- Calling From Tokyo
- Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
- Sakamoto: Ice
Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍, born January 17, 1952) is a Japanese musician, activist, composer, record producer, writer, singer, pianist, and actor based in Tokyo and New York.
Gaining major success in 1978 as a member of the electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), Sakamoto served on keyboards and sometimes vocals. The band had worldwide hits such as “Computer Game / Firecracker” (1978), “Behind the Mask” (1978) and “Rydeen” (1979), later playing a pioneering role in the techno and acid house movements of the 1990s.
He concurrently pursued a solo career, releasing the experimental electronic fusion album Thousand Knives (1978), and later released the pioneering album B-2 Unit (1980), which included the electro classic “Riot in Lagos”. From thereon, he produced more solo records, collaborated with many international artists, and pursued a wide variety of projects, such as having composed music for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony. His composition “Energy Flow” (1999) was the first instrumental number-one single in Japan’s Oricon charts history.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) marked his debut as a film score composer and as an actor. The film’s score received a BAFTA Award, and its main theme was adapted into a pop single entitled “Forbidden Colours” which became a worldwide hit. For his work as a film composer, he has won a Golden Globe Award for The Sheltering Sky (1990), plus another Golden Globe, Grammy, and Academy Award for The Last Emperor (1987). In 2009, he was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France’s Ministry of Culture for his musical contributions. On occasion, Sakamoto has also worked on anime and video games as a composer as well as a scenario writer.
Sakamoto entered the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1970, earning a B.A. in music composition and an M.A. with special emphasis on both electronic and ethnic music. He studied ethnomusicology there with the intention of becoming a researcher in the field, due to his interest in various world music traditions, particularly the Japanese (especially Okinawan), Indian and African musical traditions. He was also trained in classical music and began experimenting with the electronic music equipment available at the university, including synthesizers such as the Buchla, Moog, and ARP. One of Sakamoto’s classical influences was Claude Debussy, who he described as his “hero” and stated that “Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So, the music goes around the world and comes full circle.”
After working as a session musician with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi in 1977, the trio formed the internationally successful electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) in 1978. Known for their seminal influence on electronic music, the group helped pioneer electronic genres such as electropop/technopop,synthpop, cyberpunk music,ambient house, and electronica. The group’s work has had a lasting influence across genres, ranging from hip hop and techno to acid house and general melodic music. Sakamoto was the songwriter and composer for a number of the band’s hit songs—including “Yellow Magic (Tong Poo)” (1978), “Technopolis” (1979), “Nice Age” (1980), “Ongaku” (1983) and “You’ve Got to Help Yourself” (1983)—while playing keyboards for many of their other songs, including international hits such as “Computer Game/Firecracker” (1978) and “Rydeen” (1979). He also sang on several songs, such as “Kimi ni Mune Kyun” (1983). Sakamoto’s composition “Technopolis” (1979) was credited as a contribution to the development of techno music, while the internationally successful “Behind the Mask” (1978)—a synthpop song in which he sang vocals through a vocoder—was later covered by a number of international artists, including Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton.
Sakamoto released his first solo album Thousand Knives of Ryūichi Sakamoto in mid-1978 with the help of Hideki Matsutake—Hosono also contributed to the song “Thousand Knives”. The album experimented with different styles, such as “Thousand Knives” and “The End of Asia”—in which electronic music was fused with traditional Japanese music—while “Grasshoppers” is a more minimalistic piano song. The album was recorded from April to July 1978 with a variety of electronic musical instruments, including various synthesizers, such as the KORG PS-3100, a polyphonic synthesizer; the Oberheim Eight-Voice; the Moog III-C; the Polymoog, the Minimoog; the Micromoog; the Korg VC-10, which is a vocoder; the KORG SQ-10, which is an analog sequencer; the Syn-Drums, an electronic drum kit; and the microprocessor-based Roland MC-8 Microcomposer, which is a music sequencer that was programmed by Matsutake and played by Sakamoto. A version of the song “Thousand Knives” was released on the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1981 album BGM.
According to Dusted Magazine, Sakamoto’s use of squelching bounce sounds and mechanical beats was later incorporated in early electro and hip hop music productions, such as “Message II (Survival)” (1982), by Melle Mel and Duke Bootee; “Magic’s Wand” (1982), by Whodini and Thomas Dolby; Twilight 22’s “Electric Kingdom” (1983); and Kurt Mantronik’s Mantronix: The Album (1985). The 1980 release of “Riot in Lagos” was listed by The Guardian in 2011 as one of the 50 key events in the history of dance music.In 1980 Sakamoto released the solo album B-2 Unit, which has been referred to as his “edgiest” record and is known for the electronic song “Riot in Lagos”, which is considered an early example of electro music (electro-funk), as Sakamoto anticipated the beats and sounds of electro. Early electro and hip hop artists, such as Afrika Bambaata and Kurtis Mantronik were influenced by the album—especially “Riot in Lagos”—with Mantronik citing the work as a major influence on his electro hip hop group Mantronix. “Riot in Lagos” was later included in Playgroup‘s compilation album Kings of Electro (2007), alongside other significant electro compositions, such as Hashim‘s “Al-Nafyish” (1983).
Also in 1980, Sakamoto released the single “War Head/Lexington Queen”, an experimental synthpop and electro record, and began a long-standing collaboration with David Sylvian, when he co-wrote and performed on the Japan track “Taking Islands In Africa”. In 1982, Sakamoto worked on another collaboration with Sylvian, a single entitled “Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music“. Sakamoto’s 1980 collaboration with Kiyoshiro Imawano, “Ikenai Rouge Magic”, topped the Oricon singles chart.
Sakamoto released a number of solo albums during the 1980s. While primarily focused on the piano and synthesizer, this series of albums included collaborations with artists such as Sylvian, David Byrne, Thomas Dolby, Nam June Paik and Iggy Pop. Sakamoto would alternate between exploring a variety of musical styles, ideas and genres—captured most notably in his 1983 album Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia—and focusing on a specific subject or theme, such as the Italian Futurism movement in Futurista (1986). For the song “Broadway Boogie Woogie”, Sakamoto liberally used samples from Ridley Scott‘s film Blade Runner and blended them with raucous, sax-driven techno-pop.
As his solo career began to extend outside Japan in the late 1980s, Sakamoto’s explorations, influences and collaborators also developed further. Beauty (1989) features a tracklist that combines pop with traditional Japanese and Okinawan songs, as well as guest appearances by Jill Jones, Robert Wyatt, Brian Wilson and Robbie Robertson. Heartbeat (1991) and Sweet Revenge (1994) features Sakamoto’s collaborations with a global range of artists such as Roddy Frame, Dee Dee Brave, Marco Prince, Arto Lindsay, Youssou N’Dour, David Sylvian and Ingrid Chavez.
In 1995 Sakamoto released Smoochy, described by the Sound On Sound website as Sakamoto’s “excursion into the land of easy-listening and Latin”, followed by the 1996 album, which featured a number of previously released pieces arranged for solo piano, violin and cello. During the December of 1996 Sakamoto, composed the entirety of an hour-long orchestral work entitled “Untitled 01” and released as the album Discord (1998). The Sony Classical release of Discord was sold in a jewel case that was covered by a blue-colored slipcase made of foil, while the CD also contained a data video track. In 1998 the Ninja Tune record label released the Prayer/Salvation Remixes, for which prominent electronica artists such as Ashley Beedle and Andrea Parker remixed sections from the “Prayer” and “Salvation” parts of Discord. Sakamoto collaborated primarily with guitarist David Torn and DJ Spooky—artist Laurie Anderson provides spoken word on the composition—and the recording was condensed from nine live performances of the work, recorded during a Japanese tour. Discord was divided into four parts: “Grief”, “Anger”, “Prayer” and “Salvation”; Sakamoto explained in 1998 that he was “not religious, but maybe spiritual” and “The Prayer is to anybody or anything you want to name.” Sakamoto further explained:
The themes of Prayer and Salvation came out of the feelings of sadness and frustration that I expressed in the first two movements, about the fact that people are starving in the world, and we are not able to help them. People are dying, and yet the political and economical and historical situations are too complicated and inert for us to do much about it. So I got really angry with myself. I asked myself what I could do, and since there’s not a lot I can do on the practical level, all that’s left for me is to pray. But it’s not enough just to pray; I also had to think about actually saving those people, so the last movement is called Salvation. That’s the journey of the piece.
In 1998 Italian ethnomusicologist Massimo Milano published Ryuichi Sakamoto. Conversazioni through the Padova, Arcana imprint. All three editions of the book were published in the Italian language. Sakamoto’s next album, BTTB (1998)—an acronym for “Back to the Basics”—was a fairly opaque reaction to the prior year’s multilayered, lushly orchestrated Discord. The album comprised a series of original pieces on solo piano, including “Energy Flow” (a major hit in Japan) and a frenetic, four-hand arrangement of the Yellow Magic Orchestra classic “Tong Poo”. On the BTTB U.S. tour, he opened the show performing a brief avant-garde DJ set under the stage name DJ Lovegroove.
1999 saw the long-awaited release of Sakamoto’s “opera” LIFE, with visual direction by Shiro Tatakani, artistic director of Dumb Type. It premiered with seven sold-out performances in Tokyo and Osaka. This ambitious multi-genre multi-media project featured contributions by over 100 performers, including Pina Bausch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Josep Carreras, His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Salman Rushdie.
Sakamoto teamed with cellist Jaques Morelenbaum (a member of his 1996 trio), and Morelenbaum’s wife, Paula, on a pair of albums celebrating the work of bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim. They recorded their first album, Casa (2001), mostly in Jobim’s home studio in Rio de Janeiro, with Sakamoto performing on the late Jobim’s grand piano. The album was well received, having been included in the list of New York Times‘s top albums of 2002.
Sakamoto collaborated with Alva Noto (an alias of Carsten Nicolai) to release Vrioon, an album of Sakamoto’s piano clusters treated by Nicolai’s unique style of digital manipulation, involving the creation of “micro-loops” and minimal percussion. The two produced this work by passing the pieces back and forth until both were satisfied with the result. This debut, released on German label Raster-Noton, was voted record of the year 2004 in the electronica category by British magazine The Wire. They then released Insen (2005) – while produced in a similar manner to Vrioon, this album is somewhat more restrained and minimalist.
In 2005, Finnish mobile phone manufacturer Nokia hired Sakamoto to compose ring and alert tones for their high-end phone, the Nokia 8800. In 2006 Nokia offers the ringtones for free at Nokias website.A recent reunion with YMO pals Hosono and Takahashi also caused a stir in the Japanese press. They released a single “Rescue” in 2007 and a DVD “HAS/YMO” in 2008. In July 2009 Sakamoto was honored as Officier of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres at the French Embassy in Tokyo. He collaborated on several projects with visual artist Shiro Takatani in 2000s, including the installations LIFE – fluid, invisible, inaudible… (2007 – 2013), commissioned by YCAM, Yamaguchi, collapsed and silence spins at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 2012 and 2013 Sharjah Biennial (U.A.E.), LIFE-WELL in 2013 and a special version for Park Hyatt Tokyo’s 20th anniversary in 2014, and he did music for the joint performance LIFE-WELL featuring the actor Noh/Kyogen Mansai Nomura, and for Shiro Takatani’s performance ST/LL in 2015.
On July 10, 2014, Sakamoto released a statement indicating that he had been diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in late June of the same year. He announced a break from his work while he sought treatment and recovery. On August 3, 2015, Sakamoto posted on his website that he was “in great shape … I am thinking about returning to work” and announced that he would be providing music for Yoji Yamada‘s Haha to Kuraseba (Living with My Mother). He has also composed the score for the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio drama The Revenant.
Sakamoto’s production credits represent a prolific career in this role. In 1983, he produced Mari Iijima‘s debut album Rosé, the same year that the Yellow Magic Orchestra was disbanded. Sakamoto subsequently worked with artists such as Thomas Dolby;Aztec Camera, on the Dreamland (1993) album; and Imai Miki, co-producing her 1994 album A Place In The Sun.
Frame, who worked with Sakamoto under the Aztec Camera moniker, explained in a 1993 interview preceding the release of Dreamland that he needed to wait a lengthy period of time before he was able to work with Sakamoto, who wrote two soundtracks, a solo album and the music for the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics, prior to working with Frame over four weeks in a New York, United States (US) studio. Frame explained that he was impressed by the work of YMO and the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence soundtrack, explaining: “That’s where you realise that the atmosphere around his compositions is actually in the writing – it’s got nothing to do with synthesisers.” Frame’s decision to ask Sakamoto was finalized after he saw his performance at the Japan Festival that was held in London, United Kingdom. Of his experience recording with Sakamoto, Frame said:
He’s got this reputation as a boffin, a professor of music who sits in front of a computer screen. But he’s more intuitive than that, and he’s always trying to corrupt what he knows. Halfway through the day in the studio, he will stop and play some hip hop or some house for 10 minutes, and then go back to what he was doing. He’s always trying to trip himself up like that, and to discover new things. Just before we worked together he’d been out in Borneo, I think, with a DAT machine, looking for new sounds.
Frequent collaborator David Sylvian contributed lead vocals to “Forbidden Colours” – the main theme to – which became a minor hit. Sixteen years later, the piece resurfaced as a popular dance track called “Heart of Asia” (by the group Watergate).Moviegoers may recognize Sakamoto primarily through his score work on two films: Nagisa Oshima‘s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), including the title theme and the duet “Forbidden Colours” with David Sylvian, and Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Last Emperor (1987), the latter of which earned him the Academy Award with fellow composers David Byrne and Cong Su. In that same year he composed the score to the cult-classic anime film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Sakamoto also went on to compose the score of the opening ceremony for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, telecast live to an audience of over a billion viewers.
Frequent collaborator David Sylvian contributed lead vocals to “Forbidden Colours” – the main theme to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – which became a minor hit. Sixteen years later, the piece resurfaced as a popular dance track called “Heart of Asia” (by the group Watergate).
Other films scored by Sakamoto include Pedro Almodóvar‘s Tacones lejanos (High Heels) (1991), Bertolucci’s The Little Buddha (1993), Oliver Stone‘s Wild Palms (1993), John Maybury‘s Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), Brian De Palma‘s Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002), Oshima’s Gohatto (1999), and Kiran Rao‘s Dhobi Ghat (2011).
Several tracks from Sakamoto’s earlier solo albums have also appeared in film soundtracks. In particular, variations of “Chinsagu No Hana” (from Beauty) and “Bibo No Aozora” (from 1996) provide the poignant closing pieces for Sue Brooks’s Japanese Story (2003) and Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Babel (2006), respectively. In 2015, Sakamoto teamed up with Iñárritu to score his film The Revenant.
Sakamoto has also acted in several films: perhaps his most notable performance was as the conflicted Captain Yonoi in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, alongside Takeshi Kitano and British rock singer David Bowie. He also played roles in The Last Emperor (as Masahiko Amakasu) and Madonna‘s “Rain” music video.
Sakamoto is a member of the anti-nuclear organization Stop Rokkasho and has demanded the closing of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. In 2012, he organized the “No Nukes 2012” concert, which featured performances by 18 groups, including Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk. Sakamoto is also known as a critic of copyright law, arguing in 2009 that it is antiquated in the information age. He argued that in “the last 100 years, only a few organizations have dominated the music world and ripped off both fans and creators” and that “with the internet we are going back to having tribal attitudes towards music.”