Opus: Sakamoto Ryuichi performs his swan songs

Six months before his death, composer Sakamoto Ryuichi offered a final farewell by performing 20 piano pieces in an empty studio, resulting in a meditative and at times claustrophobic documentary.

Sakamoto Ryuichi in Opus (2023)

“I need a break. This is tough. I’m pushing myself.” These are close to the only words spoken in Neo Sora’s hushed, intimate record of a series of piano recitals given by his father, the composer Sakamoto Ryuichi, just months before Sakamoto’s death from cancer in March 2023. Knowing his end was near, Sakamoto chose 20 pieces from across his career to perform during a week-long session at the NHK Broadcast Centre’s 509 Studio in Tokyo in September 2022. 

The finality of these performances is captured in reverent black, greys and white by cinematographer Bill Kirstein, who has previously shot concert films for Paul McCartney and Barry Manilow, and music videos for Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake. Here his camera is always close to and in orbit around the piano stool, watching Sakamoto as he soberly works through his playlist, from keyboard transcriptions of themes from his Bertolucci scores The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) to tracks from his recent albums async (2015) and 12 (2023). 

With minimal visual stimuli, Sora’s film is demandingly focused. On an otherwise empty stage, Sakamoto’s Warhol-white hair and tortoiseshell specs become points of fascination in the image’s studied play of light, shadow and silhouette. So do shadows on the floor, the edge of the stool, the glow of a spotlight, and the reflective polish of the piano top. The effect is lulling and meditative, even as the film’s deferential grammar of slow zooms and shallow focus starts to feel airless.

Closely miked, the sound foregrounds the timbre of Sakamoto’s Yamaha and the total clarity of the silence between pieces. There’s a breath-in-cold-air quality to this music, a Debussy-inspired impressionism. Even a sprightly New Wave track like ‘ Tong Poo’ by Sakamoto’s band the Yellow Magic Orchestra is transformed into an autumnal lament. The effect is moving but risks becoming stultifying over the course of a feature-length film, where the elegiac register can start to seem claustrophobically lugubrious.

Only one ripple disturbs the flow: Sakamoto getting up to apply clamps to the strings for a piece called ‘20180219’, the wonky sound of a John Cage-style prepared piano introducing a welcome interlude of dissonance. To my ear, it was a highlight of a film whose spell worked only intermittently, although the climactic, valedictory run-through of the theme from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), in sounding almost triumphant notes, inspires awe at the composure and serenity of an artist facing the dying of the light.

 ► Opus is in UK cinemas from 29 March.