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Remembering Ryuichi Sakamoto Jay Lewis pays tribute to a musical icon

Remembering Ryuichi Sakamoto

Jay Lewis pays tribute to a musical icon

by Jay Lewis, Reviews Editor
first published: April, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

From a handsome young pop star to a bespectacled, white-haired elder - he was an artist that I thought would always be there.

Last year Ryuichi Sakamoto started to publish a series of articles in the Japanese Literary Magazine 'Schincho' called “How Many More Times Will I See the Full Moon?” Having been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, the iconic pianist/keyboardist, composer, and producer was in a very reflective mood. In the pieces, he discussed openly his thoughts on life and death and music.

It was hard to imagine that another artist that had meant so much to me was dying. Sakamoto had been involved in some of my favourite music for more than forty years, records that had become imprinted on me. He was an artist that I thought would always be there, from a handsome young pop star to a bespectacled elder with strong white hair. But, like the guy he acted alongside in 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence ' he is gone.

My introduction to Sakamoto came in 1979. 'Computer Game'/' Firecracker' was the only UK chart hit that the Yellow Magic Orchestra had, it felt like a delirious glance into the future, an arcade full of exciting new sounds, and effervescent electronic music that would later be referenced in so much homegrown synth pop. Eventually, the only album of theirs that I could find was debut 'Solid State Survivor' - a record that dripped with joyous disco-fied anthems like 'Ryleen', 'Behind the Mask' (later adapted by Michael Jackson for inclusion on 'Thriller' but never released and also by Eric Clapton which unfortunately was) and a bizarre and fabulous version of The Beatles' 'Day Tripper,' one of my favourite Beatles covers. It's still one of my favourite albums.

Despite being part of Japan's most successful band, Sakamoto's relationship with founder member Haruomi Hosono soured so much they could barely be in the studio at the same time. By the time of their most ambitious (and expensive) album 'BMG' in 1981, Hosono worked primarily with drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, and Sakamoto mostly on his own. After the initial YMO split Sakamoto would collaborate with David Sylvian on the alluringly 'Bamboo Houses'/'Bamboo Music'. It would pave the way for their most well-known collaboration 'Forbidden Colours' (a vocal version of Sakamoto's theme for film 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence'). Sakamoto would then become part of Sylvian's musical ensemble of his early solo albums ( including debut 'Brilliant Trees' and, most clearly, the remarkable 'Secrets of the Beehive').

The aforementioned 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' also saw Sakamoto in a major acting role as the POW commander in World War Two, whose fascination with a recently captured soldier, played by a golden-haired David Bowie, grows obsessional. Both musicians give exceptional performances. Sakamoto would go on to write a phenomenal number of film scores, including works for the directors Pedro Almodóvar, Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone. He would win an Oscar (alongside David Byrne and Cong Su) for Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent 'The Last Emperor (1987)'. But, for its sheer drama though, his haunting score for 'The Revenant' ( Leonardo Di Caprio's nineteenth-century fur trapper fights for his life after being savaged and mauled by a bear), is a particular favourite.

I often felt that Sakamoto's music became quieter as the years advanced. 'Playing the Piano' (2009) saw him strip back well-known works so that they could be heard on just one instrument (a concept he revised on 'Playing the Piano 12122020'  in 2021). By the time of the delicate single 'Ieta' (2022), his music had developed a Satie-like gentility.



His final album (I'm aware that a soundtrack to the latest Nicolas Cage movie arrived shortly afterwards), came at the start of this year. '12' was a collection of sketches for piano and synthesizer, that seem to move through feelings of personal grief and pain with disquieting ambient drones leading preceding the more tender and exquisite piano pieces towards the end of the record.

Listening to Sakamoto's final record upon release was a poignant experience, listening again now it is profoundly sad.  Like that guy he once acted alongside, Ryuichi Sakamoto was a great artist to the very end.

Jay Lewis
Reviews Editor

Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based poet. He's also a music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.


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