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Venice Film Festival 2023: Ryuichi Sakamoto Takes His Final Bow

Courtesy of the Venice Film Festival

After an ugly morning cry over the bleak potency of Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, my afternoon gave me a very different reason to cry, one not of despair but of admiration, celebration, and a deep love for the works of the late great Ryuichi Sakamoto, who passed away after a long battle with cancer earlier this year. Neo Sora’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus is essentially a private concert film, filmed in late 2022 with the camera putting us, Sakamoto, and his piano in a room together alone. The film’s power lies in something so simple yet so extraordinary: watching a master at his craft perform for us one last time.

Sakamoto curated the pieces used in Opus himself and his selection ranges from his early Yellow Magic Orchestra period pieces to his film scores to works from his final albums. The movie opens from behind Sakamoto as the camera hovers as he starts playing. The shot choices in Opus often use slow, unobtrusive movements that let the atmosphere of the room sink in. They emphasise how we are his private audience. There is something so powerful in how, even in his passing, the medium of film allows us to share these private moments with him and his life’s work. Through moments of stillness, even silence, our intimacy with Sakamoto is amplified. At points we linger on his hands in motion; on others, his face — surveying him as he performs his magic.

Because Opus is so authentic and true to a live performance, there’s a special feeling painting the film, especially when Sakamoto makes a slight misstep or has to take his time. When he exclaims that he is tired and needs to take a break, we cherish every second of the film all the more.

Opus features an astonishing double climax of sorts with Sakamoto performing the scores from The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. His performance intertwines into a magnificent double act, going from quieter progressions of the themes and ramping up to a grand, epic rendition. It is such a rousing sequence that it’s a shame Sora feels the need to add a tiny coda afterwards to bring the film to a close, since Sakamoto’s work ends Opus on a perfect note already. Nevertheless, it’s a minor nitpick to a masterful cinematic experience of Sakamoto’s work that touched myself, the audience around me, and will surely stand as a fitting tribute to one of the great maestros of our time.


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