The saying goes that in a good film, the score goes unnoticed. As Raul Julia quoted this line when presenting the Best Original Score Oscar at the 1993 Academy Awards, he added, “I’m sure it wasn’t the composer who said it.” There’s no way of knowing if Ryuichi Sakamoto ever wanted to go unnoticed, and it’s impossible to believe that he ever does. But when interviewed, he does say that he’s “fascinated by the notion of a perpetual sound,” working to create not just a melody, but a mood and even a way of thinking with his compositions.
Breaking out in the late ’70s with a solo career as well as being part of the Yellow Magic Orchestra at the same time, Sakamoto’s debut solo album Thousand Knives in 1978 already showed him as experimental with electronic sounds, pushing instrumental music forward and eventually using his innovations in his film and television work. Among his many accomplishments, which also include the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and, in 1999, achieving the first instrumental number-one single in Japan’s Oricon charts history with “Energy Flow,” his cinematic scores have shown an impressive versatility in which he services the story and style of a wide variety of films.
Criterion has put together a very eclectic list of films that Sakamoto worked on. Although they skip his Oscar winning music for The Last Emperor, the collection still covers the many genres he was assigned to as well as the international assortment of films that bear his contribution, from Spain to Iran to Hollywood and back again. It ends (perfectly) with the documentary about him released in 2017, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. Rewatching these films, I kept reminding myself to pay particular attention to the composer’s work but, true to his ability to support the images that require his adding the third dimension that music gives to a flat screen, I kept forgetting to do so. Perhaps that’s the proof of his talent after all.
Here are the films in The Criterion Channel’s Ryuichi Sakamoto collection in chronological order:
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Ôshima, 1983)
The first film in which Ryuichi Sakamoto both acts and provides the musical score, doing both with memorable, star-making panache. He plays the sadistic commanding officer of a World War II-era POW camp who sticks to very rigid beliefs of discipline and honour but has his ethos challenged by his near-erotic fixation on the angelic blond beauty of British prisoner David Bowie. Tom Conti plays the officer based loosely on the book’s author, Laurens van der Post, whose ability to speak Japanese prompts him to try and create a bridge between cultures. Future action movie director Takeshi Kitano plays the prison sergeant who is happy to subvert commands to suit his own love of punishment. The script falls apart in the last third but it features some unforgettable imagery that is brought to vivid neon ’80s-style life by Sakamoto’s electronic score.
The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990)
Ryuichi Sakamoto received critical awards for his sweeping, dramatic score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s deeply flawed adaptation of Paul Bowles’ novel. The Sheltering Sky a reunion between the two since Sakamoto’s Oscar-winning work on The Last Emperor three years earlier. John Malkovich and Debra Winger are miscast as a couple traveling through North Africa in an effort to strengthen their marriage, but they soon find that the unnerving mystery of the desert makes it all feel meaningless. It features some of the most beautiful cinematography that Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ever put on the canvas, and Sakamoto’s music really does create images of sand dunes in your mind, but it’s a dog of a film to sit through. For fans of the book, it will be a grave disappointment. The film is the very best example of both Bertolucci’s exquisite skill with framing and his complete lack of ability to find the dramatic centre of any given situation.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)
The first attempt by showbiz to bring Margaret Atwood’s hilariously unsubtle feminist allegory to the screen was not nearly as successful as its current iteration on television. In a futuristic world where religious tyranny has taken over and women are enslaved to laws that require them to serve men, Natasha Richardson commits the illegal act of trying to leave the country and, in doing so, is put into the service of a commander (Robert Duvall) who gets to take advantage of her rare fertility and force her to produce children. Of course, the concept is fascinating and thought provoking, but Schlöndorff’s visuals are dull and Harold Pinter’s screenplay is as cold as most of his film work. Ryuichi Sakamoto provides a score that relies on his usual quality of adding haunting ambience that is perfectly in line with the dramatic concern of the narrative.
High Heels (Pedro Almodóvar, 1991)
Now an established and internationally acclaimed filmmaker after the success of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar struggled to find the right composer for his films and later declared himself disappointed with his collaborations with Ennio Morricone (on Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and Sakamoto on this one. (His next film, Kika, would rely solely on soundtrack elements, then he met Alberto Iglesias and established a romance that has yet to end.) High Heels is the tale of an estranged mother (Marisa Paredes) and daughter (Victoria Abril) who are brought back together after the elder has spent years working in Mexico. Sakamoto amply underscores the great director’s melodramatic excesses, although the inclusion of Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain” is the most memorable sound you hear. Autumn Sonata is put through Almodóvar’s delightful soap opera blender but the elements don’t all add up, between their dysfunctional relationship, a subplot about a dead stepfather, and the involvement of a concerned police officer (Miguel Bosé), you have Almodóvar throwing as many aspects of Bergmanesque film noir in the air and not quite smoothing them out as well as he would later in Bad Education or Volver.
Gohatto (Nagisa Ôshima, 1999)
The great Nagisa Ôshima made one film after his stroke in the mid-90s and it turned out to be his last. Gohatto is a moody, grim tale of a samurai unit whose warriors are all thrown into a tizzy with Billy Budd-esque obsession over a new recruit, Sozaburo Kano (Ryûhei Matsuda). Delicate and beautiful in appearance but ruthless as a warrior, Kano takes a steady lover but makes other liaisons while taking part in his unit’s conflicts with other samurai schools. In truth, the ins and outs of the conflict between clashing groups of fighters is confusing to follow, and the plotting gets a little muddy in the middle, but Ôshima’s established fixation with finding the erotic element of all human concerns is potent, and his investigating the homoerotic tension present in the history of samurai culture makes for an intoxicating atmosphere that Sakamoto’s haunting music really helps make your head swim.
Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
The title character is a graphic artist who grew up socially awkward but talented at his craft, then as an adult falls in love with a woman who turns out to be addicted to shopping for haute couture. Tony’s attempt to keep his wife while asking her to tone down the runaway spending has devastating consequences for their relationship and lives. Unlike Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which, like this film, is also based on a story by Haruki Murakami, it doesn’t lead to any kind of interesting introspection on the part of the main character and his ideas of women’s role in a society dominated by male egos. It’s played as straightforward romantic drama by Ichikawa’s unfettered direction, which is reflected in Sakamoto’s equally unironic, lush piano score. Perhaps its simplicity evokes something more profound for the film’s fans, but I found it bland and unmemorable.
Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari, 2009)
The feature film debut by photographer Shirin Neshat is a lush, absorbing drama whose political, feminist message is as much a part of its haunting atmosphere as are the sympathetic characterizations. The focus is on four women in Iran during the 1953 coup d’état: a young woman obsessed with learning about current events whose brother wants her to stop listening to the radio and prepare to meet a suitor, her neighbour who witnesses her friend’s extreme act of escape, a woman who runs away from a brothel after a psychic break, and a military wife who walks away from a prominent and responsibility-laden life and buys a remote country property with a giant orchard. It is in that mystical and lush natural place that all four characters eventually find themselves. The orchard provides an escape from the realities of their patriarchal society whose strictures will only grow more severe with the revolution to follow in the years to come (which, coincidentally, inspired Margaret Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale). Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score isn’t ever-present in the film–it’s part of the moments in the orchard that are part of the film’s bold embrace of magic realism, which, thanks to the intelligence and depth with which Neshat and co-director Shoja Azari tell the story, is always deeply moving and never feels like a pretentious lecture.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017)
This documentary is as delicate and elegant as the man and his work, covering the years since his throat cancer diagnosis in 2014 caused him to stop working for the first time since he was in his twenties. Now in his sixties, Sakamoto does his best to recuperate but soon finds he can’t avoid doing what he loves best: exploring the world around him through sound and responding to his personal concerns about environmental or nuclear issues through music. As he slowly ramps himself back up to being busy again, notably working on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which he says he just couldn’t say no to despite not being fully recovered, Schible’s camera captures Sakamoto in his concentrated study while then providing flashes back to the key works in his career as composer and performer. It avoids any other talking head interviews or the need to put Sakamoto in some kind of historical context (as far as this film is concerned, he might as well exist now, or a century ago, or any time in between). The perfect way to cap off the experience of watching this series.