Ryuichi Sakamoto, RIP: Watch Him Create Groundbreaking Electronic Music in 1984

Ryuichi Sakamo­to was born and raised in Japan. He rose to promi­nence as a mem­ber of Yel­low Mag­ic Orches­tra, the most influ­en­tial Japan­ese band in pop-music his­to­ry. Last week, he died in Japan. But he also claimed not to con­sid­er him­self Japan­ese. That reflects the ded­i­ca­tion of his life’s work as a com­pos­er and per­former to cross-cul­tur­al inspi­ra­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and syn­the­sis. How fit­ting that the announce­ment of his death this past week­end should elic­it an out­pour­ing of trib­utes from fans and col­leagues around the world, shar­ing his work from a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent styl­is­tic and tech­no­log­i­cal peri­ods in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

Fit­ting, as well, that the first doc­u­men­tary made about Sakamo­to as a solo artist should have been direct­ed by a French­woman, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Eliz­a­beth Lennard. Shot in 1984, Tokyo melody: un film sur Ryuichi Sakamo­to cap­tures not only Sakamo­to him­self on the rise as an inter­na­tion­al cul­tur­al fig­ure, but also a Japan that had recent­ly become the red-hot cen­ter — at least in the glob­al imag­i­na­tion — of wealth, tech­nol­o­gy, and even for­ward-look­ing imag­i­na­tion. It was in the Japan­ese cap­i­tal that Sakamo­to record­ed Ongaku Zukan, or Illus­trat­ed Musi­cal Ency­clo­pe­dia, the album that showed the lis­ten­ing pub­lic, in Japan and else­where, what it real­ly sound­ed like to make music not just in but of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

Or per­haps it was music for the End of His­to­ry. “Japan has become the lead­ing cap­i­tal­ist coun­try,” Sakamo­to says in Tokyo Melody. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad. The sea­son of pol­i­tics is over. Peo­ple don’t think of rebelling. On the oth­er hand they have a real hunger for cul­ture.” Then comes the footage of wax mod­el food and obses­sive­ly ersatz nine­teen-fifties-style greasers: clichéd rep­re­sen­ta­tions of urban Japan at the time, yes, but also gen­uine reflec­tions of the some­how refined mix-and-match retro-kitsch sen­si­bil­i­ty that had come to pre­vail there. “Main­stream cul­ture has lost its author­i­ty,” Sakamo­to adds. “There is a float­ing notion of val­ues. Tech­nol­o­gy is pro­gress­ing by itself. The gears move more and more effi­cient­ly. We feel pos­si­bil­i­ties appear­ing that exceed our imag­i­na­tion and our hori­zons.”

For near­ly forty years ther­after, Sakamo­to would con­tin­ue to explore this range of pos­si­bil­i­ties — sub­lime, bizarre, or even threat­en­ing — through his music, whether on his own releas­es, his projects with oth­er artists, or his many film sound­tracks for a range of auteurs includ­ing Nag­isa Ōshi­ma (for whom he also act­ed, along­side David Bowie, in Mer­ry Christ­mas, Mr. Lawrence), Bri­an De Pal­ma, Bernar­do Bertoluc­ci, and Ale­jan­dro Iñar­ritu. In Tokyo Melody he reveals one secret of his suc­cess: “When I work with Japan­ese, I become Japan­ese. When I work with West­ern­ers, I try to be like them.” Hence the way, no mat­ter the artis­tic or cul­tur­al con­text, Sakamo­to’s music was nev­er iden­ti­fi­able as either Japan­ese or West­ern, but always iden­ti­fi­able as his own.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Clas­sic Per­for­mances by Yel­low Mag­ic Orches­tra, the Japan­ese Band That Became One of the Most Inno­v­a­tive Elec­tron­ic Music Acts of All Time

Infi­nite Esch­er: A High-Tech Trib­ute to M.C. Esch­er, Fea­tur­ing Sean Lennon, Nam June Paik & Ryuichi Sakamo­to (1990)

Hear the Great­est Hits of Isao Tomi­ta (RIP), the Father of Japan­ese Elec­tron­ic Music

The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music For­ev­er, Is Back! And It’s Now Afford­able & Com­pact

Bri­an Eno on Cre­at­ing Music and Art As Imag­i­nary Land­scapes (1989)

Dis­cov­er the Ambi­ent Music of Hiroshi Yoshimu­ra, the Pio­neer­ing Japan­ese Com­pos­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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