The recipient of the Samurai Award at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival (October 25th-November 3rd), Ryuichi Sakamoto gave a master class about his relationship to cinema as a musician at Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills on Wednesday.
One of the world’s most renowned composers, Sakamoto began scoring films in 1983 with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス), which he also co-starred in with David Bowie and Takeshi Kitano. Retelling a story that he shares in documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Sakamoto told Oshima that he would only agree to act in the film if Oshima let him write the score as well.
Sakamoto had neither acted or scored a film before at the time. “[Oshima] had a lot of courage to ask for my music. It was a bold gamble because I don’t know what would happen,” Sakamoto said, “I think my life would’ve changed considerably if I just agreed to act in the film.”
Sakamoto and host Junichi Konuma spent a significant portion of the hourlong class discussing the film’s score, including the instruments (Sakamoto used a bell to make the music create the feeling of Christmas tunes), the intentionally stripping of specific locales in the musical style, and how the relationships of the characters influenced the compositions.
Since then, Sakamoto has also scored films by Bernardo Bertolucci (who once made Sakamoto rewrite the ending music for Little Buddha five times), Pedro Almodovar, Brian De Palma, Alejandro Gonzálex Iñárritu, Japan’s Lee Sang-il, Takashi Miike, and most recently, South Korea’s Hwang Dong-hyuk.
Years of working with directors have taught Sakamoto one thing: “Directors are fanatical.”
When asked if he would ever consider directing, Sakamoto says that he felt he didn’t have the talent to make a film and that the most he would ever do is edit together his iPhone videos for his own enjoyment.
“I once talked to Oshima about Kitano becoming a director. I said I wasn’t talented enough to make films, and Oshima shouted at me, calling me a coward,” Sakamoto said with a laugh, “I don’t think I have any visual talent, and I think that untalented people shouldn’t do anything that they can’t do.” Sakamoto also joked that he thought certain musical artists who made films were wasting resources.
Sakamoto also talked about his latest album, Async, which he wrote as a soundtrack for a nonexistent film. The musician calls it a “visual album” and organized a short film competition asking amateur filmmakers from around the world to create short films using songs from the album. Sakamoto says that he had to postpone the announcement of the results because he’s still watching the 700 submissions he received.
Another thing Sakamoto has learned over the years is that the grammars for music and film music are completely different things. Despite being a composer, he also recognizes that some films can actually do without any music.
In his own experience, his theme piece for Iñárritu’s The Revenant was intentionally sparse so that ambient sounds of nature can be inserted into the quiet spots. “It’s a strange way to put it, but it doesn’t feel like music; The music isn’t independent on its own. It’s blended into nature. It’s minimalistic sounds. The protagonist of the film is nature, so you can hear the roaring sound of nature or glaciers or ice in movement,” Sakamoto explained after showing a clip of the film.
“Sometimes music exist for music’s sake. Sometimes it exists for visuals. The rules are different and the ways they exist are different, too…By experimenting with film music, my music becomes influenced as well. So I want to be able to destroy the grammar of music. And that happened by enjoying films.”
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda opens in Japanese cinemas on November 4th.