‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus’: A Parting Gift From a Master Musician

The twin themes of “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus” are art and mortality, and they’re twisted so tightly together that they become inextricable. Shot in black and white to match the keys of the piano, the film entirely consists of the influential Japanese musician’s final concert. One might say it was a performance for nobody — Sakamoto filmed alone in a studio, with only the crew there as audience. But it’s more correct to say it’s for us, a gift from a master.

Sakamoto’s long career covered techno-pop, scores for movies like “The Last Emperor” and “The Revenant,” and experimental and instrumental albums that stretch and play with the full range of sound. The songs he plays in “Opus” — 20 in all — span his career. For the fan, it’s an intensely moving experience.

But even for the viewer without much knowledge of Sakamoto’s work, “Opus” holds its own as the rare cinematic space for contemplation. There’s no context given, no attempt to create a narrative. Instead, the visual space is carefully filmed and the lighting manipulated to subtly shift the mood. Light and shadow are equally important. Everything from the panels on the studio wall to the inside of the piano to the leg of the stool on which the musician is perched becomes significant, all part of the performance. Sakamoto plays like a dancer, or a conductor; his hands shape the sound on the keys, but also take flight at times, as if he’s coaxing a tone out of the instrument, or himself.

Sakamoto filmed the concert over a week in September 2022. He and the film’s director, his son, Neo Sora, meticulously designed the look of the movie, including storyboards to show how the lighting would change. It is a kind of monochromatic take on the shifting of light as morning turns to afternoon, then evening. By the end, Sakamoto appears to be playing in inky blackness, with one light standing in for the moon shining over his left shoulder.

The reason for this interest in invoking the passage of time is simple: Sakamoto knew his days were numbered. In 2014, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His recovery was documented in the 2018 film “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” but in 2021 he was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He died in March 2023, about six months after filming “Opus,” at age 71.

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