The Beautiful, Unpredictable Life of Ryuichi Sakamoto

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In late March, Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was hailed as “arguably the best-known and most successful Japanese musician in the world,” died at the age of seventy-one. The cause was complications from cancer, which he had been battling for two years. I first got to know Sakamoto in 2018 and, since his diagnosis, had been interviewing him. I wasn’t sure what form a piece about Sakamoto would take, but it seemed important to capture everything I could. Sakamoto moved from New York to Tokyo in 2022 to continue his treatment, and our meetings became less frequent. Eventually, even Zoom was too tiring, and then he was gone.

In July, still unsettled, I went to the Shed, in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, to see “Kagami,” a mixed-reality show dedicated to his memory. For the piece, Sakamoto was filmed over three days in December of 2020 at a green-screen studio in Tokyo. That footage forms the basis for a virtual Sakamoto with the same neat silver mop of hair and round tortoiseshell eyeglasses as the living Sakamoto. There are moments in “Kagami” when the composer looks like a video-game character who has unlocked the Piano Spirit level. Mostly, though, Sakamoto is the flame in his own digital shrine, accompanied by the sound of his playing and a shifting backdrop of rain, smoke, and stars. The conjured tableaux do not distract from the impression that the show—kagami means “mirror” in Japanese—seeks resurrection through reflection.

Some of the audience at the Shed watched with the benign acceptance they might bring to M&M’s World, but others were wiping away tears under the heavy headsets. The next day, I e-mailed an old friend, Laura Forde, who is a creative director at the Times. I knew from an Instagram post that she had been moved by “Kagami,” though we’d never spoken about Sakamoto. “There are artists whose music I love more, or maybe I just listen to more often.” Forde wrote back. “So why the grief? I think it’s what he represented to me: humility, curiosity, and emotional intelligence.”

Her response accurately described my own experience of Sakamoto. His music balances two entirely distinct modes: slow and precise motifs and truly experimental gambits, especially when they involve brand-new technologies. What makes me return to Sakamoto’s work, though, is the vulnerable nature of his search, the sense that the salty experiments and sugary melodies are equally valid answers to the questions that every artist confronts: What does consciousness feel like? Why is experience so dry and mute, and then, on other days, so completely overwhelming?

“Kagami” is part of a wave of Sakamoto resurrections and reflections. His second memoir, “How Many More Times Will I Watch the Full Moon Rise?,” has just been published in Asia, by Shinchosha. His first, “Musik Macht Frei,” was published in 2009, but neither have been translated into English. Earlier this year, Sakamoto put out his final album, called “12.” Even though he described it as more of a “diary” than a fully conceived album, his facility with short themes and sonic grain makes it a good introduction to his late-period style. The last full work that he completed was “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus,” a film made in collaboration with his son, Neo Sora, who directed it. Working in a vast live room at NHK Broadcasting Center, Sakamoto goes through twenty songs in an hour and forty-three minutes, filmed lovingly in black-and-white. (“Opus” made its North American première on October 11th, at the sixty-first New York Film Festival.) In the months since Sakamoto’s death, I’ve been cycling through his recordings. Prescience is something that, by its nature, emerges only in retrospect. We don’t know who saw the future clearly until it’s become our past. My feeling is we’ve only begun to grasp Sakamoto’s musical legacy.

As a child, Sakamoto became a composer as soon as he started playing piano—some say at three years of age—with less than a year’s pause from the work, at the age of thirteen, when he decided to join a basketball team briefly. His father was a book editor and conservative. (In the nineties, he stomped out of a concert hall when he discovered that his son had dyed his hair blond.) The teen-age Sakamoto attended Tokyo University of the Arts, graduating in 1976 with a master’s in music composition. By the mid-seventies, he was getting steady session work as a keyboard player and arranger, and was active in Tokyo’s free-jazz scene. In later life, he didn’t like being identified as a pianist because of what he perceived as his own technical limitations, but he told me he was “at his best” when he was eighteen.

Synthesizers, unknown to many in 1976, are how the mainstream audience first encountered him. The bassist Haruomi Hosono and the drummer Yukihiro Takahashi had become friends with Sakamoto in the mid-seventies, appearing on one another’s records and meeting up at shows. In 1978, Hosono invited the two to his house and explained a concept for a new group over a dinner of rice balls. “We will arrange Martin Denny’s ‘Firecracker’ as an electric chunky disco using synthesizers and sell four million copies of the single worldwide,” he explained. A couple of months later, the first album from their group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, came out. Hosono’s note was more or less accurate. They were instantly huge.

Yellow Magic Orchestra, the name, was a deliberate play on the noxious idea of “exotica” itself. Sakamoto called it “that fake image of Asian culture, exotic, typical stereotype image—which Americans created in Hollywood!” The single that propelled all of them to stardom was, as planned, a cover of “Firecracker.” When Yellow Magic Orchestra appeared on “Soul Train,” the show’s host, Don Cornelius, introduced them as “the most popular contemporary band in all of Japan.” The musicians appear dapper in matching white shirts. Between songs, Cornelius said, “In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what’s going on, I haven’t the slightest idea.” Americans didn’t, either. Y.M.O. never took off on the U.S. charts. But Sakamoto became a bona-fide Japanese pop star.

By 1980, Y.M.O. had released three albums, but Sakamoto knew the band “wasn’t doing anything new.” They were being grouped with Kraftwerk, the electronic outfit that Sakamoto could tell was breaking ground. Y.M.O., in contrast, was a goofy jingle band, among whose early singles were three covers. (The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” an infelicitous moment, was one of those singles.) To set himself apart, Sakamoto went to England to record a surreal electronic album, called “B-2 Unit,” under his own name. Sakamoto created a song called “Riot In Lagos” with the engineer Dennis Bovell, a true architect of dub. Andy Partridge of XTC—then high in the British charts and at something of a creative peak—also appears on “B-2 Unit.” The album sounds so current and fully electronic that you can stump people who simply will not believe that they are hearing something made forty-three years ago.

Consumer-electronic brands like Kyocera began featuring Sakamoto in television ads. He was part of a celebrity couple with his wife, the virtuoso pianist and songwriter Akiko Yano, whom he married in 1982. In 1983, Sakamoto had a breakout performance, as both an actor and composer, in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a queer-adjacent art-house film. Sakamoto stars as Captain Yonoi, the Japanese commander overseeing a British prisoner of war, played by David Bowie. The film’s director, Nagisa Ōshima, cast Sakamoto alongside Bowie after noticing Sakamoto in a spread from a 1981 photo book of portraits of men. Sakamoto, only twenty-nine years old at the time, had a soft, doggy beauty, staring and simmering on the right page of the spread, eyes closed in a white shirt on the left. Not an actor by training, Sakamoto took the “Mr. Lawrence” role because Ōshima agreed to let him write the film’s score. Sakamoto’s “Mr. Lawrence” theme remains his most familiar piece, his “Hey Jude” or “Landslide.” It’s a glassy mechanism that cycles through a pre-melody as famous as the main melody that Sakamoto would end up recording in many settings and at many speeds—a baseline to his experimental career.

Sakamoto would go on to collaborate with a range of people in Hollywood, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Charlie Brooker, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Although that work helped pay the bills, Sakamoto never fully surrendered to the world of narrative. In 1984, Sakamoto appeared with the Korean American video artist Nam June Paik for a night of improvised music in honor of Paik’s new book, “Time Collage.” Onstage, Sakamoto freestyled on a toy trumpet, while Paik spoke, landing something between standup comedy and performance art. When I was with him, Sakamoto always seemed more excited to talk about John Cage or the sound of trees than anything else.

In May of 1984, the photographer Elizabeth Lennard made an hour-long documentary about Sakamoto called “Tokyo Melody,” for the experimental wing of French national TV. Though Tokyo had public video billboards at the time and Sakamoto was in loads of commercials, the team could not be sure that they’d find any of them spontaneously playing in the wild. To address this, Lennard rented a screen in a Tokyo square and went there early one morning to film Sakamoto standing in front of the screen while his ads played behind him. “We went there very early in the morning because Ryuichi was afraid there’d be too many fans,” Lennard told me. “Within about fifteen minutes, there were young girls sitting down on the pavement, crying, moved to see him. You have to think the Beatles of Japan.”

In “Tokyo Melody,” Sakamoto appears repeatedly in full metallic eyeshadow and a suit, talking about how “time is no longer linear” for composers and Japan’s primacy among capitalist countries in a moment when “the season of politics is over.” While playing with a toy ray gun, he says he is “absorbed” by the “errors or noises” of technology and wonders if “new cultural currents could emerge from this deficiency.” This, of course, is exactly what happened with hip-hop and noise music and glitching and all the genres based on the output of machines designed to do something other than whatever they ended up doing.

As often as Sakamoto went into the depths of the avant-garde, he kept being invited back to the brightly lit world of celebrity. Sakamoto appeared as a film director in Madonna’s “Rain” video in 1993, not because he had anything to do with the song but because, as the director Mark Romanek said, he was “the most iconic and famous and attractive Japanese icon.”

Despite being an iconic icon, a one of one, Sakamoto spent the last twenty-five years of his life as a daring and generous musical collaborator. In my conversations with him, we never seemed to be talking precisely about music or not about music but, rather, a continuum of events with musical implications. The world and what is musical about the world seemed to be one proposition for Sakamoto. “I loved his love of environmental sound and how he didn’t really make any distinction between the noise of civilization and nature and music and silence and all of these things that are elemental,” Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, told me. “He was really an impressionist of postmodernity or whatever you wanna call it.”

One of my favorite examples of Sakamoto’s machine humanity is “Esperanto,” an album he did for a Molissa Fenley dance piece in 1985. It was made with the Fairlight CMI, the height of sampling technology, used in larger hits by Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Art of Noise. What stands out about this music is that aspects of production that are now standard were anything but at the time, and yet Sakamoto could already hear what sampling technology could do. He saw how it can find a small blast of sound—anything that appeals, regardless of its pitch or traditional musicality—and use it like a squib of blood in movies. It’s what musicians call a “stab,” central to the work of producers like DJ Premier. Or you can loop a phrase indefinitely, a move that has permanently changed how popular music operates. Or you can distort and mangle a sound wave, something common to the work of Arca and Vegyn and other producers of the moment. All of these strategies are present in this bright and goofy album.

My affection for Sakamoto has not blinded me to the work itself. I would be lying if I said I found all of his experiments equally rewarding. “Sakamoto, the mad genius with extinct tech” is infinitely preferable to “Sakamoto, the singing pinup,” the latter an approach he tried in earnest in the nineties with several pop albums that failed in almost every sense. The breadth of his project is important, though. There was so little condescension in Sakamoto’s work, toward other music or even his own previous careers. It didn’t seem that the mainstream offended him but, rather, that he found it hard to be himself in the available settings, most of which he tried before rejecting. “I don’t like acting,” Sakamoto told Elle in 1988. “Maybe because I have to play fanatic Japanese bad guys. I’d like to play someone modern, sensitive.”

“He was very smart, but he was very tender,” the musician Laurie Anderson told me, a few months after Sakamoto’s death. “I just found that unbelievably endearing and beautiful.” Sakamoto’s way of being as tender in his art as he was in his life came through in the music itself. As the nineties came to a close, Sakamoto narrowed his compositions to focus on the melodic core while opening up his recording process until it was almost the same as sound design for movies. One of the biggest developments was meeting the German artist and musician Carsten Nicolai. Sakamoto attended Nicolai’s first concert in Japan and asked him to remix “Insensatez,” a song by the Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim that Sakamoto had covered. The two then began a long process of sending files back and forth, resulting in twenty years of collaborative albums, including the soundtrack for “The Revenant.”

The two recorded a signature album called “Glass” at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in Connecticut. Microphones were placed on windows all around the building, right before a storm hit as the concert began. “The starting of the album is basically the rain playing the house,” Nicolai told me. To understand Sakamoto’s last few decades of work, you can think of that rain as representing nature, increasingly present in his music in the form of field recordings, and the piano itself literally exploded into a series of tones and noise-making opportunities. Sometimes the piano is just a piano, by itself, playing a Sakamoto motif. Other times it’s the idea of a piano, the tonalities abstracted and distended.

My favorite Sakamoto album is “async,” released in 2017, partly because it combines almost everything Sakamoto cared about. It was recorded as he recovered from illness, and was not created for any label or any client or filmmaker. He made it for himself. The melodies and textures of “async” make it feel like a photo album, a prismatic review of his interests. This creation is one subject of Stephen Nomura Schible’s fantastic 2018 documentary, “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” as quiet and unneurotic as Sakamoto’s music. You see Sakamoto carefully deciding to use a clip of the author Paul Bowles reading from “The Sheltering Sky.” He ventures out to record the sound of leaves in an unidentified forest and captures the sound of a bucket, worn over his head.

“Coda” begins with his pilgrimage to the Miyagi prefecture. “I heard about a piano that survived the tsunami,” he says at the opening. (He ends up recording the piano for parts of “async.”) In “Coda,” the Geiger counter seems to be taking readings of both Fukushima and Sakamoto, who discovered he had Stage III throat cancer in June of 2014. “I couldn’t come to terms with it,” he says, seeming very much to have come to terms with it. In the opening of the film, he plays “Mr. Lawrence” for an auditorium of families in a junior high school that was used as an evacuation site during the original meltdown. You see him working on the score for “The Revenant,” and simultaneously working on “async.” This was his version of taking it easy while ill.

After we met, in 2018, Sakamoto and I had coffee, and he invited me to see a young Japanese band called Kukangendai. More than a little intimidated about standing next to the maestro at a loud rock show, I begged off with some goofy excuse, a choice that I regret. Throughout the following years, COVID and cancer made it impossible to reconvene in person, though Zoom bridged that gap a few times. The last images I saw of Sakamoto were shown to me recently by a member of his family: an iPhone video of his final moments taken on March 28th. Thin, with longer hair and breathing through an oxygen mask, Sakamoto is animated, conducting with his right hand and then using the same hand to play a figure on an unseen piano. It is a moment common to musicians, when you are playing and listening at the same time. He could have been hearing the air in his mask, the piano in his head, or something else entirely. ♦


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