‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus’ Review: An Exquisite and Stirring Farewell From a Renowned Composer

To call Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus a concert film would be correct and also drastically inadequate. What unfolds onscreen is no mere performance, no mere gesture, but a face-to-face between presence and absence. Beginning its theatrical run just before the one-year anniversary of Sakamoto’s death from cancer, at 71, the handsome film is a testament to the artistic spirit and, above all, an act of love — by the performer, who was facing mortality and thinking of legacy, and by the director, Neo Sora, who is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s son.

The performances captured in Opus were filmed over a week in September 2022, at a studio in Tokyo’s NHK Broadcasting Center that Sakamoto believed offers the finest acoustics in Japan. He and Sora embarked on this project while Sakamoto was still well enough to perform. Other than the unseen filmmakers, there is no audience. Alone at a Yamaha grand, a bright lamp burning above him like a moon, the composer makes his way through 20 pieces he curated from his lifetime of music-making.

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The selections include his famous movie scores — The Sheltering Sky, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and his Oscar-winning work, with David Byrne and Cong Su, for The Last Emperor — as well as his solo recordings and the influential electropop of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the trio he formed in 1978 with Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono. (Drummer Takahashi died in January 2023, a couple of months before Sakamoto.)

Reconfiguring some of the compositions, a few of which he’d never before performed publicly on solo piano, Sakamoto travels through a varied musical terrain: quiet passages, melodic lyricism, bursts of thunderous churning. For one number, he creates a so-called prepared piano by placing screws and bolts on the strings to produce an un-piano-like sound. The fine recording, mixing and mastering, credited to ZAK, misses nothing, not even a brief instance of muttering when Sakamoto regroups between selections. Other than that, the piano does the talking.

In the music’s subtle interplay of tradition and modernism, the selections are distinct and connected, quoting and commenting on one another with a quickening intensity as the film proceeds. Sakamoto is not just revisiting his compositions but rediscovering them. Searching, communion and occasional delight play upon his face; he’s still creating, still profoundly invested in the work.

Sora builds this wordless drama with silvered black-and-white imagery and shifts in light that suggest a movement toward night. Bill Kirstein’s attentive camerawork finds a robust variety of angles and perspectives within the limited setting, and editor Takuya Kawakami intercuts Sakamoto’s performance with shots of the empty keyboard, the studio’s unused microphone stands, and the musician’s shadow on the unvarnished wood floor — visuals that heighten the sense of departure that infuses the film no less than the inspired music.

Opus begins with a view of the composer from behind, seated at the piano, looking small and vulnerable with his boyishly artsy shock of snow-white hair. As this unhurried emotional journey proceeds, Sakamoto’s passion and precision are inseparable from the gift he offers, and the film feels more and more like a balm in a world of device overload and music-biz grandiosity. Sora has made a work of magnificent minimalism. Its vision of immortality might be most stirring in the moments when Sakamoto’s elegant hands hover above the keyboard at the end of a piece. It’s as though he’s coaxing the final chords to resonate just a bit longer before they fade into something like silence but now, after his conjuring, much richer.

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