Japan Cuts 2023: Tokyo Melody – Episodic Reverie

Tokyo Melody is about the episodic moments of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s life. These events transpire just after composing the score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), down moments between shows with Yellow Magic Orchestra, and in the midst of recording his 1984 solo album Ongaku Zukan. Sakamoto is so busy in work, swept up in a multitude of groundbreaking projects, that in life he is caught at the best moment to be documented.

The moments that make the documentary sing are the simple things that happen around the big events on stage and in the studio. It’s Sakamoto standing in front of a public square where a massive billboard plays unserious advertisements. Here, we have the composer of art in the center of commerce. It’s Sakamoto taking the metro and observing an advertisement about why you should drink wine, in transit between spaces of corporate messaging and creating insular works. It’s Sakamoto playing a piano duet with then-wife Akiko Yano, music for pleasure interspersed with serious music made for work and for the stage. Sometimes it cuts between the footage of Sakamoto playing with his electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra and then he’s back in the studio making elegant music on a computer. The tide rolls back-and-forth between the blurred lines of life and work and how for the composer, these boundaries intersect and feed into one another.

Elizabeth Lennard works in avant-garde formats. Her documentary shows such immense talent in putting these stories and stories between stories together. Her footage, with musical accompaniment, reaches into an artistic space, and is best compared to the kind of documentaries we are making now: The Velvet Underground (2021); Summer of Soul (2021); and Moonlight Daydream (2023). Lennard holds her own and seems to already have the modern format ready, her documentary is experiential and is about the musicians, but captures the peculiarities of life, just as much as the stagecraft and public personas of the musician.

Tokyo Melody comes at a perfect time. A compromised version of Ongaku Zukan was released internationally as Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia (1986). Only now is the original album, with the five songs cut from its first release, coming overseas. A wonderful moment for this documentary that sits inside this moment of terrific creation for the artist.

Whether Sakamoto is theorizing about Debussy or reflecting on Bowie, you can feel the tangible inspiration that has enriched him at this moment. It’s the rare documentary that understands life is lived in those small moments between the big events. How we exist in the world is how we make our art and how we present ourselves to the world. It’s through this portrait of Sakamoto that we learn the most about the musician, his fashionable way of living, and who he is between those moments where he makes the art we love.


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