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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus U

Neo Sora, Japan, 2023, 103m.

On March 28th, 2023, legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away after his struggle against cancer. In the years leading up to his death, Sakamoto could no longer perform live. Single concerts, not to mention sprawling global tours, were too taxing. Despite this, in late 2022, Sakamoto mustered all his energy to leave the world with one final performance: a concert film featuring just him and his piano.

Curated by Sakamoto himself and presented in his chosen order, the twenty pieces performed in the film wordlessly narrate his life through his music. The selection spans his entire career, from his popstar Yellow Magic Orchestra period to his magnificent Bertolucci film scores to music from his meditative final album, 12.

Intimately filmed in a space he knew well, surrounded by his most trusted collaborators and directed by his son, Sakamoto bares his soul through his music, knowing this may be the last time he can present his art.

The Garden Cinema View:

Formally similar to Robbie Ryan’s film of Nick Cave’s lone Alexandra Palace concert, Idiot Prayer, and capturing the same sense of artistic expression in the face of imminent mortality as David Bowie’s Blackstar, Opus is a deeply moving act of self-eulogisation. The staging is so pared down as to be quasi-experimental. Sakamoto performs twenty pieces on solo piano in an empty recording studio. Recording apparatus is visible (mics, lights), there is no narration or dialogue barring a few incidental remarks, and the camera moves slowly, picking out Sakamoto’s slender fingers, white hair, and tortoiseshell spectacles in stark monochrome. Sakamoto’s playing is at times effortless, but he occasionally appears to struggle with a passage. As he plays these pieces, perhaps for the last time, his interest is in getting them right, rather than providing a flawless performance.

Whilst the air of finality is palpable, what any given viewer receives from Opus is hard to gauge. The emotions (and even boredom) one might feel watching this will depend on your relationship with the music, with the film-memories much of it evokes, and perhaps the elegant figure of the late composer himself, playing himself off, performing for and recorded by his son, the director Neo Sora.

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