Ryuichi Sakamoto: The Groundbreaking Polyglot

Jason Ferguson
5 min readJun 8, 2023

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Qobuz magazine “Panorama” feature (April 2023)

https://open.qobuz.com/story/ATOVJMDADRFPTACZUOM6EWASNQ

When Ryuichi Sakamoto started his first college term at Tokyo University of the Arts in 1970, he had a background in classical piano performance with a special affinity for daring-for-their-time composers like Debussy and John Cage. He likely envisioned a career path that involved working around music (he studied ethnomusicology) with occasional opportunities for performance. What’s transpired instead is a near half-century of prodigious and pioneering work that has utterly transformed music in multiple ways.

His groundbreaking work alongside Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi in Yellow Magic Orchestra was as influential as that of Germany’s Kraftwerk (but decidedly more fun), supplying the building blocks that hip-hop, dance music, and progressive electronic would build upon for the next several decades. Likewise, his scores for films set a bar for lushness and complexity that counter the bombastic backgrounds favored by many cinematic composers. Alongside this, Sakamoto has also maintained a vigorous and diverse dialogue with a vast array of musical styles, from bossa nova and dancefloor pop to avant-garde electronics and shamelessly commercial endeavors (he absolutely took Nokia’s money when they asked him to compose ringtones in 2005), all while refining and revising his relationship with his first instrument: the piano.

Given the breadth of Sakamoto’s work over the years, this Panorama eschews a chronological approach in favor of a stylistic organization, highlighting just a few of the areas in which he’s made an impact.

Synth-Pop Pioneer

If Ryuichi Sakamoto had retired after the first five years of his professional music career, he would have left behind an indelible mark as one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, thanks to his groundbreaking work with Yellow Magic Orchestra and the synth-pop he created early in his own solo career. Formed in 1977 with fellow session musicians Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi (both of whom had considerably more professional experience — Hosono in the iconic Happy End, Takahashi in the similarly legendary Sadistic Mika Band — than Sakamoto), Yellow Magic Orchestra would use the technology emerging from Japan’s rapidly expanding industrial economy to create genre-smashing music that was as innovative and intelligent as it was accessible.

The group’s ethos of conceptual elegance, experimental fearlessness, and forward-looking fun had a long-lasting influence on dance music, hip-hop, and avant-garde electronics, whether from the Sakamoto-penned “Technopolis” laying out a possible blueprint for Detroit techno or from the first album usage of a Roland TR-808 (on 1981′s BGM). Yellow Magic Orchestra may also be the only act to have written a one-off song for a Seiko commercial (“Behind the Mask”) that would later be recorded by Michael Jackson and be a minor hit for Eric Clapton. Sakamoto’s solo work during this era — notably the thumping, proto-electro “Riot in Lagos” from 1980′s B-2 Unit and the progressive electronics of “The End of Asia” on 1978′s Thousand Knives — was nearly as influential. Although YMO would disband in the mid-’80s, they would continue to collaborate in different formations (including on Sakamoto’s 2004 Chasm) until Takahashi’s death in January, 2023.

Scores and Soundtracks

Of course, Sakamoto would not stop making music after his YMO days. Just as the group was winding down, he was given the opportunity to both act in and compose the score for Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. (Merry Christmas was, in fact, his second film score; the first was for the Peter Fonda-starring, Ryu Murakami-penned Daijōbu, My Friend, a wild superhero parody from 1983 that was only released in Japan; ironically, the cast also featured YMO drummer Yukihiro Takahashi as a prison guard.) While his role as POW camp commander Captain Yonoi — who was obsessed with British Major Jack Celliers, played by David Bowie — was notable, it did not garner nearly the acclaim that his score did; Sakamoto picked up a BAFTA for his musical work on the film, and the David Sylvian-sung “Forbidden Colours” was something of a minor hit. Sakamoto took the hint and, rather than pursuing further acting roles, dove headfirst into scoring and composing for movies, earning acclaim for his work on everything from a trio of Bernardo Bertolucci films — The Last Emperor (Oscar win), The Sheltering Sky (Golden Globe win), and Little Buddha (Grammy nomination) — to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant (BAFTA nomination). With more than four decades of film work to his credit, the quality of material does vary somewhat, but of particular note among his lesser-known soundtracks is the gut-wrenching Nagasaki: Memories of My Son, the first piece of work he made after recovering from throat cancer.

Piano and Classical-Adjacent Works

Throughout his career, Sakamoto has always circled back to his roots as a pianist with a deep background in classical music. His 1998 solo piano album BTTB (Back to the Basics) is the most literal expression of this notion, with other, later albums like 2023′s 12 finding him melding his piano with more ambient electronic touches. However, the exercise of composing, playing, and revising themes has been central to his approach to scores and soundtracks, and it’s also been the focal point of many of his solo albums. 1988′s Playing the Orchestra was one of his first forays into working with a full orchestra on his own; the album documented a live concert with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra performing some of Sakamoto’s best-known film pieces (“Where is Armo?,” “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”). Sadly, the original Playing the Orchestra is not available for streaming, but in 2013, he would revisit the concept with Playing the Orchestra 2013; taken from several different concerts recorded with the Tokyo Philharmonic, Sakamoto had an additional two decades’ worth of repertoire to choose from. The studio-based 1996 album finds him revisiting much of this same material, but with a string quartet accompaniment. And he has also made two Playing the Piano albums (in 2009 and 2021), which are focused on intensely dynamic solo piano renditions of film pieces. He even collaborated with Shiro Takatani on an opera, Time, in 2021.

Sakamoto would also explore the more avant-garde aspects of his instrument. Whether on glitchy ambient works made in collaboration with Christian Fennesz, a string of truly challenging albums with Alva Noto starting with 2002′s Vrioon, or solo work like 2017′s async.

Mainstream Pop

Sakamoto never forgot that half of “synth-pop” is pop, and for a good portion of his career — despite his acclaimed work as a film composer and avant-garde keyboardist — he gleefully indulged his pop sensibilities. With 1987′s sultry, pan-globalist Neo Geo (which included guests like Iggy Pop, Sly Dunbar, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Williams), Sakamoto kicked off a string of wildly fun and collaborative albums like 1989′s Beauty (which featured a bonkers lineup of ex-Prince protege Jill Jones, Robert Wyatt, Arto Lindsay, Brian Wilson, and Youssou N’Dour), 1994′s Sweet Revenge (featuring Sakamoto in a bold yellow feather boa on the cover and guest spots from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson and Deee-Lite’s Towa Tei), and the sophisti-pop stylings of 1995′s Smoochy. In later years, he would return to pop forms, but in more nostalgic fashion, such as on a 2010 collaboration with legendary city pop vocalist Taeko Onuki or a clutch of bossa nova albums like A Day in New York and Casa, recorded with Jaques Morelenbaum.

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Jason Ferguson

I endorse listening to 45s, Florida summers, Bollywood, soccer, and people who are smarter than I am. I write and edit things.