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Ryuichi Sakamoto, 1952–2023 

Remembering the legendary composer

As a teenager, I figured out that I wanted to be a serious music listener and set about learning everything I thought would help me get there. At the time, I saw music in tidy, discrete categories: genres, periods, countries, scenes, and subcultures were clean brackets that made the whole of human sound more navigable. I started with what was easily proximal (early aughts indie rock, mostly) and learned my way back from there. There followed a few frenzied years of CD ripping, torrenting, and downloading off of album-sharing blogs, until leapfrogging from one set of aesthetics the next area of understanding became like clearing levels on a video game. It mostly didn’t occur to me to venture outside of the West, because nothing in Young Marble Giants’ bare bones guitar pop or Harold Budd’s chilly piano mist ever offered me a convenient foothold. Shoegaze, post-punk, no wave! Done, done, done!

That limited and linear understanding vaporized in my early twenties when I heard Yellow Magic Orchestra and the solo work of one of its members, the composer, producer, and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. I stepped into his catalog blind, selecting 1981’s Left Handed Dream probably for its cover: a close-up photograph of Sakamoto’s face in a loose, softly abstract application of full kabuki makeup. From the music itself, I expected the sounds of vintage Japanese pop with which I was vaguely familiar: sleek funk-flecked city pop, bombastic anime themes, and soapy teen idol hits. What I heard instead was a fractal slice of time, deeply psychedelic in its ability to warp the texture of lived experience. Here, traditional Japanese taiko was stretched and refracted into slow, simmering, primeval techno, but from a time before techno had a clear name or lexicon, before it called Detroit or Düsseldorf its home. Here, shards of new wave were crushed under marimba mallets and scattered into a steaming sea. There was sprawling, raw-edged sci-fi gagaku and—something I soon found to be a path through Sakamoto’s work—a prevailing sense of huge, mythical urgency that he was unafraid to use any and every tool available to communicate. And when those tools were insufficient, he invented new ones.

The further I got into Sakamoto’s discography, the more my efforts to compartmentalize something that could go from cosmic to imperial in a flash fell apart. Borders began to blur and the concept of genre made less and less sense. You couldn’t understand American new age without Indian classical. Minimalism couldn’t be divorced from Indonesian gamelan. You couldn’t get very far into Japanese pop without running into Jamaican dub. Doo-wop and early choral polyphony were neighbors, singing tonal missives back and forth across the hall to one another, and bossa nova had a finger in every goddamn pie. In hindsight it seems obvious: the most interesting musicians listen to everything. Of course Debussy was influenced by the Chinese pentatonic scale. Of course Björk loves Stockhausen. Of course everyone listens to Bach. What I hadn’t realized as a teenager is that the most exciting music is connected by invisible threads that snake across time and place and genre and language; that there are frequencies and curiosities that great artists can tune into, and that to opt out of this kind of curiosity is a massive limitation. Sakamoto taught me that music isn’t a flow chart; it’s the longest-running flirtation in history.

Sakamoto Ryuichi (坂本 龍一) was born in Tokyo in 1952 to a literary editor father and a mother who designed women’s hats. He was interested in music immediately, writing his first composition at the age of four and beginning piano lessons at six. He studied composition, electronic music, and ethnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. There, crucially, he had access to synthesizers like the Buchla, Moog, and ARP, which were prohibitively expensive and rare at the time. In his early twenties, he worked as a session musician and arranger and performed Okinawan folk and free jazz in his spare time. Eventually he met Haruomi “Harry” Hosono in 1976 when he was recruited into Hosono’s live band, and then met Yukihiro Takahashi in 1977 when he was brought in to co-produce Takahashi’s debut solo record Saravah! The three went on to collaborate on Hosono’s 1978 album Paraiso, which was released under the name Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band. All three were established musicians by this point, and all three would go on to become giants, first as a group vulgarly called “the Japanese Kraftwerk,” then as solo artists, composers, and producers. I haven’t found a clear account of what their first sessions together were like, but I imagine a crackling synergy and lots of headbutting, given how formidable all three would prove. Takahashi nicknamed Sakamoto “The Professor” for his strength in music theory, composition, and ability to wax psychotropic about their sound’s conceptual framework.

Ryuichi Sakamoto was unafraid to use any and every tool available to communicate.

The trio released their first self-titled album as Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978, and while playing at the hallowed Pit Inn jazz club in Tokyo, landed an international record deal with A&M Records, paving the way for unprecedented international success for a Japanese pop group. Something akin to Japanese Beatlemania followed, with stadium shows and hordes of screaming girls chasing them, tearing at their clothes in the streets. And that was it: YMO’s use of computers—synths, drum machines, and samplers—laid the foundations of electronic music as we know it, charting a course for the subsequent four decades of pop evolution.

Their breakout international single was called “Firecracker,” and almost fifty years later it’s hard to imagine a band announcing itself with a more tightly-constructed manifesto. The song is a techno-futurist revision of a 1959 suburban fantasy-fueled track by Martin Denny, the father of exotica. Except in YMO’s retelling, the object of western projection becomes the subject, returning the Orientalist gaze with a wink: Yellow Magic, a distillation of ugly stereotypes, delivered in a thrilling, sugar-spiked package that gives the listener no choice but to dance. Wedged between the Roland MC-8 and the electronic drum kits is a rare acoustic instrument, a few glittering spires of virtuosic piano glissando. That moment is pure Sakamoto, gleefully muddying the distinctions between classical and pop, highbrow and lowbrow, academic and mainstream, tradition and futurism, natural and synthetic. A clip of the song’s live performance on Soul Train in 1980 is a reminder of the collective euphoria that dance music can offer us, no drugs required. In matching button-ups and armbands, the members of YMO, who at that moment weren’t fluent in English, struggle through an onstage interview with Don Cornelius, only to light up the dance floor with their cover of Archie Bell & the Drells’ 1968 hit “Tighten Up,” followed by “Firecracker.” Sakamoto’s easy charisma is amplified by the high-octane energy of his soon-to-be wife and touring member Akiko Yano bouncing behind the keys, her massive froth of hair atop an incandescent smile. Watch it happen in real time: the movement of bodies tying knots across continents, genres, traditions, languages, transcending all other forms of communication. A good dance beat is undeniable. Joy is joy.

1980 was the same year that Sakamoto, whose solo career was already underway, released “Riot In Lagos,” a mirror-polished and angular homage to Fela Kuti featuring engineering by legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell. Here, Afrobeat becomes Afrofuturism becomes skittering android dancehall. Pre-Computer World, pre-“Planet Rock,” pre-Aphex Twin, Sakamoto was spinning yarns that were both descriptive and prescriptive, sketching the musical world that he alone lived in, and in the bargain, shaping the world around him into something bigger, something humming with possibility. 

YMO had a prodigious run of seven studio albums in six years before breaking up in 1984, because, as they told the Guardian, they “hated each other.” Towering careers unfolded for all three, with several brief reunions over the following decades. The band’s distinctly Japanese synth-pop had prompted Sakamoto to consider the pleasures and potentiality of pop music, and he did so with a calculating optimism that was extremely progressive in several senses. Though his training was in classical, academic, and avant-garde music, he gravitated towards pop because he “wanted direct contact with a mass audience.” He was never hampered by the expectations of pop stardom; he was having so much fun that there was no question of selling out. At a time when pop was widely considered to be antithetical to serious musicianship, he embodied an enlightened attitude towards the genre’s radical potential that mainstream society is only barely starting to come around to.

His discography, meanwhile, kept revealing new shapes to me like some kind of freakish Matryoshka doll, whole cosmos packed tightly into discrete bodies. I was delighted to learn that I had been hearing his music my whole life without realizing it because he had written decades of branded commissions, like the startup tones of Sega’s Dreamcast console, a suite of ringtones for the Nokia 8800 slider phone, commercials for Shiseido, Toyota, and Olympus, and my personal favorite, the 1997 opening song for TBS News. It’s a perfect portal into Sakamoto’s interests at the time, an ecstatic four minutes of twinkling mallet-house, which I’m fairly certain samples a 1968 Ocora field recording of two Burundian girls singing a traditional greeting song. (Imagine being possessed of the conviction and artistry required to get a client to green light something like this for network news.) He also scored video games, anime, and movies, most notably 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which he costarred in alongside David Bowie, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987. He composed and conducted a theme for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; he worked with David Sylvian, Alva Noto, Iggy Pop, Cyndi Lauper, Bootsy Collins, John Cage, Public Image Ltd, Oneohtrix Point Never, Massive Attack, and Towa Tei; he had a hand in hundreds of records; he produced and arranged for his daughter, Miu; he made a cameo in the music video for Madonna’s “Rain”; he was a fervent anti-nuclear activist.

Through my new Sakamoto glasses, the world around me continued to rearrange itself. I had been wrong about the goals of electronic music, misled by the way critics wrote about Depeche Mode and Gary Numan: synth music wasn’t an embrace of a future of cold, chrome-polished automation, nor was it a precautionary fable about technofascism. It was about finding new, beautiful, funny ways to be human. It was A Cyborg Manifesto rendered in full cartoonish color and with a fastidious attention to detail. Suddenly Kraftwerk’s “Neonlicht” cracked wide open, revealing that it had been a love song all along, despite the textbook insistence that the group’s entire project was a study of post-humanism. It wasn’t. It was, importantly, about joy, fingers stretched wide. I was certain I was hearing the sound of some great cosmic key turning in a lock.

Listen to this version of “Tong Poo” (“Eastern Wind”), a song Sakamoto originally wrote for YMO’s debut album and then reimagined two years later for legendary jazz pianist and pop star Akiko Yano’s Gohan Ga Dekitayo (Dinner’s Ready, what a title). This time, it features Sakamoto synth and production, plus new lyrics courtesy of Yano; it’s a testament to the frenetic inventiveness of Japanese pop.

Though there are few identifiably “real” instrumental references here, the music is tactile and textural, demanding the whole body as an audience. It’s shiny, bouncy, plastic: it begs for fingers to poke it, for the slapping of bare soles against a linoleum floor. Its relentless, Rugrats-ass percussive chug brings to mind a sentient drinky bird attempting to walk through pink AstroTurf. And still there’s that great, pressing urgency, the Sakamoto signature, something inevitable-feeling about the song’s circular chord progressions. At the bridge, Yano’s vocals are layered and churned into a wordless froth: an imperative “!!!” punctured by a conclusive “unh.” It’s a jewel box of highly processed, gnashing glee, two geniuses blowing bubbles into their strawberry milk together. What goes into making something feel like this? How?

Synth-pop, at least in Sakamoto’s telling, was also about the contradictions and extremities of postwar Japan, fissures which he seemed uniquely suited to understand and embrace aesthetically. He hints at a chimeric state in the 1984 documentary Tokyo Melody: the country’s political conservatism and traditional value system were suddenly coexisting with rapid technological advances, a huge upsurge in consumerism, and an enormous social appetite for Western music. Meanwhile, music was newly ubiquitous as a marketing tool and had saturated every part of public life. The political dreams and rebellions of the 1960s had all but collapsed. The Pacific Ocean had become a brackish thoroughfare of Western cultural imports and Japanese manufacturing exports. What better material to boil down to a potent pop syrup?

Sakamoto sketched and re-sketched this vision of music without physical, sonic, or temporal borders for a solid decade. It surfaces on releases like 1985’s Esperanto, one of his early forays into sample-based music, which manages to be unremittingly gorgeous, aggressive, angular, and lush; and 1987’s Neo Geo, or “new world,” a term he coined for his aesthetic ethos. It reaches astonishing heights on 1989’s Beauty, an album for which he pulled a borderline ridiculous list of collaborators that included Brian Wilson, Arto Lindsay, Sly Dunbar, Robert Wyatt, and Youssou N’Dour, distilling his longtime fascination with Okinawan folk songs into a sublime bricolage of the heavy fruits of globalism and the hushed hermetic intimacy unique to a tiny slice of island floating far off the coast of mainland Japan. Electronic junglescapes, cyber-calypso, N’Dour’s thrilling vocal expanse, African djembe and Indian tabla sandwiching Miami freestyle-esque orchestra hit samples, and the deliciously slappy funk-house of “You Do Me” (a rare admission of the existence of sex in the Sakamoto universe) frame the album’s central heartstrings, which are two renditions of Ryukyuan folk traditionals. “Asadoya Yunta” is a luminous beam, a thrilling whoop of spring and green serenaded from afar by N’Dour’s euphoric melismas. But it’s with the closing “Chinsagu No Hana” that Beauty fully cements its syncretic worldview. Nearly seven and a half minutes of unwavering metronomic shamisen plucks, traditional shima-uta singers unspool folk lyrics about filial piety and the teachings of an ancestral moral compass:

Just as my fingernails
Are stained with the pigment from balsam flowers
My heart is painted
With the teachings of my parents

Just as ships sailing at night
Are guided to safety by the North Star
My parents who gave birth to me
plot their course with me in mind

The desires of the person who lives sincerely
Will always run true
And as a result
She will prosper

You can do anything
If you try
But you can’t
If you don’t

As the song progresses, a shimmering hum of synthetic strings gradually builds in the far distance—so slowly that its appearance is almost imperceptible, suggestive of the rising sun of the Japanese flag. Patient and minimal hand drums appear, courtesy of Burkina Faso-born percussionist Paco Yé, adding weight and heft to the shamisen strings. And crucially, gloriously, Sakamoto leaves generous space between verses so the song can build as slowly and methodically as it must. It’s a precursor to his late-career fixation on slowness and resonance, and the effect here is devastating. Generations of Okinawan folk teachings are punctuated by a beat that sounds for all the world like a clock, the sonification of time falling through fingers, atop instruments from a half a world away, all bound together by technologies racing toward a decidedly non-nationalistic future. And still, the message of ancestral ideology is irrefutably beautiful, appealing, safe, even in a world to which it feels less and less applicable. A pile of time.

This fascination with the mechanisms of temporality—universal time, musical time, historical time, human time—morphed and grew over the next three decades. His records after the turn of the century became more austere: ambient, modern classical, and minimalist, mining the limits of stillness, slowness, and space. He returned again and again to the piano, often with frequent collaborator Carsten Nicolai, a.k.a. Alva Noto. In the 2017 documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, we learn that Sakamoto owned copies of Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky (the filmic adaptation of which Sakamoto scored in 1990) in four languages, and in all of them he’d underlined the novel’s most famous passage:

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, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Sakamoto’s output was more than enough to fill a lifetime of avid listenership. So what are we really grieving? What has really been lost?    

We hear Bowles, who died in 1999, read this passage aloud on Sakamoto’s late-career pinnacle, 2017’s async, on the track “fullmoon.” When he’s finished, we hear a flurry of Sakamoto’s friends and peers reading the same quote in their respective languages. By now Sakamoto had recovered from throat cancer and the physical assault of treating it, but he knew the weakening effects of treatment would leave him susceptible to more cancer. In 2021, he publicly shared that he had been diagnosed again, this time with rectal cancer. The following year he revealed that it had progressed to stage four. And so, he slowed down, in myriad ways. “Why do I want to play much slower than before?” he asked in a 2017 interview. “Because I wanted to hear the resonance. I want to have less notes and more spaces. Spaces, not silence. Space is resonant, is still ringing. I want to enjoy that resonance, to hear it growing, then the next sound, and the next note or harmony can come. That’s exactly what I want.”

When a celebrated artist dies, we have to account for what fandom is, what it means. We labor under the delusion that loving somebody’s work means that we understand them, or even that we know them—but we don’t, and when they die, we have to accept that we never will. The only change that death imposes on the parasocial relationship is the permanent impossibility of future work from the artist in question. In Sakamoto’s case, his life’s output was more than enough to fill a lifetime of avid listenership. So what are we really grieving? What has really been lost?    

Grieving the loss of an artist has a distinct advantage over grieving many other kinds of people: we’re able to visit the deceased by communing with their work whenever we like. It’s simultaneously the most obvious and most extraordinary quality of music, that it can suspend a feeling or a room or a voice permanently, like a spider in resin, allowing a complete stranger to speak directly into your ear across time, space, and death. Sakamoto has ushered me into new planes of consciousness, and he never knew my name. He will likely continue to shape my thinking across the rest of my life. I’m reminded of one of the final lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” which makes my throat catch every single time I hear it. It’s half flirtatious whisper and half threat: “You’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone / I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song.” Or, as Sakamoto-san liked to say more pithily, “Ars longa, vita brevis”—“Art is long, life is short.” Ryuichi Sakamoto tossed thousands of glittering, brilliant stones into our collective ocean, and they’ll be rippling until the sun blows out. How incalculably lucky we are for it.