A Rough Guide To Ryuichi Sakamoto

With a career that has now been spanning forty years, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical ventures have been incredibly diverse and innovative. After completing his training in classical music at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (ending with a Masters), he would go on to form the electronic pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra with Haruoumi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi in 1977. Each member would go on to experiment in electronic music in a plethora of ways before the band split in 1984 (although they have reunited for a number of albums, shows and tours since).

Sakamoto’s music has always been something of a ‘starting point’ for me — one of my entry points into music and a reference point I always come back to. When I first began to explore electronic music, I started with a number of contemporary artists but also became a huge fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra pretty early on. From then on, Sakamoto’s broad discography has captivated me. Covering countless genres and many different kinds of projects, I still remain somewhat mystified as I come across parts of his work I have not yet experienced.

I have picked six personal highlights from his work:


No stranger to drum machines and sequencers through his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra (Indeed, YMO were one of the first bands to work with the Roland TR-808), Sakamoto’s early work was often both playful and pioneering. Riot in Lagos stands out as timeless. It feels like a chaotic set of sounds and layers that somehow come together into a coherent and upbeat electro track. What’s most staggering is the fact that it was produced several years before the genre came to prevalence rather than being a subversion of or playful venture into it.


Going into the 1980s, Sakamoto began to venture into composing film soundtracks. Beginning with Japanese director Nagisha Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence, a film in which Sakmaoto would also star (alongside David Bowie), Sakamoto’s film compositions would receive much acclaim in the West. Indeed, in 1988 Sakamoto would win an Oscar along with David Byrne and Cong Su for his music for The Last Emperor. It is however, his score to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence that is most recognizable today. Working with David Sylvain of the new wave band Japan, Sakamoto would write the main theme, also known as Forbidden Colours (a reference to the Yukio Mishima novel of the same name) with Sylvain providing vocals and lyrics. The song is an exploration of certain themes of homosexuality, namely the self doubt of a young lover torn between what he desires and the expectations of society. It is positioned precisely on the boundary of taboo and the struggle to cope with the emotions it produces. The theme would go on to be sampled and used in many media segments depicting Japan.


Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, and with his international profile well established, Sakamoto would also go on to produce a number of tracks with the likes of Thomas Dolby, Public Image Ltd and Holly Johnson while continuing his work with David Sylvian of Japan. These collaborations represent Sakamoto’s most pop-like music. Yet, they would remain as diverse as ever. The upbeat more funky elements of his collaboration with Thomas Dolby in Fieldwork would contrast sharply with the more mellow Risky with Iggy Pop). Risky is worthy of attention as beneath the guitar and the vocals of Iggy Pop, staples of Sakamoto’s bass and percussion can be clearly heard. Such collaborations pay testament to Sakamoto’s diversity and adaptability as an artist.


Sakamoto’s most recent work has been as varied as ever. In the past decade, he has released film soundtracks, collections of piano pieces and more recently orchestral renditions of his work. But it is his collaborations with a number of pioneering ambient musicians that stand out as particularly interesting. Sakamoto’s first first collaboration with Austrian musician Fennesz came in 2001 with the album Cendre. The music feels like a collaboration in which each artist’s strengths still stand out distinctly. Fennesz’ warm and more glitchy textures and atmospheres sounds, produced mostly with a guitar, combine with Sakamoto’s melancholic and light piano.

It is their second album, Flumina (2010), that pays testament to the strength of their collaboration. While touring Japan, Sakamoto began each show by playing an improvised piano piece to the audience. At each show, he would play a piece in a new key until after 24 shows he had covered all of the Western tonal keys. Sakamoto then sent the recordings to Christian Fennesz who added his own elements to each track. The result is a piece of ambient music that ventures into many different territories through Sakamoto’s improvisation, but is always accompanied by the textures of Fennesz. Despite being created through the loosest terms, it feels masterfully crafted.


In contrast to his work with Fennesz, Sakamoto’s work with Christopher Willets, an electroacoustic musician and artist based in San Francisco, this is a collaboration in which their music really blends into one end. Ocean Fire was released in 2007 feels more natural that some of Sakamoto’s other projects. Evoking a sense of water through the album, the opening track ‘Toward Water’ has a nostalgic aura that feels like it is moving across a water’s surface. The texture is constantly ‘bubbling’ before becoming ordered for the briefest of moments in which a bright lead breaks through before disintegrating again. It is one of Sakamoto’s most resonating pieces of work precisely because it is difficult to place exactly what senses it is giving rise to.


Written for Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto’s show, Sakamoto’s Music for Yohji Yamamoto is a 35 minutes long piano track that moves through a number of different pieces. Beginning with eerie sounds of a piano, the piece finally breaks into a number of high toned chords before quickly transitioning into a rapidly cascading piano again. It moves back and forth between these phases before resolving into a lower melody and a more traditional sounding classical piano piece. And then, the piece disintegrates again — returning to the eerie ambient sounds that it begun with. These elements repeat themselves, becoming more and more violent, utilizing more and more lower keys, as it draws to a close. While Sakamoto’s piano work often incorporates many of these elements, Music For Yohji Yamamoto stands out as it feels like they’re all there — each of them trying to find their way to the front of the piece.

who could sleep through all that noisy chatter