As part of this year’s Japan Cuts film festival, New York’s Japan Society is offering both movie and music lovers an extraordinary opportunity: a 16mm screening of the 1985 documentary Tokyo Melody: A Film about Ryuichi Sakamoto. Directed by photographer and director Elizabeth Lennard and produced as a collaboration between French and Japanese television, the hour-long film follows the famed experimental musician during the recording of his 1984 album Ongaku Zukan (“Music Encyclopedia”). Beyond its initial airing and appearances at a few film festivals, it has been almost impossible to access legally in the decades since.
The documentary was conceived after Sakamoto’s acting debut in Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), for which he also composed his first soundtrack. He plays Captain Yonoi, the commandant of a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java during World War II, who is torn between his iron devotion to duty and his attraction to Jack Celliers, a British prisoner played by David Bowie. The film is compelling not just because of Ōshima’s perfect observations of the interplay between masculine repression and psychosexual tension against the backdrop of war, but also for bringing together Sakamoto and Bowie, two pop icons at the height of their stardom. Amid the somber camp, thick with both humidity and testosterone, the two men stand out for their startling androgynous beauty. Sakamoto’s score is one of the richest orchestrations ever rendered for a film, particularly its now-famous main theme.
Tokyo Melody opens with a quote from Claude Debussy: “I’m working on things that will only be understood by the grandchildren of the 20th century.” That sentiment ably captures the mystique of Sakamoto’s persona, which Lennard also vividly records here. His work was emblematic of his era, especially 1980s electronic music, but also felt beamed from the future. As the title suggests, the doc is not just a look at the man but also something of a city symphony, taking a great deal of time to explore Tokyo, with his music acting as a mood setter. Interviews are minimal, and Sakamoto plays with his instruments much more than he talks. Memorably, he performs the Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence theme on the piano, and sits down for a duet with his wife of the time, the famed jazz musician Akiko Yano.
This screening comes not long after Sakamoto’s death in March of this year, making this look back at him in his prime all the more poignant. Both Yano and Lennard will be present at Japan Society’s screening, with Yano providing an introduction and Lennard sitting down for a Q&A afterward. Ahead of this event, I connected with Lennard over Zoom to discuss the film and her memories of Sakamoto. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: What was the timeline from you seeing Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence to this film happening?
Elizabeth Lennard: I was quite young then. At my screening of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence at the Cannes Film Festival, there happened to be two producers from the experimental part of French television. They had a deal with a broadcaster to do a few hours of programming about popular music. They said that if I could find a way to meet Sakamoto, they could produce an hour-long film about him.
I had no idea how to reach him. But I knew people in the music business — before living in France, I painted album covers. In New York I ran into someone I worked for in the ’70s who introduced me to Kiki Miyake, who worked with YMO on a US tour. Kiki got me in touch with Sakamoto. We agreed to meet in Berlin, where he was recording Forbidden Colors with [musician] David Sylvian. I remember waiting for him to come out of the recording studio — it was right next to the Berlin Wall — because they were in the middle of recording.
I had only made two short films at that point, one about these pianists called the Labèque sisters. I showed Sakamoto photographs I’d taken of New York and painted, some of which I’d exhibited at the Pompidou Center. They’d showed at the same time as an exhibition by Berenice Abbott, which also had a title about New York. People got them mixed up, and would come up to me and say, “God, you’re not that old!” Anyway, based on that work, he agreed to be in the documentary. It was only later that I realized Sakamoto was completely an art person, not “just” a musician. I think it was a kind of feather in his cap to do a film with me, because he didn’t know who I was, a young woman with just some hand-painted photographs to show.
H: How much time did you spend with Sakamoto for the film?
EL: It was a low budget, so we had seven days for shooting, and I think we specifically had four days with Ryuichi, perhaps two days in the studio and two days with him in Tokyo. Before the film, I went to Tokyo to do location scouting. It was my first time in the city. I walked around with my guidebook; I don’t speak Japanese, but as a photographer, I was used to just observing things. This was in April, during cherry blossom season. When we came back in May to do the film, I didn’t realize how much things would change, that so many decorations I had seen would no longer be there. So we had to adapt to that. Most of the film was pretty spontaneous, because I didn’t know going in what Ryuichi was going to be doing in the studio.
H: Did Sakamoto seem comfortable with the experience?
EL: He later learned English very well, but at the time his English wasn’t so good. He had a dialogue coach on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In the film, when he’s demonstrating a synthesizer, Kiki, who came to Japan with us, was asking my questions in Japanese. So there was that language gap. But it wasn’t a big deal because there’s not that much talking in this documentary. I think he was comfortable with me. I had a very small crew, and I’m not an intimidating director, I don’t think.
I had a great line producer who did everything he could to make Sakamoto feel comfortable. Sakamoto was already a big star in Japan, so he didn’t go out in public places, because there were too many fans. When we took him to Tokyo Tower, after about 20 minutes a crowd had gathered around him, which I think amused him. We took him to the subway, and in the film we see him see a poster of himself. That was just lucky, because he never took the subway.
H: Did you ever see Sakamoto again after making the film?
EL: He saw the film in France — I think he was there on a tour — and I do think he enjoyed it. And I ran into him once in New York. But sadly, we didn’t really keep in touch. About five years ago, I was contacted by Stephen Schible, who was making the documentary Coda, because he wanted to use some of our footage. I helped him get it from the French TV archive, because it’s a big organization and they’re not very reactive. Schible was working quite closely with Ryuichi, and he sent me some pictures Ryuichi had taken during our shoot that I had never seen before. While we were filming him, he was taking his own photographs, too.
H: Do you know when this film was last screened publicly?
EL: The last time the print that is going to be shown at Japan Cuts was exhibited was at a São Paulo film festival in ’85 or ’86. We had it made for the festival, and I’ve had the reels in my basement ever since. And when we checked the print for this showing, we discovered people had stolen images. There are a few frames that are missing, with splice marks and all.
H: It was probably fans who wanted choice images of Sakamoto and Yano.
EL: Absolutely. This was pre-internet, and it was such a limited exhibition, so that was what people did if they wanted pictures from the film.
H: The film is not legally available in any form in the States. Is it preserved somewhere, somehow?
EL: We’re actually working with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s agent and widow to do a release, because it never had a true theatrical run. It was shown on French television and in film festivals, but it never got a cinema release. I don’t know when that will happen, but we’re working toward a 4K restoration and digital version that can be shown in theaters.