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An introduction to Ryuichi Sakamoto in six albums

Following the release of his minimal new album 12, we explore the Japanese composer’s decades-long career, from Yellow Magic Orchestra to his film scores and beyond

On the week that he celebrates his 71st birthday, legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has dropped a sombre and minimal new album, titled 12. A stark collection of ambient sounds and delicate musings, it offers a “shower of sound” comprising spacey pads, Harold Budd piano-playing, and laboured breaths. 

This is a “diary”, says a press release, of the sketches and sounds the composer recorded while recovering from an operation, and a long stay in hospital. The tracks are laid out in sequential order – as if they were a log of progress. Sakamoto is battling stage four cancer, as he revealed publicly in 2022. But he’s “praying that I will be able to make music until my last moments, just like my beloved Bach and Debussy”.

As one of the most iconic musicians in the history of modern Japanese music, Sakamoto’s gift feels bittersweet. The talented ethnomusicology student, keyboard player, experimental pop musician, award-winning film scorer, actor, producer and avant-garde experimenter may have few offerings left (which is why the announcement earlier this month that he’d be scoring the new Hirokazu Kore-eda film, Monster, was such wonderful news).

But 12 also marks an opportunity for celebration of a hugely influential career that now spans six decades, and only continues to inspire. For the uninformed, here’s where to start with the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto.

YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA (1978)

Easily one of the greatest Sakamoto projects was Yellow Magic Orchestra, an experimental pop group sometimes described as Japan’s answer to Kraftwerk or Giorgio Moroder, whose pioneering electronic music served as a formative influence on all kinds of emerging genres including techno, hip hop, synth-pop and video game music. 

Effectively a supergroup comprising of three extraordinary veterans – rock musician and nascent super-producer Haruomi Hosono, drummer-vocalist Yukihiro Takahashi (who sadly passed away just a few days ago, in January 2023), and arranger-composer Sakamoto, who played keyboards – Yellow Magic Orchestra burst onto the music scene with their eponymous album in 1978. 

That idiosyncratic debut, full of computerised melodies, funk-bass and glitchy synthesisers, yielded unlikely hits in the UK and America via the singles “Computer Game” and “Firecracker”. But the best track is perennial Sakamoto highlight “Tong Poo” – a China-inspired composition built around exotic Eastern melodies and bleeping computer sounds.

THOUSAND KNIVES (1978)

Opening with a vocoder recital of a poem written by Chairman Mao, and closing with a melody taken from a famous Chinese revolutionary song, this debut solo album further highlights 26-year-old Sakamoto’s fascination with eastern history. It’s also full of wild, Prince-style guitar solos, and a panoply of synthesisers, drum machines and sequencers – the latter of which were brand-new technologies at the time.

It’s a hugely experimental, genre-colliding work that teeters on the brink between mastery and madness. There are barely any vocals; instead, vibrant melodies ping and bounce around like a room full of malfunctioning computers. And glimpses of reggae, jazz, funk, and krautrock all show up at unexpected moments, as if the listener is on some kind of weird, electronic musical safari. 

The pongs and whirrs of “Plastic Bamboo”, the minimalist pianos of “Grasshoppers”, and especially the playful dance of “The End of Asia” all stand out, but it’s the 10-minute title track – full of gamelan-style percussion and video game bass lines – that’s the real highlight. Thundercat’s cover of the track in 2022 — for the compilation A Tribute To Ryuichi Sakamoto: To The Moon And Back – isn’t bad either.

SOLID STATE SURVIVOR (1979)

Though the impact of their eclectic debut album was immediate, it was Yellow Magic Orchestra’s follow-up album, Solid State Survivor, that remains arguably their best and most complete work.

The album opens with Sakamoto-penned “Technopolis”, a triumphant, arpeggiated bolt of serotonin that continues manically into Hosono’s “Absolute Ego Dance” and the Takahashi-composed “Rydeen (the latter being one of the giddiest highlights of the band’s entire eight-album discography). The record’s b-side is no less intoxicating. Ahead of a bizarre cover of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” is a cosmic rework of a Sakamoto synth-balled Sakamoto that was originally penned for a 1978 Seiko watch commercial – which would go on to have a fascinating legacy.

“Behind the Mask” was later covered by artists like Orbital, Eric Clapton, and (quite incredibly) Michael Jackson. The latter’s version was supposed to have appeared on “Thriller”, but it went unreleased for 28 years after Yellow Magic Orchestra’s management quashed the move.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR LAWRENCE (1983)

Sakamoto would embark on an impressive career in the film industry in the mid-80s, going on to score films for directors as diverse as Brian de Palma (Snake Eyes), Luca Guadagnino (The Staggering Girl) and Pedro Almodóvar (High Heels) thereafter. He’d pick up major awards in the process — including a Grammy and the Academy Award for Best Original Music for his work on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 historical epic The Last Emperor. But it was Sakamoto’s first film score that arguably remains the most iconic. 

The BAFTA-winning main theme for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence – a queer-coded war film about a POW camp in Java, in which Sakamoto would also star opposite David Bowie – fuses starburst synthesisers with a mystic and percussive melody. The result is an ethereal east-meets-west soundscape that profoundly augments the culture clash that is the film’s core theme (also embodied powerfully by its two opposing musician-actor leads).

Already a cult classic, the score might have pierced the cultural zeitgeist even deeper if it hadn’t been for Bowie’s devotion to his character role. He was approached to provide vocals for the title theme, but ultimately turned down Sakamoto’s invitation so that he could focus on his acting. The performance, incidentally, would end up being one of the most lauded of Bowie’s acting career.

BTTB (1999)

In his liner notes for the 20th anniversary of BTTB in 2018, celebrated author Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood) put it best: “once in a while we need music like this,” he wrote. “We need it as much as we need hot black coffee at the break of dawn, and a cat napping next to us in the afternoon.”

An acronym for “Back to the Basics”, BTTB collates a series of solo and duet piano compositions between experimental interludes (like the spacey doorstop-pinging sounds of “Do Bacteria Sleep”, or the gurgling bathwater of “uetax”). The style and rhythm are often likened to that of Erik Satie’s chiming “Trois Gymnopédies”, but it also runs parallel to the transcendent works of one of Sakamoto’s contemporaries – Joe Hisaishi, best known in the West for his Studio Ghibli film scores. Either way, the music is sublime.

Fingers frolic over ivory keys on tracks like “chanson”, and flow gracefully on the hesitant “lorenz and watson”, and the delicate “energy flow” – but it’s the waltzing opening number, “opus”, that is the album’s masterpiece. Ostensibly born from a melody that arrived in the creator’s mind in the middle of a Tokyo traffic jam, it marries tip-toeing melodies with lush, sweeping trills and sumptuous extended chords, imbuing the track with a rich and powerful melancholy.

ASYNC (2017)

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood? How many times will you watch the full moon rise? And yet, it all seems limitless.” 

This statement, an excerpt taken from Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky, and repeated in multiple languages across brooding central track “fullmoon”, hangs heavily over the rest of “async”. The album was Sakamoto’s first original solo album since his initial cancer diagnosis in 2014 – and while he had managed to continue his film scoring career via films like The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) and Rage (Lee Sang-il, 2016), he was unable to find inspiration to make another record of his own during this time.

Eventually, inspiration came from an unlikely source. Andrei Tarkovsky was the philosophical Soviet filmmaker in whom Sakamoto glimpsed a “profound love and reverence for the sound of things”, and whose films – like Stalker and Solaris – were deeply concerned with mortality, metaphysics, and faith. He’d died from cancer in 1986, and so async was conceived as a soundtrack to a film of his that did not, and could never, exist.

Haunting opener “andata” mimics the funereal Bach organ chorales heard in Solaris’, and the mournful “disintegration” recalls the deteriorating sounds of William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops”, while the galactic synth arps of “stakra” hark back to Sakamoto’s own 80s wizardry. But on the whole, this is a haunting and dreamlike sound art assembly, full of atonal sounds taken from out-of-tune pianos, field recordings, and isolated pads and chimes. Its eerie atmosphere still feels deeply resonant in light of the composer’s health today.

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