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How Legendary Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto Beat Cancer, Wrote One of the Best Movie Scores of the 21st Century, and Caught it All on Camera

Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto feared that cancer would end his career, but a call from Alejandro González Iñárritu may have saved his life.

“Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda”

Ask Ryuichi Sakamoto if a movie saved his life, and he’ll say yes.

In June of 2014, the famed Japanese composer was diagnosed with Stage III throat cancer. On July 10 of that year, Sakamoto made his illness known to the public, releasing a statement in which he expressed his need to take a break, and apologized “for all of the burden I will undoubtedly be casting upon everyone who has been working with me on various projects.”

The following spring, after Sakamoto completed an intense round of chemotherapy (and completely scrapped the album he was writing prior to his diagnosis), he received an urgent phone call from director Alejandro González Iñárritu asking him to fly to L.A. — tomorrow, if possible — to discuss scoring a movie called “The Revenant.” Gaunt, sore, and weary just from waking up, Sakamoto accepted the invitation. “I’m supposed to be on a hiatus period,” the musician can be heard confessing in Stephen Nomura Schible’s profound “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” a meditative new film about his life. “I couldn’t say no to [Iñárritu] because I admire him too much.”

Less than six months later, Sakamoto finished recording one of the best film scores of the 21st century. It’s a spare and haunted piece of work, punctuated by great silences that reflect the chaos of nature, as unpredictable and inviting as the surface of a frozen lake. Piano strikes are distorted until they rumble like rolls of distant thunder, while urgent strings press into the mix with such force that you can almost hear the first bloody streaks of orange sunlight creeping over the horizon and calling you home. It’s the sound of someone finding a way back to their body by listening for its place in the world around them.

“The Revenant” is a journey back from the dead, an animistic return that Sakamoto continues to this day. “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” documents that journey with the same atemporal sparseness that shapes the composer’s music. Folding five years into 100 minutes, Schible’s directorial debut focuses on the souvenirs that Sakamoto picked up along the way. It finds he’s a different man than he was before his diagnosis, at once both more delicate and more powerful than ever — attuned to nature for the first time in his remarkable life, and finally able to hear some kind of harmony between how finite we are and how limitless we feel.

From “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Wings of Desire,” and from “Ikiru” to “Fearless,” there have been any number of movies about people who find a permanent clarity after their brush with death: “Coda” is not one of those movies. It’s the story of a visionary artist whose perspective is retuned by a personal disaster; whose obsession with not taking life for granted begins to consume him once he sees first-hand that death is never further away than a next-door neighbor. It’s the story of a cancer survivor who knows that being healthy makes it almost impossible to appreciate being healthy, and it’s the story of a mad cinephile using his own music to reconcile those two states of mind before it’s too late. Now that Sakamoto is in remission, he’s in for the fight of his life.

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A small crowd gathered outside the West Village restaurant where I was scheduled to have lunch with Sakamoto on a recent May afternoon. An elm tree had cracked in half and fallen on top of a parked SUV, crushing it from above. It was a freak event on a perfect day, but I couldn’t help but think of something the hero’s wife says in “The Revenant”: “When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.” Tell that to the owner of the car.

I found Sakamoto in the throng of people, happily snapping away at the scene on his iPhone. His parted silver hair and spotted brown glasses make him a striking figure, even on a New York City sidewalk. Sakamoto has always been handsome — surely a reason why Nagisa Oshima insisted the non-actor star opposite David Bowie in 1983’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” — but today he favors a more restrained approach than the butterfly punk aesthetic he once affected.

The restaurant is across the street from Sakamoto’s home studio, and our waiter greeted him like a regular. The composer spoke in a sotto voce whisper, his voice still weak from the cancer, but his opinions were as forceful as ever, especially when our conversation turned to movies. A devoted cinephile who recently served on the jury of the Berlinale (“I admire the craft of ‘Isle of Dogs,’ but the script could be better, and the film is misleading about Japaneseness”), Sakamoto related even the most serious things back to the movies.

When we talked about the closeness of death — the way that a single moment is all that separates a person from being diagnosed with a terminal disease, or a car from being flattened by a tree — he sighed: “It’s a thin line … by the way, I love that film, ‘The Thin Red Line.’” During treatment, when the pain was too intense for Sakamoto to even read, he sustained himself on Chinese cinema. “Lots of Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies — no brainpower required. Also Zhang Yimou, Jia Zhangke, Chen Kaige, and of course the Taiwanese genius Edward Yang.”

When I asked Sakamoto if he could watch a movie without imagining how he would have scored it, he began ragging on Ozu with a lack of reverence that a gaijin could never muster. “‘Tokyo Story’ has always been my favorite film, Sakamoto said, but the music is so corny and nostalgic!” At one point in the ’90s, he even hoped to collaborate with the great composer Toru Takemitsu on a new score for Ozu’s most famous masterpiece, but that plan died when Takemitsu did.

Still, it’s contemporary films that bother him most. “Sometimes I feel good watching new movies, but I’m usually irritated — they use so much music in films these days! ‘The Revenant’ is two hours and 36 minutes, and we delivered two hours of music,” he said, referring to collaborators Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner. “That’s so much music! ‘Star Wars’ and all of that stuff have so much music! I say ‘Give me more silence. Give me more space.”

However, I got the impression that Sakamoto would’ve written another two hours of score if Iñárritu had asked — the composer has been a diehard fan ever since “Amores Perros,” and maintains that “Birdman” is a masterpiece (a point that didn’t seem productive to argue). He called the Mexican director “the most demanding filmmaker” for whom he’s worked, but didn’t appear to mean that as an insult; he talked about Pedro Almodóvar like a teddy bear, but then groused that only half of the music he wrote made it into the final cut of “High Heels.” Give me more silence, unless you’ve already asked me to fill it with sound.

His discography includes collaborations with other heavyweight auteurs like Takashi Miike (“Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”), Brian De Palma (“Femme Fatale”), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who created video accompaniments for Sakamoto’s latest album). The music he wrote for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” even won him an Oscar. And yet, it was his work on one of the director’s biggest flops that forever changed his life.

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