that make it feel all the more direct and real.

MN: Actually, this too is like translation. In the same way viewers of documentary think they are given privileged access to an historical moment in the real world, readers of translation think they’re getting access to the fictional world spun by the writer, or even the writer’s intentions. But there is all this mediation that usually goes unaccounted for, even suppressed. As a translator, your words are these material constructs. You are creating gains and losses and, ultimately, a new experience.

SN: Yeah, language and accessibility. I take the position that it’s just fundamentally true that you don’t have access.

MN: You have access to something new and creative.

SN: That’s right. Pedro Costa has a brilliant metaphor about this specific issue. He likes to think about filmmakers—or himself as a filmmaker—as a mailman who takes a letter and doesn’t read the letter before he delivers it to somebody else. That to me speaks to this idea of access, because you don’t have to be able to access what’s in the letter to be able to deliver what’s in the letter to somebody else.

MN: I don’t know. At one level that doesn’t work because there’s still the letter itself. It is what it is and the process of sending, delivering and receiving isn’t transformative. In film, as in translation, you’re producing a new text. You necessarily have to creatively process and interpret it, work on it.

SN: That’s true.

MN: Along the way, there are all sorts of things from the original that don’t make it and all sorts of new things that happen. And yet people think they’re encountering the original—whether it’s a written text or a documentary representation of our world’s image or sound.

SN: Exactly.

MN: Or the listener-viewer of Opus thinks they are accessing the music in the mind of Sakamoto Ryuichi. But postman Sora Neo stands in the middle, rewriting the letter!

SN: Here is where music might be different. In comparison to cinema, I wonder if it has a higher fidelity to the original emotion that someone felt while producing it. I think there’s something special about music and how directly this internal, mysterious thing that’s going on inside somebody can be brought out and communicated through these vibrations and sounds.

MN: Interesting. I know what you mean. But, you know, if you listen to the music in Opus, I’m sure there are all sorts of things going on in there—in Sakamoto’s letter—that go right past me. Whatever is going on in that mind is still massively mediated at every step. And on the receiving end, some of the people watching have read all of his lyrics and know all the songs and register how he’s tweaking them. Others are completely oblivious to all that.

SN: Totally. In the case of Opus you could extract the music from the context of the image, listen to it, and probably feel you were gaining some understanding of the emotion behind what he was playing. But then there’s his face.

MN: Yes, his face.

SN: You know, there’s one moment as he finishes playing “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” He plays the final chord and it cuts to his face, listening to the playing of the chord. There is something about the combination of those sounds and the very odd face that he’s making. I can’t describe what it is. It might be pain. Or like when you taste something delicious and you kind of have a pained expression. But then it almost looks like he’s in ecstasy. Actually, I think hearing those sounds with that face just gives you a lot of information about what he’s feeling and kind of transmits to you directly that feeling. I always look at that one shot and I’m like, this feels like it. This transfers. It communicates in such a direct way. Whatever that is that’s being communicated—I don’t know what it is.

That being said, our filmmaking mediates far more than people would ever realize. It’s highly constructed. I think the key point about this metaphor of translation as cinema is that, ultimately, if you’re looking closely you actually realize you don’t have access to his mind. No matter how hard we try to show you—or how hard the translator tries to be faithful to the original text—if you can’t read the original text, you just don’t have access to it. You only have access to it in a mediated way. What tickles me whenever I see the film is, oh, you feel like you feel the emotions he’s feeling! Well, you’re under the illusion that you do. But actually, when you see his face and his emotions with its changing expressions, you realize it’s a completely inaccessible world that’s only his. There’s actually a lot of mystery in those expressions. Like, what on earth is he feeling? And that’s something that kept me glued to the screen more than anything else. But that’s also, I think, what’s interesting about films in general. You just ultimately don’t have access to what you’re curious about, or what you desire.

MN: Here it is ultimately the music and this leads me to one last question. I have to ask about the ending, because I find it so powerful. Was this using the Yamaha Disklavier?

SN: I don’t know the exact name of the technology, but basically the other way they were recording the performance was through MIDI. It’s a Yamaha grand piano, but he also had this MIDI device which was capturing the force and speed of his touch, the degree of hammer movement, pedal work, everything. It’s remarkably sensitive.

MN: So the film is this amazing record of his performance, but that performance was captured in an even more intensely technological, direct or “pure” way.

SN: It’s intensely technological. Theoretically, they could set the same mics in the same places around that piano, start the MIDI and make an identical recording.

MN: It’s a little freaky.

SN: It is very freaky. And that ending was unexpected, because we didn’t realize that they were making a second recording of the performance in that way. When we arrived on set, they were tuning the MIDI device, and it is a really ghostly thing to see, let me tell you, the keys playing themselves! We immediately thought, “We need to shoot this.” So it was a very unplanned, spur of the moment decision.

MN: It’s the perfect ending. Yeah. My God, I was in tears.

SN: (laughs) Good, good!

Compiled by Markus Nornes

Photography: Oyama Ayaka / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2023-10-06

Markus Nones
Professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan. His publications include The Japanese Documentary Film: The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima (University of Minnesota Press [UMP], 2003), Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary (UMP, 2006), Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema (UMP, 2007), and Brushed in Light (University of Michigan Press, 2021). His films include The Big House (2018, co-directed with Soda Kazuhiro, et al.).