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“More Interesting to Keep the Mistake”: Neo Sora Discusses ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus’

By Dan Schindel

Still image from 'Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus' depicting Sakamoto, an elderly Asian man wearing tortoiseshell glasses and with a fall of white hair over his forehead.

Still from Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus. Courtesy of Cinetic Media. Image credit: Kab Inc.

World-renowned Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work was deeply entwined with cinema. He was a prolific composer of movie scores, an occasional actor, and featured in numerous concert films and biographical documentaries like 2021’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. It feels appropriate that his last full performance, recorded only a few months before his death in March 2023, is not merely a concert film but a concert as a film. 

Directed by his son, Neo Sora, Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is simply described as a black and white portrait of Sakamoto at his piano in an NHK recording studio, playing 20 songs as the lighting mimics the flow of time over one day—from the predawn darkness through the morning, afternoon, and back into the night. There’s an elegance to the simplicity, stripping everything down to the musician and his instrument, leaving ample room for both Sakamoto and the viewer to reflect on his life and work. I wondered if it wasn’t much more than a nice exercise until I started to tear up during his rendition “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” the penultimate track in the set.

I sat down with Sora over Zoom to discuss the documentary and how he coordinated both with his crew and his father to realize this final concert. Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus opens theatrically in NY on March 15, and expands across the U.S. in the following weeks. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: When Ryuichi Sakamoto approached you about making this film, were you reluctant to be the one to direct? Obviously, it’s very personal.

Neo Sora: I was in the process of prepping a different film when I was approached, so I was quite busy. But his team said this could be the last time he had enough energy to do something like this, so I felt that urgency to make it happen and that I was best suited to do it, so I decided to take it on.

D: Did Sakamoto’s original conception look like how the film turned out, or did it take some time to interpret his desire in this form, as this intimate concert?

NS: I think the original impulse was to do a concert. That’s the medium he’s probably most known for. He’d last done a livestreamed concert in December 2022, which was shot in a greenscreen studio with a digital environment, but some of the technology didn’t really work out. I think his team didn’t want that to be his last performance. But his body was too weak for a full concert, so they wanted something in a film format, which could be distributed widely and act as a record.

There was this interesting point in pre-production where the sound engineer and I had a push and pull about what to prioritize. Obviously, the recording engineer, ZAK, who’s brilliant, wanted to prioritize the quality of the sound, but I also wanted to put heft behind the image. ZAK gave me a map of how he wanted to set things up, with 40 mics surrounding the piano. And I was like, ’Where are we going to put the cameras?’ The cinematographer, Bill Kirstein, wanted to bring in a balloon light, which would be filled with helium and float over the piano, but that apparently wouldn’t be good for the sound recording. 

Ultimately, we put it up to the producers: “Do you want a recording of music accompanied by image, or do you want a film?” And they wanted a film, so that’s what they prioritized. I asked ZAK to see how much he could reduce the number of mics so that the camera had space to move around. He did a great job within those limitations.

D: What led to the conceit of the performance appearing to take place over the course of a full day?

NS: That came from talking with both Bill Kirstein and Ryuichi himself. Ryuichi was very interested in the concept of time. He voraciously read all sorts of theorists and philosophers, as a young person all the way to the end of his life, and he particularly took an interest in the passage of time, whether time exists, things like that. There’s a kind of opera piece about the subject that he worked on with his longtime collaborator, Shiro Takatani, that’s coming out out in Japan very soon. He was obsessed with creating some kind throughline for this otherwise non-narrative film, and I decided on this kind of chronological progression. To do that, Bill and I discussed the use of black and white and how we would represent the progression through lighting in a way that doesn’t feel cheesy. We didn’t want to do projection or anything like that.

D: Sakamoto has been featured in several documentaries over the years. Were these or any other previous music or concert films an influence on you?

NS: I was part of shooting Coda, but I prefer movies that don’t explain too much, and I was thinking while shooting that film that I would have liked it to be told more through just music. I feel I was able to accomplish that through Opus. In terms of other films, I watched a lot of Glenn Gould concerts and a lot of early films of concerts. There’s this great televised concert Gould did with Leonard Bernstein that’s on YouTube, an amazing piece of filmmaking. There’s also Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), which had a lot of inspiration for the kinds of camera movements we wanted.

D: I thought a lot about Jonathan Demme’s concert documentaries while watching it, especially Storefront Hitchcock (1998).

NS: I don’t know that one.

D: It’s a film he did with Robyn Hitchcock in the ’90s, this performance that’s just him in an abandoned building on 14th Street. It’s very good.

NS: I’ll check it out.

D: You had Sakamoto figure out the setlist before filming. Was that all up to him, or did you have any input?

NS: The one directorial thing that I feel I can claim in this whole production—which is not too much, because I feel like I left it up to everybody else to do a great job—was asking for the setlist early and for him to commit to it. That really allowed us to do the preparation. The majority of the 20 songs, Sakamoto chose himself. I didn’t want to give too much input, because it’s his work. 

But when I suggested the concept of going from day to night, he adjusted the order of the songs. He was like, “Okay, this song feels like nighttime. This one feels like morning.” I didn’t ask him to do that. “Aubade 2020” is the sixth song, it comes right after “For Jóhann.” He moved it there because he thought it felt more like morning. In turn, I talked to Bill about making this song the beginning of the morning sequence, and so the sun rises during it.

The one song I did ask for was the final one, “Opus,” which I like for how unsentimental it is. If you take the song on its own, it’s very quotidian, repetitive. To me, those kinds of songs feel more emotional in the context of listening while knowing he’s ailing, that this could be his final thing. I thought that would make “Opus” a nice coda for the film, something quotidian, the feeling that life goes on. At first, he was kind of surprised by my thoughts, but he came around to the idea and played “Opus” in an extremely dry and unaffected way—which again, feels more effective to me.

D: As I understand it, you had him rehearse each song while being recorded with an iPhone to prepare your camera placements and movements?

NS: Yes. Once I received the setlist, I collected as many recordings of each of the songs as I could from throughout the course of his career. In more recent years, he’s been playing each song a little bit more slowly. So to prep, I recorded him playing in his home office with an iPhone and a small camera, which laid the groundwork for the tempo and structure of the film.

D: Watching the film, you’re very aware that this is it. The feeling is reinforced by little moments when he falters or redoes things, which you include. When editing the performances you recorded, what guided which of these moments to feature or omit?

NS: Each song was filmed with two takes minimum, five takes maximum. A lot of the mistakes weren’t necessarily big. He would play a song, and to us it would sound totally fine, but he’d be like, “No, no, no, I need to play it again.” The big restart that’s left in is when he plays “Bibo No Aozora.” There’s an improv section where he explores different chord combinations and dissonances. When he messes up, he knows it and decides to use the opportunity to experiment anyway. I think it freed him to do whatever he wanted. That kind of moment usually only happens when a composer is in the studio, trying to figure out the best notes to put down. Obviously, professional performers practice to get it right every time. It’s the kind of moment an audience would normally never see. It gives a lot of insight into how a composer thinks through sound and music. We also had the “correct” performance, but I thought it was more interesting to keep the mistake.

D: From the way he acted, do you think he treated this as just another performance? Or did the knowledge that this was going to be the end affect how he played?

NS: Well, the fact that it was filmed changed how he acted. Usually during a concert, he’s reacting to the audience. He’d have his stack of sheet music that he would rearrange, depending on what he felt in the room at the time. He was kind of a funny guy, he’d sometimes work the room in between certain songs, bring up stuff he was thinking about. We didn’t have any of that because there was no audience. And so it definitely had a nervousness. Performance is something you can only capture one time. There was only one take when he said, “This is the one. I can’t do it again.” But that could have happened at any time—in the first take, the second take, whenever. The crew felt this heaviness and tension every time he walked in, because they wanted to make sure we could capture everything every time.

Dan Schindel is a freelance critic and full-time copy editor living in Brooklyn. He has previously worked as the associate editor for documentary at Hyperallergic.