Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus Review | The Final Notes Live On

by Andrew Parker

Mesmerizing and soulful, Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is a heartfelt final testament to one of the greatest composers and instrumentalists of all time. Filmed not long before his passing in March of 2023, Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus captures the maestro’s last performance for an audience of any sort. Due to the advanced nature of his cancer, doing a final tour or send off show in front of a large audience was pretty much out of the question, so with the assistance of his son, director Neo Sora, his final filmed performance simply showcases Sakamoto alone with his piano.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is an atypical concert film, but certainly nothing as slight as to call it a filmed recital. There’s no visible audience or hullabaloo around this late 2022 performance, and the only things filling the space are the musician, his instrument, the cameras, and some stray bits of lighting. Sora shoots everything in gorgeous looking black and white, which sets a perfect tone for a set that’s introspective, intimate, bittersweet, and sometimes noticeably nostalgic. There’s no context for anything that happens, which could be a deal breaker for those unfamiliar with Sakamoto’s decades of output, but there are other films and references out there to fill in those gaps which are just as worthy of being sought out. Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is just about a man and his music; nothing more is needed and the film is none the lesser for it.

Sakamoto might be best known to film buffs as the person behind the scores for such films as The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and The Revenant, and while the composer does bring out some of those well known pieces, the twenty tracks on display here pull from all eras of his career. Sora usually stays in pretty close on his father, observing his hands moving across the keys, watching Ryuichi’s ever changing expressions, and generally conveying the musician’s connection to their music in a wordless, but no less emotional fashion. At points during Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus, viewers might want to close their eyes and allow the music to take them away, which is counterintuitive for a visual medium like cinema, but those who don’t turn away will be able to see in great detail how a master works, and in a way that simply attending a concert could never achieve.

Without any further context, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly how much pain or discomfort Sakamoto is feeling in the moment, but there are some clues. Not every piece is played with note perfect perfection, and it’s clear when Sakamoto gets frustrated or flustered, even though he keeps moving forward without missing a beat. At points, his facial expressions convey a sense of curiousness and discovery, like Sakamoto is realizing things about his own works that he never noticed before. He shows flashes of joy and sadness, but these emotions are never outsized enough to overshadow the music. It’s stripped down and slightly stoic, but also observant without coming across as obtrusive or exploitive.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus appeals primarily to fans of the artist, their music, and probably a lot of the films they worked on over the decades, but it’s also a wonderful performance piece and portrait of a person fighting against physical and mental decline. It’s a work of love on the part of the filmmaker and their closely related subject; something that can be shared in and admired by those participating in the making of the film and everyone in the audience. Few artists get a send off on their own terms, but Sakamoto has crafted a wonderful final note to be remembered by.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus opens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Vancouver at Vancity, Montreal at Cinematheque Quebecoise, and in additional Canadian cities starting on Friday, March 29, 2024.

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