Ryuichi Sakamoto Opus: An Interview with Director Neo Sora

Before he died, knowing that the end was approaching, Ryuichi Sakamoto planned one last performance. The film – which features a career-spanning selection from his oeuvre of pop music, film scores and experimental and ambient compositions – rearranges many songs for solo piano; a showcase of the power and variability of Sakamoto’s work. In a press statement, Sakamoto said the set list was much further ahead than he normally planned. He explained: “The director, Neo Sora, was quite strict.”

It’s a bit of a joke. Neo Sora is Sakamoto’s 33-year-old son and the person who asked the composer to film his last concert. Technically, it was Norika, Sakamoto’s old manager, who made the request. (Norika is also Sora’s mother.)

The timing wasn’t great. Sora was in the middle of pre-production on his own feature film debut. But family came first. Sakamoto had been battling rectal cancer for years and his health was deteriorating.

“Look, if we miss this shooting period, I have a feeling we might not be able to do it again,” Sora remembered what his mother had said. “‘So can you please do it?'”

He agreed, put his own film on hold, and a few months later started working on what would eventually happen Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opusthe lasting impression of one of the world’s most influential and celebrated musicians.

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You’d expect a career-spanning concert film to look something like Taylor Swift’s maximalist commercial spectacle, or to take notes from the Talking Heads’ mischievous storytelling. Stop making sense, re-released in theaters late last year by A24. But the inspiration for Opus were more modest. Sora watched a performance by virtuoso pianist Glenn Gould and conductor Leonard Bernstein from the 1960s entitled The creative performeras well as the dramatized Thirty-two short films about Glenn Gould. What he learned was that by simplifying the visual language of cinematography, it would force the viewer to pay more attention to the music. With that, Sora started storyboarding, forcing Sakamoto to commit to a setlist further than he would have liked.

Was it difficult working with his father? Sora described their relationship on set as professional: Sakamoto didn’t give notes on filmmaking and Sora had no influence on the performance. “I guess I would consider him not saying anything to me about the filming process as a sign of his trust,” he said.

Shot in just over a week in September 2022, Opus is a sparse and intimate film. In stark black and white, the concert is just a man performing behind a grand piano. Off camera, however, there was a crew of over thirty people in the 509 Studio of Tokyo’s famed NHK Broadcasting Center, trying to be as quiet as possible.

The location, as with many decisions for the film, was Sakamoto’s choice. He believed the studio had “the best acoustics in Japan.” But it also brought specific challenges. The old wooden floors creaked, meaning the entire crew – a mix of Japanese and English speakers – had to wear socks and no shoes. Because the studio was located on a transmission tower, no equipment that emits radio waves was allowed, so everything had to be physically connected. (“There had to be a lot of thread managers,” and more people meant more people making noise.)

And then there were Sakamoto’s physical limits. He could only make a handful of shots per day. Sora recalled, “There were just certain songs that he just couldn’t play very well anymore. His fingers just weren’t that dexterous, and I think some of that was due to the side effects of the medications he was taking, which affected the limbs.” Sakamoto applied Vaseline to his fingers to ease the pain.

In the same statement, written after the shooting, Sakamoto explained how difficult the performance was on his body. “I felt completely hollow afterwards and my condition worsened for about a month,” he wrote. “Still, I am relieved that I was able to record a performance that I was satisfied with before my death.” He died in March 2023.

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I met Sora in New York prior to the film’s theatrical release and almost a year after Sakamoto’s death. He was finishing his first, as yet untitled feature film, the film he had put on hold to make Opus. Sora told me it’s about two friends who drift apart when one becomes politically aware and the other remains willfully ignorant. He has been working on it for more than ten years and hopes to be able to present it to festivals this year.

‘I did not want to Opus to come out first, but those things you can’t really help or control,” Sora said. “I always wanted people to get to know me just because of something I do apart from my dad.”

Even though he is director of Opus, Sora is reluctant to claim authorship over it. “I tried to be a conduit for whatever he wanted to do, and I think what he wanted to do was a concert,” Sora said.

While many of the choices – the concept, the location, the pieces – may have been Sakamoto’s, it’s hard to ignore Sora’s subtle hand. Opus. For what was always intended to be the final appearance of a special artist, the film doesn’t feel like a somber affair. Even as Sakamoto struggles to finish certain pieces, his fingers not being what they once were, and the energy draining from his ailing body, there is a sense of triumph every time a song reaches its final note. So much is conveyed by the silence that follows: the relief of the execution, a glimpse of ecstasy.

That is perhaps the magic of what Neo Sora has created: a concert film that is just a performance, and more than that.

Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus is in theaters now and will eventually stream on the Criterion Channel.

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