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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”

“The Sheltering Sky” was no one’s finest moment. A melodrama about a couple who journey into the Sahara Desert in a desperate attempt to save their marriage, author Paul Bowles later prefaced a new edition of his novel: “The less said about the film now, the better.” Ironically, Bowles is responsible for the adaptation’s best moment. He appears on screen at the end of the film, and reads the novel’s signature passage over the soundtrack:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto is obsessed with these words. In “Coda,” we learn that he owns Bowles’ novel in more than a dozen languages, and has this passage dog-eared and underlined in all of them. Bowles died in 1999, but he can be heard reading that quote on the seminal album that Sakamoto wrote after finishing “The Revenant” — his voice is the primary instrument on the track that binds “Async” together.

Ever since working on “The Sheltering Sky,” Sakamoto has been preoccupied with the shortsightedness of being alive, and the blinding power of the present moment. That preoccupation is part of what motivated him to become an environmentalist in the ’90s, and one of Japan’s most outspoken activists against nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

“I began to sense danger and get alarmed,” he says in “Coda.” “I didn’t exactly know what was dangerous, but artists and musicians tend to sense things early, like canaries in a coal mine.” He ruminates on the idea that nuclear technology made humans the only species capable of complete self-annihilation, and laments the fact that even the greatest catastrophe only leaves behind a faint echo of its carnage — a hum that most people either can’t hear or choose to ignore.

Even before his cancer, Sakamoto was keyed in to the relationship between trauma and perspective, and horrified that Japan — of all countries — would invite another nuclear calamity by trying to obtain nuclear weapons. While Sakamoto is beloved, this opinion is an unpopular one that the Japanese press largely chooses to ignore. Schible, a long-term Japanese resident who earned a producing credit on “Lost In Translation” for handling local elements of production, approached Sakamoto about making a documentary to express his views, and perhaps impact the national conversation.

“My intention was to document the Japanese anxiety after 3/11,” Sakamoto remembered. “It was the first time in 40 years that ordinary Japanese people walked into the streets and were speaking out against nuclear energy.” He wanted to preserve the urgency of that understanding, to be able to bottle it up and serve it back to people after life returned to the new kind of normal that it always does.And then, in the middle of making a movie about how the specter of death can allow us to see outside of ourselves, Sakamoto was diagnosed with a cancer that claims 50 percent of its victims within five years. In “Coda,” he says that it still feels like a joke — we all know that we’re going to die, but so few of us actually believe it.

Some people would have scrapped the documentary as soon as they got sick, but Sakamoto never entertained the idea. “It was Stephen, the director, who hesitated shooting!” He laughed. “I was encouraging him to continue. ‘You’ve got the drama, now!’ I just wanted a good movie. I was shocked to be in a very serious moment, but I knew it would make the film more interesting.”

“Coda” follows the composer as he “fishes for sound” on an Icelandic glacier, weaves J. Robert Oppenheimer’s apocalyptic doomsaying into a live symphony, or stands in his backyard with a bucket over his head so that he can record the staccato pitter-patter of rain landing on plastic. He’s always searching for some kind of music in the madness around him, trying make sense of the world by arranging its sounds into sonic architecture. “The world is full of sounds,” he says. “We just don’t usually hear them as music.”

And as Sakamoto struggles to create the record he fears might be his last (working on his potential swan song just a few short blocks from where his old friend Bowie recently did the same), we see that his brush with death has allowed him to hear a melody where before he might only have heard chaos, or nothing. He only has so long to capture it before it all dissolves back into white noise.

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“Coda” begins with Sakamoto visiting the radiated wastelands of the Miyagi Prefecture in 2012, and plunking away at a piano that washed ashore after the tsunami. “I wanted to hear its sound,” he says, amazed that it didn’t fall apart. He pries the instrument open and pulls at the strings; every note shrieks like a jump-scare from an old horror movie about a haunted house. “It’s badly warped and frayed … like the corpse of a piano that drowned.”

His immediate inclination was to try and adjust the thing back into shape. The piano was wrong, and he wanted to make it right. Even Sakamoto — who spent three decades telling people to preserve those rare moments when life reminds us that it’s more finite than it feels — couldn’t help but try and literally tune this one out.

However, after his cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy — after scoring a film while in recovery, and successfully becoming a revenant of his own —  Sakamoto began to hear that piano with new ears. “We humans would say that it’s fallen out of tune,” he says in the film, “but that’s not exactly accurate. The industrial revolution made the production of an instrument like this possible … Nature is molded into shape by human industry, by the sum strength of civilization. Matter is struggling to return to its natural state. The tsunami, in one moment, became a force of restoration. Matter is struggling to return to a natural state.” He allows a wry smile. “The tsunami piano actually sounds good to me now.” Sakamoto even plays it on “Async,” where it sounds as atonal as ever.

A lot of other things sound good to him now, too. The whirr of a Geiger counter along the shores of Fukushima. The thwack of a stick banging against a rusted pipe in upstate New York. The beginning of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” when “a Russian doctor walks this way and Tarkovsky’s mother is standing over here and all of the sudden the wind rises and the timing makes it musical.” Sakamoto’s voice peaked above pianissimo for the first time since our black coffees arrived. “That moment is a symphony. Tarkovsky was a composer.”

I asked Sakamoto if he hears the world any differently after his cancer. I’d seen “Coda” a few times, but it only offers the most elliptical of answers; Schieble structured the movie with the satisfying elusiveness of music. Sakamoto paused and put down his fork. “Hmmm,” he murmured, as though imitating “Tokyo Story” actor Chishū Ryū. After an hour spent talking over the din of downtown noise, his voice was growing faint. Fainter. “In a way,” he whispered, “I appreciate the disease. It made me aware.”

Aware how? The restaurant was getting louder and more crowded during the lunch rush. “I used to know things intellectually, but now I feel them. Now I feel that my body is part of nature, so being sick is just a process of nature, and death is a process of nature, and being reborn through the soil is a process of nature.”

So the cancer was natural, and the chemotherapy was not? Sakamoto flashed an embarrassed smile, and then erased it with a quick clench of his jaw. “Before,” he continued, “people asked me if my environmental concerns affected my music, and I always said no. It’s too corny, too stereotypical for me. But recently, thinking about it in terms of my body …” He looked up. “Yes. Now I want to have less notes and more spaces. I want the notes to last longer. I want to enjoy the resonance between the sounds.”

Looking out the window, I saw that the tree had been cleared out of the street, and the car had been towed. The whole episode was now little more than a bill, or a lawsuit — not even worth a mention on the NY1 news. I thought about how much this neighborhood had changed since I lived here less than 10 years ago. Nothing lasts forever, not even the bone-deep understanding that nothing lasts forever.

“I’m fascinated by the notion of a perpetual sound,” Sakamoto says in the film. “A sound that won’t dissipate over time. Essentially, the opposite of a piano, because the notes never fade. I suppose in literary terms it would be like a metaphor for eternity.” Would he really be interested in finding such a thing? Wouldn’t a perpetual note make it impossible to enjoy the resonance between sounds? Doesn’t silence give music its shape?

Sakamoto smiled. “It’s just a metaphor.”

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Ryuichi Sakamoto has two things left on his bucket list. The first is he wants to work with the Coen brothers, but not really. “I’m not the right composer for them,” he admitted, as much to himself as to me.

He’s more committed to the second thing: “I want to be lazier.” He laughed. “This is the luxurious dream I have: Doing nothing all day, just watching the clouds and DVDs.” I didn’t believe him. Moments earlier, he’d told me he’s writing scores for two new Chinese films. Despite his bonafides as an auteurist, Sakamoto can’t even remember who’s directing them — he’s that eager to work. As he resolves at the end of “Coda” while playing a favorite Bach chorale: “I’ve got to keep moving my fingers.” Madadayo!, Kurosawa said to death. “Not yet.”

I asked Sakamoto if he’s worried — should his cancer remain in remission — that he might grow deaf to the silences his illness taught him to hear. Maybe their sound is already fading? I asked if he was more scared of death, or if he was more scared of forgetting that everything only happens a certain number of times (and a very small number really).

Sakamoto didn’t have an answer for those questions; I suppose nobody does. All he would say is that he’s no longer irritated by the music in “Tokyo Story.” “Yeah, I’ve changed my mind about that. It’s okay. Maybe it shouldn’t be so modern and sophisticated. Maybe Ozu used such a conventional style because he knew it wouldn’t age well.”

The most beautiful music reminds us that nothing lasts forever — not the person who wrote it, not even the music itself. Of course, ask Sakamoto how he would have scored “Tokyo Story” differently if he had been there from the start, and he can’t help but smile: “Give me more silence! Give me more space!”

Mubi will open “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” July 6 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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