Interviews

Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto Reflects on His Life, Work, and Battle with Cancer

In light of a new documentary on the composer, Sakamoto shares what compels him to write music and the influence of film on his work.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Ryuichi Sakamoto is sitting quietly in the back of his studio. Nestled on the garden floor of a West Village townhouse, the small space is filled with musical equipment — at least a dozen keyboards are within arms’ reach, and compact discs line the walls in neatly shelved rows. In front of him on a table is Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 Portable Synth, which he fiddles with as we speak.

This room is a familiar space in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, a documentary by Stephen Nomura Schible about the composer that was released in the United States on July 8. The film tracks a period in Sakamoto’s career that was both fruitful and tumultuous. In 2014, while beginning to work on a new album, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Everything else but his health took a back seat. Eventually, following a year of treatment, he scrapped what he was working on and began anew: the result was async, an album of startling originality, both fragile and robust, released in 2017.

Ryuichi Sakamoto in <em>Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda</em> (photo by SKMTDOC, LLC.) (photo courtesy of MUBI)
Ryuichi Sakamoto in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (photo by SKMTDOC, LLC.) (photo courtesy of MUBI)

Born in Tokyo in 1952, Sakamoto first came to prominence as a co-founder of pioneering electronic music trio Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). “Firecracker,” their first big single, a slinky and infectious burst of electro cheese whiz, helped push their reach to the US, where they ended up appearing on an episode of Soul Train. Concurrently, the members of YMO were all pursuing solo careers, none more erratic than Sakamoto. His first two solo releases, Thousand Knives (1978) and B-2 Unit (1980), are mood pieces that are in line with electronic experimenters like Oneohtrix Point Never and Arca today. They would also signal the next stage of his career.

When Sakamoto was invited by the late Japanese director Nagisa Oshima to star opposite David Bowie in his film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), he requested that he be able to score the film as well. Since that moment, he has recorded over 30 soundtracks for film, television, and video games, and won an Academy Award in 1987 for his symphonic score to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987).

Ryuichi Sakamoto in <em>Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda</em> (photo by Neo Sora) (photo courtesy of MUBI)
Ryuichi Sakamoto in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (photo by Neo Sora) (photo courtesy of MUBI)

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda gets to all of this context in a circuitous way, going back in time during moments of reflection. Layers of history float in and out of the film, via bits of music and archival footage, but never drag it down. The focus is on the here and the now, which today is still Sakamoto’s concern. During our conversation, which took place in May, we discussed the creative pursuit of satisfaction, the influence of filmmakers on his latest work, and how his cancer diagnosis changed the way he works.

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Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto

Craig Hubert: What compels you to continue to write music? What keeps you here, in the studio, on a beautiful day like this, instead of walking around outside?

Ryuichi Sakamoto: I should go out, yeah. I should walk more [laughs]. The biggest engine for keeping to write is curiosity. The other one is satisfaction. If I were totally, perfectly satisfied by listening to music, say like Bach or Debussy, which is the music that I admire the most, I wouldn’t have to write new music. Or another example: I admire the sound of nature a lot.  I always tell people to open their ears, listen to the sounds surrounding yourself. And that’s very important. But if I were totally satisfied by listening to the sound of nature, I wouldn’t have to write music. I’m always hungry to hear something new — from me or from outside. Either way.

CH: Can this kind of satisfaction ever be achieved?

RS: This is maybe the sickness of our civilization. Before we became a developing culture in modern history, our ancestors were basically hunters and collectors for almost 200,000 years. There might have been slight developments in technology, but it was very subtle, especially compared to the past 250 or even the past 50 years. We are all now driven by the energy of the system, whether it be capitalism or a broader system.

CH: The film is very intimate — were you hesitant to let a camera document your life in this way?

RS: I’m anti-exposing. More than that, for a long time, really since I was small, I wanted to be anonymous. I felt very easy and comfortable when I was in a massive crowd, like the busy morning crowds of Tokyo. Just standing in a crowd, I felt very comfortable. So it was never my intention to reveal my privacy. And when I was diagnosed with cancer, Stephen [Nomura Schible], the director, was hesitant to shoot. But I was the one who pushed him — you have a very dramatic moment! I told him to just keep shooting.

Ryuichi Sakamoto in <em>Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda</em> (photo by Douglas Ideguchi) (photo courtesy of MUBI)
Ryuichi Sakamoto in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (photo by Douglas Ideguchi) (photo courtesy of MUBI)

CH: In that moment, were you thinking of this as an opportunity to look back on your life?

RS: I was always looking forward, like my music. I rarely looked back at my past, and I was always rigidly conscious of this. Now, I’m more relaxed. There’s a track on async that sounded a bit like the 1980s, an arpeggio thing. At first, I wasn’t sure. But I was like, “OK, why not?”

CH: What about in the film?

RS: To me, the documentary was a rare moment to remember scenes, like when I was conducting the orchestra for the score to The Last Emperor, which was fresh to me because I hadn’t seen that footage for maybe three decades. But what was also interesting for me is that in the film there is footage of me talking about technology in the early 1980s, around the time that Blade Runner came out. Naturally, I was into some concepts of dystopia and dead-tech around that time; it was a trend, it was fashionable. At that time, my view of technology was still very positive — I believed in technology, even though I was looking for a dark future. Now, looking back, it wasn’t dark enough. Reality now is much worse than I imagined at that time.

CH: I wanted to talk about the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, and especially his film Solaris, on your creative process during the making of async.

RS: When I started making the album, the sound that was in my mind was the Bach theme from Solaris, arranged on synthesizers by Eduard Artemyev. I arranged the same piece in the beginning of the process for async, and it sounded really good. It was very different from Artemyev’s version, so I was very happy. Then I arranged four more Bach chorales next to that, and they all sounded really good. So I thought, maybe this is the album? Then I thought I needed to do something more, to write my own chorale. I tried, and that became the song “solari,” obviously, with no “s.”

Another example is the track “walker,” where basically, I recorded my footsteps walking around in a forest. That is directly connected to some scenes from The Sacrifice, which is my favorite Tarkovsky film, along with The Mirror.

Ryuichi Sakamoto in <em>Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda</em> (photo by Neo Sora) (photo courtesy of MUBI)
Ryuichi Sakamoto in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (photo by Neo Sora) (photo courtesy of MUBI)

CH: When I think about The Mirror, I think about the sounds of nature and those beautiful images of grass blowing in the wind.

RS: Exactly. As I’ve been making music and trying to go deeper and deeper, I was finally able to understand what the Tarkovsky movies are about — how symphonic they are —  it’s almost music. Not just the sounds — it’s a symphony of moving images and sounds. They are more complex than music.

CH: Do you watch a lot of films?

RS: Yes. Actually, for async, even now, next to Tarkovsky for me is Robert Bresson. He’s a huge inspiration for me. Of course, I saw his films a long time ago, but I didn’t understand them. They were very still, there was no happy ending, very cynical. But, again, making async for eight months, looking at Tarkovsky and Bresson, I was interested in the stillness and their attempts to get rid of the ancient methods of theater. Bresson famously disliked theatrical methods. That’s why he liked amateur actors and actresses. He wanted to make something totally new — that was cinema to him. It’s very similar to what I wanted and still want — some new kind of music, not something with a heritage to old forms developed in the West.

CH: Have you read Bresson’s book, Notes on the Cinematographer?

RS: Oh, yes. It’s my bible. That and Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time. They are both my bibles.

Ryuichi Sakamoto in <em>Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda</em> (photo by Neo Sora) (photo courtesy of MUBI)
Ryuichi Sakamoto in Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (photo by Neo Sora) (photo courtesy of MUBI)

CH: Do you recognize any ways you changed the way you work after your diagnosis in 2014?

RS: No, it’s the same. Like we were saying about Bresson, I still want to not use the old vocabulary of music. New is not avant-garde or anything to do with present fashions. It has to be new to me.

CH: Now that async is in the past, what is new to you at the moment?

RS: I have been performing the songs from async, and that’s a kind of looking back but also developing. I have to adjust, make the async album alive in that situation. I have to use a different mode of the brain. I’m thinking about writing an opera within two years. I really want to develop from async to an opera, so they can be really connected. What I’ve been doing for a long time is jumping from here to there with no continuation between my albums. So, I don’t know — maybe because of cancer I have changed.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) and Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 (9036 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills).

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