Crop of photograph of Ryuichi Sakamoto on the cover of his 1978 album, Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Photo by Makoto Iida.

A few words about Ryuichi Sakamoto

On Wednesday or Thursday this last week, a day after re-watching the Ryuichi Sakamoto performance at the Armory that is included as an extra on the Coda blu-ray, I decided to re-watch the documentary itself. As I closed the disc tray, I remember wondering why there hadn’t been any news on Sakamoto’s condition lately, but then concluding that he must still be hanging on. News on his official Instagram feed had been sparse lately, particularly since the death of his YMO bandmate Takahashi in January. The most most recent item announced the May release of a 2-disc compilation curated by the film director Alejandro González Iñárritu. 

On Friday and Saturday, I chose Sakamoto’s 1986 album 未来派野郎 (Futurista) as my in-car listening, thinking that maybe he’s got a little more time.

As it turned out, he was already gone.

My first exposure of any kind to the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto was probably the TV spots run by a local Seattle–Tacoma station in 1979 or 1980 to promote its afternoon lineup of cartoon shows. These spots used excerpts from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Tong Poo” and “La Femme Chinoise”, from the band’s first album, Yellow Magic Orchestra. I didn’t know this at the time, however, as I had never heard any of YMO’s music, just their name.

My first YMO album was BGM, in 1981. But I had a hard time getting into that album (it’s not exactly the best one for a newbie to start with), so it wasn’t until I started listening to the band Japan in 1982 that I found my way back to YMO as part of the process of exploring the music of artists associated with Japan (the band and the country). The first YMO album I enjoyed on first listen was the US version of X∞Multiplies, which combined songs from the Japanese release with songs from their 1979 album Solid State Survivor (among them “Technopolis” and “Rydeen”).

The next year or so solidified my Sakamoto fandom. The fall 1982 release of his joint single with David Sylvian (“Bamboo Houses”/“Bamboo Music”) got me interested; the 1983 release of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and its soundtrack got me hooked. I made several pilgrimages to the Downtown Seattle theater where the film was showing. Sakamoto’s score not only enhanced the emotional content of the film, but it was one of those rare non-pop music soundtracks that could stand on its own. (Other examples, in my opinion, are John Williams’s score for the original Star Wars and Tangerine Dream’s score for Sorcerer.) Undoubtedly thanks to Sakamoto’s many influences, not to mention the primarily electronic instrumentation, the music has a quality that is both familiar and alien at the same time. 1983 was kind of a weird year for me, so the soundtrack fit my mood at the time quite well. It subsequently became part of my regular rotation for the next several months.

I got my first CD player in early 1984; that’s when I began to delve further. At that time, CDs were still so new that Tower Records carried them in its classical music store, rather than with the regular non-classical genres. Also, CDs were not yet being made in the US, so even domestic releases were technically imports. So, in addition to the handful of domestic titles that were available, Tower’s small selection included a significant number of Japanese imports—and those imports included most of the YMO catalogue. I started out with YMO’s Naughty Boys (their faux-kayoukyoku album), which I liked, even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting; and After Service, the live album that marked the end of their initial activity as a band. 

I also bought Sakamoto’s first proper solo album, Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and his collaboration with Danceries, The End of Asia. The latter’s quasi-Renaissance settings weren’t much to my liking, but Thousand Knives was unlike anything else I’d heard. Synthesizers. Sequencers. Electronic percussion. But it wasn’t abstract or inaccessible; it was often melodic, and even (as on “Grasshoppers”) playful. To this day, it remains a favorite.

From 1984 to 1987, Sakamoto had a run of excellent albums: 音楽図鑑 (Ongakuzukan), Esperanto, 未来派野郎 (Futurista), and Neo Geo, plus a 1985 single with Thomas Dolby, Field Work. Each project had a different sound and a different focus; he clearly was not in the habit of repeating himself.

My memory of buying Neo Geo is particularly strong. I bought it at a small neighborhood record shop in the summer of 1987, shortly after arriving in Tokyo for what would be a five-year stay. It was a CBS/Sony release, on Bill Laswell’s Terrapin imprint (with the motto, “Synch to the bad terrapin rising from the east”), and it was numbered, immediately marking it as unique. I remember feeling somehow special that not only was I getting this album first (it wasn’t released outside of Japan until 1988), but I was getting it from the source.

Over the next five years, I got to hear Sakamoto’s music on the radio and see him in a Sapporo beer commercial, in addition to being able to keep up with his new releases as they came out. I wasn’t quite as enthralled with the music, finding the first Playing the Orchestra CD set, 1989’s Beauty, and 1991’s Heartbeat to be uneven at best. However, I did like “You Do Me” (featured on the international edition of Beauty), the remixed version of his cover of “We Love You” (which also included a “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” remix on the CD single), and the next Sylvian/Sakamoto single, “Tainai Kaiki II (Returning to the Womb)”, which was included on the 1992 edition of the Heartbeat album released outside of Japan. For me, that song (known outside of Japan as “Heartbeat”) may be my favorite Sakamoto release.

(Oddly enough, I never saw Sakamoto live, even though I had the opportunity. As I mentioned, I thought the albums he released during the time I was in Japan were uneven, so I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing them live. Having since seen videos of some of his live performances during that time, I stand by that decision. I would have much preferred seeing him live in more recent years, but never had the chance.)

For a while, I was less interested in Sakamoto’s music than I was in the music of his former (and future) YMO bandmates, Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono. Takahashi had recorded an excellent album, 1988’s Ego, and one of my favorite Xmas songs, 1991’s “X’mas Day in the Next Life”; participated in the 1989 reunion of the Sadistic Mika Band (as Sadistic Mica Band); and co-produced some of the songs on Karen Kirishima’s first album, Karen, released in 1990. Meanwhile, Hosono released the intriguing Omni Sight Seeing in 1989, followed by Medicine Compilation and Mental Sports Mixes in 1993. Plus, as Sakamoto’s output steadily increased, it was getting hard to keep up.

I did return to the Sakamoto camp from time to time, though: 1996’s Music for Yohji Yamamoto Collection, 1997’s Discord, 2001’s “Zero Landmine” single, the online collaboration “Chain Music”, 2003’s Sylvian/Sakamoto single “World Citizen”, and 2004’s Chasm.

Still, I missed a lot that I didn’t start looking into until these last six or seven years, such as his series of collaborations with Alvo Noto, and what might be considered some of his more esoteric works, such as Plankton, Out of Noise, and snow, silence, partially sunny (with Sachiko M).

But I was definitely back for async, which I found very moving, and the following year’s documentary film, Coda. Since then, I’ve made up for some of that lost ground, and even re-acquired copies of albums that I had taken to used record shops during times when funds were scarce.

And I gladly forked over the thirty bucks to see the livestreamed Playing the Piano 2022 last December, which I watched three times. It was a bit difficult to watch at points because Sakamoto looked so fragile (the sparse set and the choice to film in black-and-white didn’t help), but it was the closest I was going to get to seeing him perform live, even if it was a performance compiled over a period of several days.

The tribute album (To the Moon and Back) that preceded the livestream by a few days was kind of a mixed bag. The “remodels” of “Thousand Knives” and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” don’t quite work; the former is too poppy (and could do without the vocals), while the latter imposes a drum track that is too intrusive on part of the song. Plus Sakamoto’s catalog is so vast that such a limited selection simply isn’t sufficient to cover all the bases, whether in terms of the music or his many collaborators over the years. To the Moon and Back really needed to be at least a double album, like the Hosono tribute album that came out in 2007.

But the final Sakamoto album proper, 12, has turned out to be an appropriate swan song. He purposely kept things simple (befitting the purpose of the recordings as an audio diary of sorts) and put out the pieces as is.

As I look over what I have written here, it seems mostly like a list of albums that I bought and when I bought them. That’s really only part of the story. Unfortunately, the rest of it is harder to convey. At different points over the last 42 years, Ryuichi Sakamoto has been someone whose music I listen to who has not had much recognition amongst the general public in the US, a collaborator with some of my favorite musicians (among them David Sylvian and Thomas Dolby), and someone who has inspired me not only to explore sounds of my own, but also to be more receptive to the ordinary sounds around me.

This morning, I was talking with a friend of mine, who remarked that we need more people with the kind of energy that Sakamoto possessed, that energy of optimism, wonder, and dedication—that love of life.

It’s such a cliché to say that we won’t see another person like him, but I fear that may be true. Still, we can hope, can’t we?

RIP, Ryuichi Sakamoto.

(2 April 2023)

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