Ryuichi Sakamoto

To most, I suspect the great Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s most notable success was for his work (along with David Byrne) on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Best Picture winner, The Last Emperor. You certainly can’t argue with anyone who holds that opinion. Sakamoto and Byrne’s score is both lush and subtle in equal measure. Sakamoto and Byrne might have seemed like an odd couple to create the music for Bertolucci’s grand vision. After all, Byrne, however adventurous, was known for his pop music work with his groundbreaking band The Talking Heads.

But Sakamoto, like Byrne, was not so easy to categorize. Over the course of his long and esteemed career (that touched on six decades) Sakamoto refused to be bow-tied inside of any box. 

In the mid-seventies, Sakamoto left the world of the session musician to create albums of his own. While he may not be referenced as often as Giorgio Moroder or Kraftwerk for being on the forefront of the creation of electronic pop music, he must not be forgotten in that regard. Sakamoto was comparatively more experimental than both Moroder and Kraftwerk (no small statement), and his recordings were highly influential in both the world of EDM and hip-hop, particularly his game-changing 1980 track “Riot in Lagos.”

Sakamoto would score his first film in 1983, with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence for the great Japanese director, Nagisa Oshima. The cast list of the film is one of those that makes you blink, look twice, and rub your eyes to confirm your vision. Led by David Bowie, Tom Conti, Takeshi Kitano, the veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson, and Sakamoto (in a key role) the film is an often harrowing depiction of British prisoners in a Japanese WWII POW camp that was directed by the man who made In the Realm of the Senses

Just trying to imagine the daily vibe and conversations on set with so many uniquely gifted artists sends the mind reeling. Despite the film being nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film met with modest reviews upon release. Over time, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence has been reassessed and seen now as not only a unique time capsule/oddity, but a fine film in its own right. 

David Bowie and Ryuchi Sakamoto in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

One thing no one questioned either then or now was Sakamoto’s score for the film. Nominated for a BAFTA, Sakamoto’s compositions still sound ahead of their time as they brilliantly weave through this film about a battle of wills between prisoners and their captors. The synthesizer based score was mysterious, swooning, with a mixture of traditional Japanese music, and something altogether other. Sure, you could pick through the music and find influences (after all, there is little new under the sun), but even in finding the most modest of familiarities, Sakamoto’s sound was very much his own.

Being a restless sort, Sakamoto seemed to follow his muse wherever it might lead him. Whether making records of his own or working with artists like Youssou N’Dour, Adrian Belew, Thomas Dolby, and of course, the aforementioned Byrne. 

Sakamoto and Byrne’s score for The Last Emperor earned them the Academy Award for 1987. After that crowning achievement, Sakamoto scored a number of notable films, including Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels, Bertolucci’s The Little Buddha and The Sheltering Sky, Brian DePalma’s Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, among others. 

While Sakamoto was never nominated for another Oscar, I do remember it being quite a surprise when his Golden Globe nominated scores for The Sheltering Sky (which also won the Globe) and The Revenant were passed over by the Academy. 

Sakamoto’s endless productivity resulted in the creation of more than sixty film and TV scores (as well as an abundant number of shorts and video games), over one hundred albums, and even includes composing music for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. He also directed a short film called All Star Video that showcased his musical influences and collaborations. Astoundingly, he also found time to amass more than twenty acting credits (although none more significant than Merry Christmas).

After Sakamoto’s work in 2015 on The Revenant he never came back to Hollywood, but he never stopped working. He was truly a singular artist in his field. Sakamoto had a sound, and once you first became familiar with it, you’d never fail to recognize it again.

Ryuichi Sakamoto died on March 28, 2023. He was 71 years old.


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