Ryuichi Sakamoto Opus: an interview with director Neo Sora

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Before he died, knowing that the end was coming, Ryuichi Sakamoto planned one last performance. The film — which features a career-spanning selection from his oeuvre of pop music, movie scores, and experimental and ambient compositions — rearranges many songs for solo piano; a showcase of the strength and mutability of Sakamoto’s work. In a press statement, Sakamoto said the set list was locked much further ahead than he usually planned. He explained: “The director, Neo Sora, was quite strict.”

It’s a bit of a joke. Neo Sora is Sakamoto’s 33-year-old son, and the person the composer asked to shoot his last concert. Well, technically, it was Norika, Sakamoto’s long-time manager, who made the request. (Norika is also Sora’s mother.)

The timing wasn’t great. Sora was in the middle of pre-production on his own debut feature. But family came first. Sakamoto had been fighting rectal cancer for several years, and his health was declining.

“‘Listen, if we miss this window of shooting, I feel like we might not be able to do it again,’” Sora recalled his mother saying. “‘So can you please do it?’”

He agreed, put his own film on hold, and a few months later, got started on what would eventually be Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus, the lasting impression of one of the world’s most influential and celebrated musicians.

Director Neo Sora.
Image: Aiko Masubuchi

You might expect a career-spanning concert film to look something like, say, the maximalist commercial spectacle of Taylor Swift, or to take notes from the Talking Heads’ mischievous Stop Making Sense, rereleased in theaters by A24 late last year. But the inspirations for Opus were more humble. Sora watched a performance of virtuosic pianist Glenn Gould and conductor Leonard Bernstein from the ‘60s titled The Creative Performer, as well as the dramatized Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. What he learned was that by simplifying the visual language of the cinematography, it would force the viewer to pay closer attention to the music. With that, Sora began storyboarding and forced Sakamoto to commit to a set list further ahead than he would’ve liked.

Was it difficult working with his father? Sora described their relationship on set as professional: Sakamoto didn’t give notes on the filmmaking, and Sora did not weigh in on the performance. “I think I’d take him not saying anything to me regarding the filming process as a representation of his trust,” he said.

Shot in just over a week in September 2022, Opus is a spare and intimate film. In stark black and white, the concert is just a man performing behind a grand piano. Off camera, though, there was a crew of over thirty people, inside the famous NHK Broadcasting Center’s 509 Studio in Tokyo, trying to be as quiet as possible.

The location, as with many decisions for the film, was Sakamoto’s choice. He believed the studio had “the finest acoustics in Japan.” But it also presented specific challenges. The old wood floors were creaky, meaning the entire crew — a mix of Japanese and English speakers — had to wear socks and no shoes. Because the studio was in a broadcast tower, no radio-wave-emitting equipment was allowed, meaning everything had to be physically connected. (“There needed to be a lot of wire wranglers,” and more people meant more people making noise.)

And then there were Sakamoto’s own physical limits. He could only do a handful of takes a day. Sora recalled, “There were just certain songs that he just couldn’t really play that well anymore. His fingers just weren’t as dextrous, and I think part of it was the side effects of the medication that he was taking, that it was affecting the extremities.” Sakamoto was putting Vaseline on his fingers to help with the pain.

In the same statement, written after shooting, Sakamoto detailed how difficult the performance was on his body. “I felt utterly hollow afterward, and my condition worsened for about a month,” he wrote. “Even so, I feel relieved that I was able to record, before my death, a performance that I was satisfied with.” He died in March 2023.

Sakamoto performing at NHK Broadcasting Center’s 509 Studio.
Image: Kab Inc.

I met Sora in New York ahead of the movie’s theatrical release and nearly a year since Sakamoto’s passing. He was finishing up his first, still-untitled feature film, the one he’d briefly put on hold to make Opus. Sora told me that it is about two friends who drift apart as one becomes politically conscious and the other remains willfully ignorant. He’s been working on it for the better part of a decade and hopes to submit it to festivals this year.

“I didn’t want Opus to come out first, but those things you can’t really help or control too much,” Sora said. “I’ve always just wanted people to know me just for something I do separately from my father.”

Despite being the director of Opus, Sora is reluctant to claim authorship over it. “I was trying to be a conduit for whatever he wanted to do, and I think what he wanted to do was a concert,” Sora said.

Though many of the choices — the concept, location, pieces — may have been Sakamoto’s, it’s hard to ignore Sora’s subtle hand throughout Opus. For what was always intended to be the final performance from an extraordinary artist, the film doesn’t feel like a somber affair. Even as Sakamoto struggles to finish certain pieces, his fingers not what they once were, the energy draining from his ailing body, there is a sense of triumph each time a song reaches its final note. So much is conveyed by the silence that comes after — the relief of execution, a glimpse of ecstasy.

That is, perhaps, the magic of what Neo Sora has made: a concert film that is just a performance, and also more than that.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is in theaters now and will eventually stream on the Criterion Channel.

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