Stephen Nomura Schible Turns his eye on Sakamoto in new Documentary

The Exclusive Interview with Stephen Nomura Schible, director of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, A Cinematic Portrait of the Oscar-winning sustainable composer

The music score of films not only sets the mood and pace for the narration, but also provides the oneiric touch that draws audiences to empathize with the characters and circumstances depicted. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, has an exceptional gift in doing so, as his remarkable career attests. He is one of the most important artists of our era, who has worked for over four decades, spanning from techno-pop stardom to winning the Academy Award for the Best Original Score of The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1987.

The evolution of his music has coincided with his life journeys and the Fukushima disaster has made Ryuichi Sakamoto the icon of Japan’s social movement against nuclear power. Filmmaker Stephen Nomura Schible captures the maestro through the captivating documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. This intimate portrait, of both the artist and the man, shares with the public the extraordinary human that has scored so many inspiring motion pictures that include Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha and The Revenant.

Stephen Nomura Schible, who grew-up in Tokyo and studied film at NYU, was always inspired by maestro Sakamoto’s music. Thus, after working on films such as Eureka, Firefly, H-Story, Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, Eric Clapton: Sessions for Robert J, he decided to make his first feature movie about Ryuichi Sakamoto.

In this exclusive interview he reveals the experience of capturing on film the maestro at work and during his daily routine:


What fascinates you of Mr. Sakamoto’s life and music that triggered you to make this documentary?

There are so many things that fascinate me about his life and music but I think the main trigger for me was the relationship between his deep understanding of technology and his haunting awareness of looming crises. He became increasingly concerned about  environmental and humanitarian issues from around the mid-nineties, and his work started to consistently reflect upon this awareness. That, combined with his response to what happened in Fukushima (which is perhaps the worst instance of technology error known to date), made me think that there is perhaps a very resonant story to be told — a kind of meditation on the beauty that technology can bring through art, in relation to the perils that we face today as a species.

How did you first meet him, and what was your impression of him?   

I met him the day we began shooting, in the summer of 2012. Mr. Sakamoto was rehearsing for an anti-nuclear music festival he was hosting in Tokyo, called No Nukes. We started filming the first day of rehearsals. My first impression of him was that he is very soft spoken and kind.  I also saw that he was able to do so many things simultaneously. He’s a true multitasker. He was hosting a big two-day festival, and rehearsing to perform with multiple acts on stage himself. Simultaneously he was beginning to take part in public protests against the restarting of nuclear plants, influencing public opinion. He literally worked around the clock, playing music and also working to support environmental causes he believed in.


How long did the production take and what are your fondest memories?

The film took a little over 5 years to make. My fondest memories are of being able to spend time with Mr. Sakamoto as he was sketching out melodies for what ultimately became his latest album “async.” We pretty much spent an entire summer interviewing him every weekend in a small room at his house that had a baby grand piano in it. The intent was to have him reflect upon his life journeys as he was composing new music.  Sometimes he would suddenly stop talking, play out new melodies as they came to him. It was quite magical.


What music do you like and if you had to associate a musical piece to Mr. Sakamoto what would it be?

I like to be broad with my own musical tastes.  I was actually influenced by Mr. Sakamoto during my formative years as I grew up in Tokyo.  He was always so broad in terms of his perspective and musical resources—pulling from different musical traditions of the world while fusing them with the latest technological developments, particularly during the eighties and early nineties.  So I always tried to find things that appealed to me from different cultures and genres myself. In terms of associating a musical piece to Mr. Sakamoto, that’s a tough one! I really cannot think of anything other than his own beautiful body of work as a proper association.  There’s so much to explore.

During the shooting of the film, you discovered about Mr. Sakamoto’s throat cancer, how did this affect the filmmaking process of the documentary?

It really derailed our process, though it also turned it into something very unique in the end.  We initially had a 3-year process in mind. We started observing Mr. Sakamoto in the immediate aftermath of the triple disaster that struck Japan — the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.  We wanted to continue filming until he created new original music, to see how his more recent experiences would manifest through his art. Right as he started to compose new music he became ill. So we had to wait for some time without knowing if he would survive. This happened about 3 months after we visited the restricted contamination zone together in Fukushima, which is in the film.  


It was very difficult.  As we resumed filming we devised ways together with his family to shoot while keeping things as minimal as possible in terms of his stress level.  Around then his son, Neo Sora, graduated from college. He studied film in college and turned out to be an amazing filmmaker. Initially we filmed together, just the two of us with Mr. Sakamoto at his home. Then we asked Neo to shoot footage of his father on his own for us. We also set up more formal shoots about once a week to conduct interviews with Mr. Sakamoto with a fuller crew — in the room with the baby grand piano. We improvised the best way possible together under the circumstances — Mr. Sakamoto, us filmmakers, and his family. We came together as one team to make the best of the circumstances. I think the results we achieved are very unique, with a kind of intimacy that is rare. After all Mr. Sakamoto and his family are all true cinephiles with exquisite taste, so for the film it was a gift to be able to collaborate with them in this way — although of course the trying circumstances surrounding his illness were very difficult on a personal level.


What are your thoughts about the healing power of music?

Early in the film there is a scene where Mr. Sakamoto performs during a charity concert in the disaster zone, a city called Rikuzentakata, which was hit particularly hard by the tsunami.  Approximately 10% of the city’s population perished due to the disaster. It was an unusual circumstance for a performance. Mr. Sakamoto performed with his concert trio at a former evacuation site where most members of the community spent many difficult months when they struggled to survive and cope. Members of the audience told me after the performance that they were able to fall asleep, that they slept deeply for the first time since their lives were turned upside down by the disaster.  They were able to feel at peace despite their severe trauma. I find it interesting that music is expressed as “ongaku” (音楽)in Japanese.  Literally the first character represents sound, the second character means ease, or comfort.  

Do you think the way Mr. Sakamoto gets inspired by the sounds of nature can be connected with the concept of Fusui?

Fusui, or fengshui, is Chinese in origin perhaps, though the concept of living in harmony with nature is a core value in traditional Japanese culture. I think in this sense you can say that Mr. Sakamoto is exploring his cultural roots very deeply. He is also very aware that our modern way of living is out of tune with nature — that we destroy the very balance of nature that sustains us as a species through our exploitation of technology. I think this haunting awareness also informed his thinking about sound as well.


Both you and Mr. Sakamoto have the environment at heart but need to use technology for your work, so how do you find a balance between natural and industrial science?

In order to live and work, I must use technology and consume things — inevitably there is some harm even though I try to be careful. I try to find balance by working as efficiently as I can, and by trying to only work on things that have true meaning for me. It is my hope that the arts have a role in bringing people towards an awareness of truth, and that the truth ultimately helps to bring balance in a more collective way. Environmental problems are rooted in our cultural values. They are caused by the way in which we perceive and interact with our world — the way we cultivate things, the way we engage in commerce.   My job as a filmmaker is to observe and to share a sense of perception with an audience. It is a very challenging line of work actually. Though one reason I pursue my work is because I believe that there is a need to somehow upgrade our sensibilities if we are to survive as a species for much longer. We are desperately in need of some kind of recalibration of our awareness and sensibilities. I don’t want to naively suggest that creating films can achieve such a task. After all, we are so terrible at self-regulation as a species. Our track record is abysmal. Perhaps we’re in need of many generations of evolution still, and that’s if we even have enough time left. Yet I want to try to share what I care about deeply, and hope that I can somehow contribute to the process of gaining a more calibrated awareness communally.  


As someone who was raised and lives between Japan and the US what are the differences, in your opinion, in the way these two cultures perceive and confront climate change? 

At a macro level I’m afraid that there is a lot of common ground, in that both cultures are failing to truly confront climate change. There is a lot of denial, and a lack of practical incentives to encourage significant behavior modifications (like a carbon tax). In this sense both cultures are very similar in that they are quite dysfunctional right now. I think both countries have unique potential should there be adequate leadership. Traditionally Japan values efficiency and smallness as well as living in harmony with nature. Japanese technology often gained the competitive edge by making products smaller, more efficient, more smart, better. The traditional Japanese aesthetic is rooted in a unique culture that once valued a minimal way of living harmoniously with nature. The US has a strong culture of entrepreneurship. There is more encouragement for out-of-the-box thinking and leadership values which are necessary in a crisis situation. Despite recent political shifts the US remains a beacon of hope, a place of openness where the experiment of the social melting pot still has the greatest chance to succeed in my opinion.  Yet democracy is failing severely in many respects….

During the production of ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda’, you captured the performance of Sakamoto’s new opus “async,” and your intimate concert film ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: async Live at the Park Avenue Armory’ was presented at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. Do you have any other upcoming projects with Mr. Sakamoto?

Not at the moment.  Though it has been such an inspiring experience for me to be able to work with him for such a long time.  I truly hope there will be more chances again soon.