Kagami at the Roundhouse review: Ryuichi Sakamoto VR gig is another step into the weird posthumous tech future

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By turns moving and discombobulating, this “mixed reality” event enables audiences to interact with the work and the spectral figure of Japanese pop, electro and film score composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, 10 months after his death from cancer in 2023.

Through a headset we watch a 3D, digitally-finessed version of Sakamoto play gentle, mournful solo pieces on a piano, augmented by Hallmark-style CGI images: silvery rain, twinkling constellations, vegetal growth, cityscapes.

Unlike in Abba Voyage you can wander about, peering at Sakamoto’s elegant, silken-haired avatar from different angles and dodging fellow onlookers, glimpsed as ghosts in your peripheral vision. It’s gently discouraged, but you can take off your headset and take rubbishy photos through it, or barge into Sakamoto and his virtual Yamaha Grand waving your arms, if you really want to.

This generates an odd mixture of reverence and disinhibition. Some onlookers tentatively applaud as Sakamoto dematerialises after each number, some silently observe, some mutter and joke. The music is wonderful, the tech a mixture of cutting edge and clunky. Overall this feels like another tentative step into a future where AI, VR, CGI and all the other tech initials will affect how artists are presented in life and after death.

A cross-genre musical pioneer since the Seventies, who collaborated with everyone worthwhile and won every award going for his carefully selected film scores, Sakamoto was a man of quietly assured vision. He developed Kagami, which means Mirror, with pioneering production studio Tin Drum, before his death. As with Abba Voyage, it’s reassuring to know that the avatar has been created with the performer’s consent.

The first three, softly beautiful numbers are accompanied by coalescing clouds, a murmuration of lights and a slowly turning 3D laser grid. The fourth, Energy Flow, which hit No 1 in Japan in 1999 (an accolade at which the otherwise mostly silent Sakamoto speaks to express bafflement), sees the pianist illuminated from above by a window showing a slow progress through snow to a derelict piano.

The percussive sixth track features jumping sonic rings and cycloramic shots of Tokyo, Paris and Charing Cross. Sakamoto’s two most famous film themes – for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and The Last Emperor – are included. The 10th and last track, BB, written on the death of Bernardo Bertolucci and announced as such by the composer, feels terribly poignant.

The headsets are less cumbersome than most current VR masks but it’s still a massive, buzz-killing bore to learn about, strap on and adapt to them. The sound is excellent, the vision of Sakamoto striking but too Pixar-polished.

Kagami is challenging. Should we react to it as a (very unresponsive) live show or a reverential conjuring? Should we sit and absorb or wander and chat? As well as celebrating Sakamoto’s artistry, this show raises lots of questions about the splicing of the live and virtual in entertainment that we’re going to have to answer in the coming years.

Roundhouse, to January 21, roundhouse.org.uk