Late Oscar-winning Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto was celebrated at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday with the Out Of Competition premiere of concert film Opus.
The moving black-and-white work captures Sakamoto delivering his final performance in the months leading up to his death in March after a seven-year battle with cancer.
Alone with his piano on stage, he performs twenty of his compositions, spanning the music of his pop-star Yellow Magic Orchestra period to his first film score for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; his Oscar-winning music for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and his final album, 12.
Sakamoto’s filmmaker and artist son Neo Sora, who directed the film, was in Venice to present the work.
“I think he would have really loved that the film plays in Venice. He came to Venice six years ago with for CODA (Ryuichi Sakamoto CODA) so it would have been a full circle for him as well,” he told the press conference for the film.
Sora said Sakamoto had a complex relationship with cinema throughout his life.
“Ever since he was a little child, he would always watch cinema. In fact, I believe one of the earliest memories he has of music is Fellini’s score of something. I don’t know exactly which one but he talks about that,” he said.
“So I think cinema has always been with him. And then of course, his kind of breakout was with Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and ever since he’s worked on various films including Bertolucci’s films… it was always with him, and he watched a lot of movies. He’s always inspired by movies. In fact, his second to last album, he called it a soundtrack to a non-existent Tarkovsky film.”
Sora revealed that the Sakamoto had had a complex relationship with the piano across his career, when explaining the decision to focus on him playing on the instrument in the film.
“The piano happened to be the instrument that Sakamoto had the longest relationship with… in past interviews he has talked about the fact that it could have been any other one it just happened to be the piano,” he said.
“The piano represents kind of his partner that he’s lived with for his entire life. But at the same time, he was also very critical and understood the limitations of what the piano represented as an instrument with a 12-tone system, an instrument that is based on a Western musical system, which I think led him in his life to try to explore other forms of music, like electronic music and non-Western music.”
“But ultimately in the end, he always comes back to the piano, because he’s so familiar with it. And so, it’s kind of an interesting relationship that he has with this object that is filled with all the contradictions that he felt in his own life.”
The production shot over 12 days at the end of 2022 in NHK Broadcast Center’s 509 Studio in Tokyo, with a crew of nearly 30 people headed by U.S. cinematographer Bill Kirstein, who shot the film using three 4K cameras.
Nora and Kirstein meticulously prepared the shoot on the basis of the track list provided by Sakamoto well in advance, even storyboarding many of the tracks.
“We had Sakamoto play every single song on his home piano, which we recorded on an iPhone. So we can see in what kind of instances in the music he would make certain movements like kind of bend over, or in what places in the music to become more emotional,” explained Sora.
“Based on those compositions and the iPhone material we shot, we were composing each track in a kind of a contained way. The thing that we focused… was really long takes so that we can see an unfolding of his performance, as if we’re there live. We had three cameras to capture the necessary angles, but every single kind of musical take is not edited in any way. Really. It’s just there.”