Ryuichi Sakamoto

It’s 1985 and Ryuichi Sakamoto sits before the camera of French filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard. She’s capturing the Japanese superstar for a documentary film, Tokyo Melody, which is tangentially a music documentary. But with its non-linear structure, bursts of technological color, and the philosophical musings of its subject, it reveals the long shadow cast by another French film, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, released just two years prior. It also echoes Sakamoto’s own musings on time.

“People compose their music from the first till the last note following a chronological order,” Sakamoto says. “But now, we can, for instance, start at the middle, memorize it, continue another part and memorize that. The notion of a piece of music is we can put each memorized part anywhere, so time is no longer linear. Time does not develop in one way. We have a block of divided times. We can compose music and put it in any order we like.” 

The film captures Sakamoto in a curious period of his life, just after his successful group Yellow Magic Orchestra disbanded and after he’d crossed over to the silver screen with his role opposite David Bowie in director Nagisa Ōshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. He’s working on Ongaku Zukan, an album which will take nearly two years to finalize, while also putting in long hours composing music for commercials. As both that album and the film make clear, he’s enamored with the infinite possibilities of the new technology, loading giant eight inch floppy disks into a Fairlight C.M.I. and stating that “any kind of sound will be OK.” 

That cast-off line became a mantra of sorts. Sakamoto was economical, and could find something that resonated in almost any noise, melody, or new-fangled gear. Throughout his career Ryuichi Sakamoto struck a balance between West and East, between the European classical canon (which he absorbed while earning his master’s in music composition at Tokyo University) and the cutting edge technology emerging from modern Japan. Barely out of college, he was in-demand as a session player in Tokyo. 

And when Haruomi Hosono conceived of a band that would “arrange Martin Denny’s ‘Firecracker’ as an electric chunky disco using synthesizers and sell four million copies of the single worldwide,” Sakamoto went along with it, soon finding himself caught up in the tsunami of pop stardom as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and firmly entangled within the wires of ascendant synthesizer technology. The group’s bond always seemed unstable, their personalities not aligned, the group disbanding at their peak in 1983, reforming in the ‘90s, then begrudgingly cashing in on live tours over the years. (In 2018, Hosono played his first ever live shows outside of his native Japan, including a date at London’s Barbican Centre. Not even three miles to the north, Sakamoto was part of a residency at Café Oto. At the last minute, he was convinced to take the stage with his old bandmates, the last time all three members of Yellow Magic Orchestra would play live. As the final notes of “Absolute Ego Dance” faded out, Sakamoto dashed back out the door.)

Sakamoto had a more uneasy relationship with fame and celebrity than Hosono did. He sought out the largest possible platforms in order to disseminate his music as widely as he could. He worked often with the biggest pop stars emerging from the UK, including David Sylvian, Thomas Dolby, Robin Scott, Andy Partridge, and more. TV and film scores were often his priority and he garnered Grammys and Oscars along the way. In the 1990s, his zealotry to be everything to everyone became acute, his major label albums teeming with guests and slick new sounds. As one album title Esperanto suggested, it could seem like Sakamoto was in search of a universal musical language. 

At the turn of the century, Sakamoto pivoted back to his avant-garde roots, collaborating with new players who also wedded melodicism and electronics to abstract and visceral ends. And rather than being the solo star and primary focus, he reveled in collaboration and equal dialogue. Such conversations became his primary focus over the last two decades of his life.

Sakamoto was always open to utilizing technology to further his true mission in music, which writer Sasha Frere-Jones described as an exploration of his very humanity amid the machines, “the vulnerable nature of his search…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?” Whether constructing bittersweet movie themes or finding music within the austere crackle of circuitry, Sakamoto mastered both approaches.

async cover

The legendary Japanese composer was diagnosed with throat cancer in June of 2014, undergoing rigorous treatments that sidelined most of his endeavors and made for the biggest rest in his musical career. When Sakamoto did return to music, he made what he thought would be his last solo effort. The album features austere electronic soundscapes, Satie-esque piano miniatures, the synth wizardry of his early days with YMO, homages to cinematic heroes like Andrei Tarkovsky, and more. When recording the score for The Sheltering Sky, Sakamoto also recorded author Paul Bowles, using his voice here to profound effect: “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.” As such, async revisits the many touchstones of his career, with Sakamoto hovering over it all like a ghost revisiting his past.

Vrioon cover

After spending much of the 1990s trying to become established in western culture, Sakamoto finally pivoted away from his mainstream aspirations and set his intentions back on his avant-garde roots. That he would become enamored with the new generation of minimal electronic laptop musicians made sense, since Sakamoto himself had inspired them with his early ‘80s explorations. His longest running collaboration began at the turn of the century with German producer Carsten Nicolai, when the latter was commissioned to rework a Sakamoto piece. Pleased with the results, Sakamoto began sending files of piano music over, which the clicks’n’cuts pioneer transformed into elegant minimal meditations. The end result was 2002’s Vrioon, a mix of delicate hoarfrost melodies set against subterranean bass pulses and icy crackle. Their contemplative dialogue would continue for the next two decades.

12 cover

At the height of the pandemic, Sakamoto’s cancer returned and he was given a grim prognosis. In the face of his own mortality, Sakamoto did what he has done throughout his career: go into the studio with a workman-like diligence to record what would be his last album. Utilizing piano and synthesizer and the very air surrounding each sound, 12 serves as an aching summation of his greatest attributes as an artist: a rigorous minimalism that sets every gesture in its most resonant place, the ability to turn every sound into something as evocative as a melody, a mindfulness of space, an uncanny ability to make the human and mechanical co-exist as one. It’s a man at a piano bench, making his final gestures on his instrument, every pained breath and halting silence experienced by the listener. A bittersweet capstone to a singular career.

子猫物語 [The Adventures of Chatran] cover

One of Sakamoto’s biggest commercial successes came from scoring a gentle film for kids and families alike, 1986’s The Adventures Of Chatran. It’s a story about a fuzzy orange tabby kitten and a cute pug. They wind up on a road adventure, encountering all sorts of other animals. If that sounds exactly like the plot to The Adventures of Milo and Otis, that’s because it’s the same film. Not only was Chatran renamed Milo, but Sakamoto’s charming, endearing synth soundtrack was bafflingly scrubbed from the American version of the film, making it one of the more difficult scores to hear in the West.

音楽図鑑 [Ongaku Zukan] cover

Yellow Magic Orchestra went on hiatus in 1983, yet Sakamoto remained busier than ever. Commercial work, acting in films while also scoring films (and also the subject of a film), producing albums for his wife Akiko Yano and many others, he also started work on Ongaku Zukan. He treated production like an office job, clocking in Monday through Friday and putting in long hours, but even then the album took 22 months all told. The ambitious album veers from Tokyo folk melodies to cocktail jazz to total abstraction. Fascinated by the new Fairlight C.M.I. and its sampling possibilities, Sakamoto obsesses over all manner of small sonic details, making it one of his most intricate mosaics in his discography.

The Revenant [Original Soundtrack] cover

In 2016, Sakamoto was battling cancer, putting off all of his many musical projects. But his cinephilia was such that he couldn’t say no when director Alejandro G. Iñárritu asked him to score his film The Revenant. Sakamoto’s arrangements are augmented by Alva Noto’s minimal campfire crackle and larger orchestrations from Bryce Dessner of The National. Sakamoto’s strength is his brevity, conveying in minute-long cues and motifs all the natural beauty and brutality of the frozen landscape. It’s one of Sakamoto’s late career highlights.

Thousand Knives cover

By the time he completed his M.A. in music at Tokyo University, piano prodigy Ryuichi Sakamoto had mastered the Western classical canon and was feeling restless. The rise of synthesizers in Japan fascinated him (as such new technology would do throughout his decades-long career) and so he dove in, creating a beguiling and baffling debut album. Recorded before joining Yellow Magic Orchestra – which would make him a celebrity in his native Japan and revered by beatheads around the globe – the album teems with possibilities, messiness, and paths generally not taken. A long introduction in barely intelligible vocoder gibberish? Check. Wailing guitar solos? Pile it on. Spare deep space meditations, nature sounds, gentle piano etudes? They’re present and would continue to fascinate Sakamoto throughout his life, scattered like seeds here, taking root.

Coda cover

Coda would later become the title for a 2018 documentary looking at the maestro’s last years, but this 1983 gem reconfigures the cues from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, removing the cinematic drama and casting them as etudes for solo piano. It would also double as Sakamoto’s first album of solo piano (thankfully not the last). But as is his wont, Sakamoto can’t help but fuss with the format, slotting in two new pieces (“Japan” and “Coda”) that merge his piano with synthesizers to create a beguiling fusion.

The Last Emperor [Original Soundtrack] cover

Tantalizing though it might seem from the shared credit at the top of the cover, the soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1987 film The Last Emperor is actually not a collaboration between Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne. Instead, the scoring duties were split between them. On the album, Byrne’s cues were gathered on one side, Sakamoto’s on the other. Sakamoto strikes a balance between classical Chinese instrumentation, dramatic orchestrations, and delicate Fairlight ambience (programmed by Hans Zimmer). Their sensibilities might have been split, but nevertheless, the score garnered both Sakamoto and Byrne an Oscar and a Grammy.

Left-Handed Dream cover

One of the great one-off collaborations of the eighties, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s third studio album found him in dialogue with two unlikely western collaborators: “Pop Muzik” maestro Robin Scott and alternative guitar shredder Adrian Belew (also credited as “angry animals”). With Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono also in the mix, Left-Handed Dream furthers the electro-rhythm experimentations of B-2 Unit and presents a more spare version of YMO pop, while also adding the elegant ‘80s sound emanating from the UK. It’s a cocktail that shouldn’t work, but it does to an intoxicating effect.

Beauty cover

The aural equivalent of Shinjuku Station at rush hour, Sakamoto’s 1989 major label album Beauty captures the sound of teeming humanity from many walks of life in all of its over-caffeinated glory. Every second of it is overstuffed with sonic details, which would sound like bloat from just about any other pop artist. Yet Sakanmoto is deft, even when mixing Okinawan melodies, hip-hop drums, slick R&B, Indian tabla, cut’n’paste samples, synthesized woodwinds, rock guitar, and MTV pop to tackle the likes of the Rolling Stones and Stephen Foster. How else to explain an album that features Sly Dunbar, Brian Wilson, no wave legend Arto Lindsey, and Youssou N’Dour, all on one song! A global polyglot that on the surface might resemble a Benetton ad yet features plenty of elegant moments (see “Rose”) that are classic Sakamoto.

Field Work cover

A gleaming one-off pairing between Sakamoto and fellow synthesizer mad wizard (and “Blinded Me with Science” MTV icon) Thomas Dolby. One side is an elegant ‘80s ditty by two suave gents imagining “getting my fingers dirty,” while clean chimes, digital strums, and flanged drums bounce around them. It’s synth-pop from an immaculate parallel universe and the video –featuring streetpunk Dolby with triple mohawk– is a very peculiar ‘80s artifact. Yet “Exhibition,” which fills the entire B-side, has proved most visionary: a giddy 15-minute bob (or blob for that matter) in fluttering, cooing, amniotic fluid. It’s an ambient electronic lodestar that’s beckoned to producers from the early ‘90s into the present day.

Cendre cover

Sakamoto’s juxtaposition of abstract electronics with European classical romanticism served as a template for future generations of musicians. By the late ‘90s, Austrian guitarist/composer Christian Fennesz took up the mantle, running his six-string through his laptop to elicit thrilling – and glitchy – new vistas. The two collaborated in 2007 and it was a match made in heaven, as Sakamoto had returned to his avant-garde roots. Together, the two delve deeper into this exquisite realm of old-world melodic motifs rendered by 21st century technology, creating patterns that resemble antique lace draped atop a television set to static.

Esperanto cover

By 1985, choreographer Molissa Fenley had emerged as one of the strongest voices in modern dance, even crossing over to collaborate with the likes of Philip Glass, Keith Haring, Talking Heads, and Rei Kawakubo. She topped herself with a physically demanding, evening-length piece entitled Esperanto, which featured an all-female troupe, Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes, and a soundtrack created by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It was the first glimpse of him using his sampler as a compositional tool and the results were visceral and mesmerizing, jagged and beautiful like a Parc Güell mosaic. With spiky no wave guitar from Arto Lindsey and tribal percussion from Yas-Kaz, it makes for one of the more abstract yet rewarding albums in Sakamoto’s catalog.

Wild Palms (Original Series Soundtrack) cover

After the surprise success of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – but before the concept of prestige television became commonplace – ABC signed director Oliver Stone to produce Wild Palms, a miniseries that aired over five consecutive nights and prominently featured Sakamoto’s composed themes. It would perhaps be as close as Sakamoto ever got to being in the American mainstream, being broadcast into homes on a nightly basis. His driving piano, synthesizer themes, and heart-stirring orchestrations meet operatic vocals to create a passionate soundtrack that has lingered far after the original series faded from collective memory.

BTTB cover

Sakamoto’s focus shifted to film score work in the 1990s, while his solo albums became slightly more scattershot. And then one day, while stuck in a Tokyo traffic jam, a simple melody popped into his head. It was something that called for a stripped-down, direct interpretation, not needing an orchestra, drum programmers, guest vocalists, or album cover hair stylists, just Sakamoto back to the piano bench. And so 1998’s BTTB (Back to the Basics) foregrounded Sakamoto in solo mode. His piano melodies harken back to the likes of Erik Satie, but with a few experimental wrinkles that also call to mind John Cage, presaging his path forward in the new century.

Neo Geo cover

By the time of 1987’s Neo Geo, Sakamoto was operating near a peak in both Japanese and Western pop music scenes, as close as anyone has come to perfect synergy between the two sensibilities. On “Neo Geo,” he’s able to take a traditional folk melody and have the likes of Sly Dunbar and producer Bill Laswell funk it up. But he’s just as good at inverting the formula, filling the electro-street funk of “Shogunade” with grunted Japanese chants. The album also features what might be Sakamoto’s greatest collaboration, “Risky,” a sleek and forlorn pop tune featuring Iggy Pop. One can only wonder what a full album from the duo might have yielded.

Works II - TV/Inst. cover

One might argue that Sakamoto’s recording career at times was a sidebar to his more lucrative career as composer for music, television, and commercials. Maybe you could avoid his music on the radio, but good luck getting through a night of TV without hearing at least one of the man’s melodies beaming into your living room. Starting in the ‘80s, he was in high demand and one can readily admire his economy, focus, and precision in the one-minute spots he rendered for TV commercials. This handy compendium gathers some of his most iconic cues and you might find yourself marveling at how many of these themes ended up as classic songs.

Summvs cover

Sakamoto’s duo with Alva Noto became one of his most profound dialogues in the 21st century, spanning decades and striking a delicate balance between the two and their soundworlds. The Latin roots of the title of their fifth album, Summvs, makes such intentions clear (“summa” and “versus” mean “sum” and “towards”). There’s a bit more of a pulse to Noto’s laptop, while Sakamoto’s piano has a bit more linear development. It builds towards a bit of a surprise, a cover of “By This River,” written by another famous collaboration, between Brian Eno and Cluster in the 1970s. Placed here it gives a most welcome feeling of warmth, like a thaw after a long winter.

B-2 Unit cover

Sakamoto’s second solo album is both an established b-boy classic yet futuristic enough to still feel enigmatic and underexplored. With fellow collaborators like Dennis Bovell and XTC’s Andy Partridge, Sakamoto staked out a space between synth-pop, post-punk, and dub. Existential meditations like “Thatness and Thereness” slot alongside thrilling beat experiments like “E-3A” and the certified early electro classic “Riot in Lagos.”

Year Book 1980-1984 cover

In the wake of Sakamoto’s cancer remission in 2017, he set about getting his back pages in order, releasing four compilations of odds and ends spanning from 1971 through 2014. This one captures Sakamoto operating at a feverish pitch during his most prolific period. There’s noisy blasts in duet with the iconic Phew, post-punk explorations for a radio broadcast rooted in his B-2 Unit era sound, spiky electro dubs, and a piano trio featuring noted Satie and Morton Feldman interpreter Aki Takahashi and her brother Yuji Takahashi.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence [Original Soundtrack] cover

While Sakamoto was in a world-famous band (United States excluded, alas) and had a profound and prolific solo career (US exempt as well), his most iconic piece of music remains the theme from director Nagisa Ôshima’s 1983 film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Sakamoto acted in it across from one of his heroes, David Bowie, but their collaboration never ventured beyond the silver screen (alas). A WWII film that doubles as a landmark of queer cinema, Sakamoto’s bittersweet piano melody at the core of the movie conveys all the ache and bittersweetness of unattainable love. The use of voice and choir is poignant (see “Ride Ride Ride”), something he would return to on his later film work, but his synth washes convey darkness as well. Sakamoto would go on to score nearly 120 films, but few are as resonant as this soundtrack.