Resonances: The personal story behind Ryuichi Sakamoto:Opus

Words by: Imagery courtesy of Kab Inc

“When I was two or three years old, my father sat me down in front of the TV at home and forced me to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Neo Sora animatedly explains, recalling the family anecdote that has proved pivotal to his creative journey. “I yelled and screamed because I clearly didn’t want to. I’m sure that traumatised me to some degree because I make films now.”

The artist, filmmaker and translator is recalling his colourful childhood immersed in cinema. Speaking from New York, he bursts out laughing as he tells the story – a shift in his otherwise thoughtful, but slightly reserved, demeanour. Wearing a sharply tailored black shirt, wire-rimmed glasses and his hair cropped short, Sora has been busy of late. He’s currently in the U.S. for three weeks (away from his main base of Tokyo) working on the post-production of his as-yet-untitled feature film, a coming-of-age story set in a futuristic Japan. In the past few years, he’s also released the short film The Chicken, was a fellow at the 2022 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, and currently sits as part of the team behind Zakkubalan, an independent film collective spread between Tokyo and New York.

But it’s his forthcoming documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus, which showcases Sora’s talents most vividly. A deeply intimate, minimalistic and moving piece of filmmaking, Opus depicts the final piano concert by Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of Japan’s most famous and celebrated composers, who passed away in March 2023. Sakamoto made indelible contributions to cinema through his film score work on movies such as The Revenant, The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and was also an electronic music pioneer as part of Yellow Magic Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1978. But Sora’s connection to Opus is more than just professional: Sakamoto was his father.


Tender, delicate and exquisitely shot, Opus was one of Sora’s most complex visual projects and is, at times, difficult to watch. Its opening 20 minutes, featuring some of Sakamoto’s most melancholy compositions, feel shaped by an awareness of mortality, given that Sakamoto passed away not long after filming. Shot in stark black and white – perfectly capturing the contrast of the piano’s keys, as well as Sakamoto’s choice of black attire against his trademark silver hair – the film maintains a constant proximity to the piano and highlights both the labour required to play it for a man in ailing health, as well as the joy it clearly brings him.

Despite Sora’s critical role in the making of the film, he’s reluctant to claim it as his own. “Obviously, I took the helm of the project as the director. But to be honest, I don’t see myself as the auteur or the artistic voice behind the project, because I think the main artistic voice is Sakamoto himself.” He describes his involvement as that of a creative conduit for his parents, both of whom were conscious of the project’s urgency as Sakamoto’s health diminished. “I owe my whole life to my parents, and both of them asked me to do it. And I have a very good relationship with them.”

This was not the first time Sora had been involved in filming his father (who he mostly refers to as “Sakamoto” throughout our conversation). He also contributed some of the cinematography on Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Stephen Nomura Schible’s flawless 2017 documentary, which focused on Sakamoto’s return to composition, and showcased his infinitely curious, generous and gentle spirit in the wake of the cancer diagnosis which ultimately proved fatal. If Opus serves as a companion piece to Coda, it’s one exhibiting a much tighter and simpler focus: the movement of hands over piano keys, the meticulous placement of objects in a room, and the emotional resonance of all these choices in transmitting Sakamoto’s life’s work. 


When asked what it was like working on the film, particularly at such a critical juncture in his father’s life, Sora is hesitant to engage. “I understand the impetus behind people asking those questions because I do think it is a fairly dramatic setup for the film, right? A son films his father’s final performance before he died, and now he’s dead,” he says. “I get it – it’s very melodramatic in a way.” He politely makes it clear that he prefers to talk about the more practical aspects of the project, but is also aware of the contradictions of having to promote a film he doesn’t see as his. “I ended up having to take this role of representative to some degree, and that’s actually something that I prefer not to do if possible. But I also want people to see the film, so I do feel a responsibility towards the film as the director.”

Sora was primarily focused on the compositional aspects of production, something he puts down to a quirk of his personality: always thinking about how something will look through a camera lens. “I think a lot of filmmakers end up having this third-person perspective inside of their minds,” he says with another laugh. “I’m having these experiences, but then there’s always a kind of eagle’s eye – it’s like watching myself having those experiences.” Shooting took place over nine days, a schedule that was partly designed to be as manageable as possible for Sakamoto. “The crew and I would come in for the first half of the day, set up, and then Sakamoto would come in and practise a couple of songs. Then we’d start shooting. We would shoot between two to five songs per day.” 

From the outset, the aim of Opus was to create a real concert-like experience. Filmed in the cavernous interior of Tokyo’s NHK 509 studio – chosen specifically by Sakamoto for its superb acoustics – the focus was on how to maximise the minimal setup the team created. “We could really be creative with the three cameras that we had, and move in cinematic ways. All the movement was intended to express what it could be like to have a subjective experience at a concert.”

“I was very aware of the fact that I have intimacy with my own father. It’s a privilege that I thought could be very useful for the film” – Neo Sora

At times, this entailed close proximity to Sakamoto, with the camera hovering over his shoulder or close to his face or hands, zooming in on the contours of his knuckles or the creases around his mouth as he concentrated. “I was very aware of the fact that I have intimacy with my own father. It’s a privilege that I thought could be very useful for the film,” expresses Sora, warmly. In one scene, Sakamoto is heard saying, “I need a break. This is tough. I’m pushing myself,” which is practically the only dialogue in the 100-minute film. In this instance, part of Sora’s role as not only a director but as a son was to ensure Sakamoto’s wellbeing. “Because of his health, I was very careful about how much effort he was putting in. There were definitely moments where I thought that perhaps we could have done the camera work a little bit better,” he admits, pondering whether at times the process was too intrusive and intense for Sakamoto. 

Sora also had to consider how to shoot the piano itself. In the opening scene of Coda, Sakamoto is seen looking at a piano that survived the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which subsequently caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. He tends to it almost as though it is a wounded animal, revealing his deep love and appreciation for the instrument. In Opus, on the other hand, more attention is given to the physical effort required to play it. “Inevitably, the piano ends up being a character of sorts,” explains Sora. “One of the reasons we wanted to shoot in black and white is because I was really focused on capturing the physicality of the performance, because the film is about his ailing body as well.”


This concern with the impermanence of the human body is mirrored in the film’s direct acknowledgement of the passage of time. In keeping with the minimalist aesthetic, this is primarily communicated through a masterful use of lighting, shadow and tone, which captures the changing light cycle of a day, and explores how we are physically affected by the natural world. “I also really wanted to express the idea that the concert spanned one single day,” says Sora of the subtle shifts in the colour palette. “When you watch the film, you’ll see that the lighting starts really dark and then, at a certain point, gradually starts to brighten up. Suddenly, it’s morning.” 

Opus isn’t only a document of Sakamoto’s last concert but also a showcase of his enduring commitment to composition, so I ask Sora how he thinks Sakamoto might have wanted to be remembered. “I don’t know if he’d be too interested in legacy.” He then takes a short pause, considering the weight of his words. “For him, music was just something he did.” Sora explains that his father, instead, was truly just dedicated to the immersive process of creativity, always in the pursuit of fulfilling his endless curiosities and lust for life. “Even if you left him on a desert island without an audience or instruments,” he smiles, “I’m sure he would have still been thinking about exploring sounds.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is out now via Modern Films

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