Ryuichi Sakamoto: “It All Seems Limitless”

Ryuichi Sakamoto in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Every time he was asked about being cast in his first feature, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), Ryuichi Sakamoto seemed surprised all over again by how readily director Nagisa Oshima agreed to his terms. He would take on the role of Captain Yonoi, a POW camp commander during the Second World War, only if he could compose the film’s score. Oshima immediately said yes. “How come?” Sakamoto asked with a laugh when Clive Bell spoke with him for the Wire in 2000. “I had never done a soundtrack!”

At the time, though, Sakamoto was nearly as big in Japan as his costar, David Bowie. Yellow Magic Orchestra, an occasionally acrimonious collaboration between Sakamoto, bassist Haruomi Hosono, and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, was a chart-topping synth-pop sensation. At Pitchfork, Simon Reynolds, the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, suggests that while Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk or Detroit’s Cybotron are often credited with laying the foundations of what would become techno, Tokyo’s YMO “has arguably the strongest claim of all to the ‘Godfathers of Techno’ title.”

But how, wondered Kodwo Eshun in the Wire in 1992, were YMO “ever taken to be the godfathers of anything? Surely no one, before or since, has made a music as remotely idiosyncratic as this.” While Reynolds maps out the connections between YMO and Black American music—Afrika Bambaataa borrowed the “bass-propulsive electro-disco groove” of the band’s 1978 debut single, “Firecracker,” and YMO appeared on Soul Train in 1980—he also draws attention to “another essential side to the YMO project: retro-kitsch irony and a love of playing games with pop history.”

Hosono in particular got a kick out of the Orientalist clichés sprinkled throughout the Western lounge music of the 1950s and ’60s and gleefully wove them over and under YMO’s finger-popping beats. Sakamoto’s attitude toward his Japanese identity was more ambivalent. When he set out to write the score for Merry Christmas, “I was careful not to use any real Japanese elements, or a Japanese scale,” he told Clive Bell. “The pentatonic scale is all over the world, it’s not Japanese at all. I wanted to write music which would be Oriental to anybody, to West or East, but not particularly coming from Japanese culture. Somewhere, but nowhere. Even the subject of that film is not realistic at all. There was no Japanese officer wearing makeup on his face during the war, everything was fantasy. To me, the subject of the film is the erotic relationship between men in an extraordinary situation. It could be between an Englishman and an African, it could be anything.”

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” the instrumental main theme, became a signature tune for Sakamoto, reinterpreted and performed live for decades. Frequent collaborator David Sylvian laid down a vocal track, and the single, “Forbidden Colours,” was a modest hit in the UK and Ireland. “While the bright and shiny chords of the film’s titular theme are more famous,” wrote Ruth Saxelby here in this publication in 2020, “it is ‘The Seed and the Sower’ that does the lion’s share of the soundtrack’s emotional work. A hidden theme for a never-realized relationship, the triptych of a track brings to life the interiority of the two men in ways that their dialogue does not, could not.”

Oshima may well have had another reason for wanting Sakamoto in his film. In every phase of his life—he was seventy-one when he died last week—Sakamoto was a strikingly beautiful man. It was an asset that did not go overlooked by fashion editors or fellow pop stars. Bernardo Bertolucci not only asked him—as well as David Byrne and Cong Su—to compose the soundtrack for The Last Emperor (1987) but also cast Sakamoto as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army.

While Oshima had given Sakamoto free rein, Bertolucci was more demanding, frequently insisting on more emotional swells in the score—which Sakamoto had one week to write. “One week for this giant, epic film!” exclaimed Sakamoto when Hillary Weston spoke with him in 2017. “I asked for two weeks. Of course I was complaining, but one time Bertolucci had said, ‘Well, Ennio Morricone did it,’ so I had to do it. I wrote forty-five music cues in one week.”

Bertolucci “clearly connected with Sakamoto’s ability to mix the lyrical and the ethereal, to nestle brisk compositions within stretches of melancholy ambience,” wrote Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice in 2017. All three composers won Oscars for the Last Emperor soundtrack, but for Ebiri, Bertolucci and Sakamoto’s greatest collaboration was on The Sheltering Sky (1990), an adaptation of Paul Bowles’s 1949 novel about an American couple wandering the deserts of North Africa. “To match their journey,” wrote Ebiri, “Sakamoto creates a circular theme that always returns to the same few minor notes, even amid vast, droning soundscapes. The effect is that of a slow-burn, existential nightmare built out of moments of great lyricism. It’s about as perfect a match between movie and soundtrack as I can imagine.”

As Saxelby noted in the Fader in 2015, Sakamoto composed nearly as many film scores as solo albums, and the range was just as wide. The only child of artistic parents, Sakamoto grew up with an eclectic set of influences. “Johann Sebastian Bach, Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, Claude Debussy, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley all mixed up in the small boy’s head,” wrote Geeta Dayal in a 2006 profile for the German magazine Groove. Besides Oshima and Bertolucci, Sakamoto also worked with directors as disparate as Pedro Almodóvar (High Heels), Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale), Oliver Stone (Wild Palms), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant).

As a solo artist, Sakamoto collaborated with Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Arto Lindsay, Youssou N’Dour, and Cyndi Lauper. “Who else could make the leap from Brahms to Talvin Singh’s star-studded Barbican bash [in 1999, which featured] Bill Laswell, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, and sarangi virtuoso Sultan Khan, with such apparent ease?” asked Clive Bell. “Khan was clearly enjoying himself as Sakamoto echoed his Indian phrases and metamorphosed them into Debussy-esque spirals and chords. The way Sakamoto rooted his responses in Debussy’s early forays into ‘Far Eastern’ tonalities triggered some fascinating resonances. The interplay of styles wasn’t so much about cross-cultural Fourth World fusion as a transnational display of shared intrigues and enthusiasms for each other’s traditions, interests, and idiosyncrasies, with any potential difficulty inherent in such set-ups dissolving in the beguiling simplicity of Sakamoto’s joins.”

Sakamoto’s 2017 album async, originally conceived as a soundtrack for a film Andrei Tarkovsky never made and recorded after Sakamoto had recovered from a life-threatening bout of cancer, features a recording of Paul Bowles reading from The Sheltering Sky. The passage is then read in translation—in German by another frequent collaborator, Carsten Nicolai, who is also known as Alva Noto; in Italian by Bertolucci; in Farsi by Shirin Neshat; and so on: “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

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