Tokyo Melody: An Interview with Elizabeth Lennard

by Nel Dahl

A rare 16mm print of Elizabeth Lennard’s Tokyo Melody: A Film About Ryuichi Sakamoto (1984) has been unearthed from the filmmaker’s basement for a sold-out screening at Japan Society’s Japan Cuts and is in the process of restoration. As we learn from Lennard herself, the film’s genesis, production, and resulting resonances were full of surprises for both the filmmaker and subject.

How do you make a movie about a talent as multidimensional and prolific as Ryuichi Sakamoto? In 1984, Lennard convinced Sakamoto to collaborate on a film that would ultimately memorialize an important period for the musician. Despite the 62 minute run-time and brief week-long shoot with a small crew, the limited resources did not prevent Lennard from portraying many facets of Sakamoto’s work. With “unprecedented access” to his creative process, the footage captures him in the studio fresh from making his first film score (for  Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence [1983]) and embarking on his album Ongaku Zukan (1984). Although this was a fairly early point in Sakamoto’s career, the film foregrounds the increasingly audiovisual and cinematic aspects of his work and remains a poignant illustration of his art. Decades later, segments were included in the widely acclaimed Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017).

Nonlinear time was an ongoing theme behind Sakamoto’s music, and Lennard’s unusual tribute shows this in two ways. First, its playful editing style mirrors Sakamoto’s creative energy and curiosity, and shifts between the whimsical and the poignant (as with his piano duet with Akiko Yano at home). Second, at one point, Sakamoto describes his relish in creating music outside of chronological order: “Time is no longer linear. Time does not develop in one way. We can compose music and put it in any order we like.”

Filmmaker Lennard’s own wide-ranging experiences—from shooting portraits of Jerry Lewis and Chantal Akerman, to taking photographs on the sets of films with Andy Warhol or Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)—fuel our conversation as we discuss how the film came about, what it was like working with Sakamoto, and more.

Tokyo Melody: A Film About Ryuichi Sakamoto (1984)

Nel Dahl: You’ve shot such an interesting array of subjects: Andy Warhol, Jerry Lewis, Chantal Akerman. When preparing to photograph or film a new subject, do you prepare beforehand to create a specific goal tailored to that subject or is it something you improvise?

Elizabeth Lennard: It depends, each case is different. Each portrait is a story in itself. Jerry Lewis was already a huge star, obviously, and came to Paris to do press for a film. He’s so professional and he’s been photographed so many times—he had everyone come at the same time to his hotel room and he posed for everyone in a different way at the same time, really fast. I’ve never seen that before, it was hysterical. Jerry Lewis was very funny, but for the shots that I did of him, I was not alone in the room. There were other people and he posed for me and then he posed for somebody else, but he was very fast and very nervous.

With Andy Warhol, it was on the set of a film that never was really released: Cocaine Cowboys by Ulli Lommel. I knew the producer [and] was asked to come take some photos one day on the set. Because the film was never released, the photographs remained unpublished for many years. Much later, I found the negatives and printed them—I [still] have negatives from years ago that I haven’t printed. I was on the set of Mishima with Paul Schrader and a few [photos I took] were published at the time, [but] I just looked at the contact sheets again now and hope to print some. In the past ten years, I printed photographs I had done of Huey Newton, the Black Panther. I took them in 1973 or ’72. So sometimes it takes me a long time. It’s the opposite of Instagram. 

When I was living in New York, one of the first lofts I rented was a block away from Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine offices, when they were near Union Square. I knew him because I had a friend who was an editor of Interview at the time and I did a few jobs for Interview, some portraits. I would see Warhol there painting in his studio.

What was it about Ryuichi Sakamoto that inspired you to make this film?

I actually saw Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence at the Cannes Film Festival when it was premiering there in 1983 and I was bowled over by his music, and by seeing him. With great luck, when I came out of the screening, I ran into two producers whom I knew a little bit from an experimental part of French TV called INA, Institut national de l’audiovisuel. They also discovered Ryuichi Sakamoto at the screening and said to me, “If you have some way of getting in touch with him, we might have some budget for you to do a film about him.” That’s how it started. 

I had done a film with my sister [Erica Lennard] about two pianists called the Labèque sisters and a Grimm’s fairy tale with hand-painted photographs that had been produced by INA. It was my first produced film, when I was very young. 

I didn’t have any way of reaching Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was living between New York and Paris, and in New York I went to this popular restaurant called Odeons. At the next table there was a man whom I had worked for at A&M Records. I had done hand painted photographs as album covers for A&M records and other record companies in LA, where, at the time, you could actually make a living doing album covers. It turned out that A&M records distributed YMO [Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band Sakamoto co-founded] in the United States and they had actually given me records by YMO, but I didn’t put two and two together. The man at the next table whom I ran into—Jeff Ayeroff—said, “You’re in luck!”, because at his table there was somebody named Kiki Miyake. She had been the YMO tour manager in the United States in the ’70s. So she was the one who connected me to Ryuichi Sakamoto. 

Interestingly enough, Sakamoto was going to go to Berlin soon to record an album with David Sylvian. They had [filmed] Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, but hadn’t recorded “Forbidden Colors” yet, from what I understand. Somehow, it was arranged that if I could get myself to Berlin, I could meet him and see if he would be okay with doing the film. I got to Berlin, and I had some of my hand-painted photographs, like postcards, which I showed to Ryuichi and I guess he liked them because he said, “Okay, come to Tokyo and we can discuss it further.” 

Was the film’s structure and style of editing something you had in mind from the start or was it something you shaped as the filming progressed?

The whole project was quite fortunate. When you make documentary films, you still have to write something down on paper. As a filmmaker, I notice that often when you’re making a film, you’re not sure if it’s going to turn out the way you described on paper, but in the end it often turns out that it does. The project was really “the sounds of Tokyo—seen through the eyes of, and a portrait of, Sakamoto.” And that’s what it turned out to be. 

It’s only really because I’m showing the film now that I realize how nonlinear time corresponds to the way the film is edited. I was very, very fortunate because I had an incredible editor called Makiko Suzuki, who sadly is no longer with us. She was a Japanese film editor based in France. It’s a very important part of documentary filmmaking, and especially this kind of film, to have an editor who understands what you want to do. 

The thing that I only realized with hindsight about nonlinear time and certain concepts that Sakamoto expresses in my film, that I think he expressed [further] later on, is something that I was brought up with because my father was a sociologist and I was reading Marshall McLuhan; “The medium is the message.” Ryuichi talks about music not having a beginning or an end, which was quite new in the [pop] music world at the time. So, somehow, we got along on that point without ever talking about it.

Photo by Elizabeth Lennard

When the news broke of Sakamoto’s passing, Akiko Yano said on Twitter: “Dearest Ryuichi, would you like to play piano four hands together again? I miss you very much.” This immediately made me think of their piano duet scene in your film. She is an incredibly accomplished musician herself, so seeing them perform together in this intimate setting was memorable. What was it like filming that sequence?

It’s incredible that you noticed that. I didn’t know that sequence had been on YouTube for many years and [had] many, many, many views, until the sad passing of Ryuichi Sakamoto. I think it was Kiki Miyake who mentioned that she saw it on YouTube. I found out that it’s maybe the only time they were filmed at home doing a duet. And it was totally unplanned. 

I had asked Ryuichi Sakamoto if we could film him playing the piano at home and he said, “Okay, but I have to ask my wife, because in Japan, the wife is in charge of the home.” She agreed that we could come there with our little crew to film and we brought our lunch and all had a picnic in the backyard. I actually received a photograph recently of us having our picnic. We asked her if she would be willing to do a duet. It was apparently a truly rare moment, totally unplanned. It was quite moving, and he does say that she is the more accomplished pianist, which I believe.

Was there any footage or ideas you wanted to use for the film but didn’t get to?

It was shot in 7 days. It’s 62 minutes. So the answer is “no” with that film. I don’t remember having to sacrifice a chunk. This is again the experimental part of French TV, so the broadcasting slots were not that strict. There was a time when you were limited to exactly a certain amount of minutes, but there they let me do 62 minutes. I think I got to put everything I wanted into the film. 

I’ll give you another example: I made a documentary on Edith Wharton, and it was produced by French TV. At the last minute they said, “You have to cut out 12 minutes, fast.” [Wharton] had many famous houses and gardens, so I had to cut an entire house and an entire garden.

What was it like when clips of the film were included in Coda?

I was contacted by the director, Stephen Nomura Schible, who wanted to use some excerpts from my film in Coda. I assume Shible had seen the film, but I also think that Sakamoto had told him to get in touch with me to be able to use some film excerpts. I actually helped him get through to French National TV and the INA in order to be able to use the excerpts because he wanted to [use] the original film negative to make a high-end digitization to use in his documentary. I helped him go through all the ropes here in France because it was kind of complicated to get people to answer. So I knew that he was going to use some footage. 

When you see a film, there’s so much going on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. It took many, many emails and a lot of people getting involved to get the original footage, find the negative and so forth. A lot of film labs have closed because people don’t use film anymore, but the film lab that had the negative was still open in France. 

Tokyo Melody: A Film About Ryuichi Sakamoto (1984)

Can you tell us anything about the rare 16mm print that’s playing and about the restoration of the film that’s being done?

I actually had that 16mm print in the storage space of my basement. I had not opened the film can in many years [until] the Japan Society contacted me about showing the film. We are now in the process of renewing the contract between the French INA and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s widow and agent. It was always a kind of co-production,so they are redoing the contract in order to be able to release the film in 4K or as a DCP, hopefully in movie theaters. I know they want to show it in Japan, hopefully in North America—it’s all being discussed right now. 

The film programmer at the Japan Society, Alexander Fee, [is also] a projectionist and he put me in touch with a place in Paris called Light Cone: “They’ll check the print to see if it’s screenable”. This is a print that I hadn’t seen since it had been sent to the São Paulo Film Festival in the ‘80s. When it came back, it was missing frames because, at the time, people who were looking for souvenirs would just cut out a little frame of the film and keep it. So there were several splices where there were one or two frames missing. They fixed the splices and then we sent it to New York. I don’t care about scratches or color having changed that much. I haven’t seen the whole print. We had to stop the test screening because we were afraid it might break. I’m a little worried about the sound. Hopefully Ryuichi Sakamoto, wherever he is, will be open to a different kind of sound. [laughs] I think he would be. 

Nel Dahl is a writer inspired by horror and genre cinema. She’s based in the Pacific Northwest with her Russian Blue cat. [Twitter]

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