I awoke on the morning of April 2 to learn of the passing of Ryuichi Sakamoto. I’m writing this the following evening, still in shock, and feeling sad.
And brimming with gratitude for the music he created.
Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. He was treated, and the cancer went into remission. Cancer returned in 2021.
He died last month, at the age of 71.
Words by Paul Ashby
YMO fans hadn’t had a chance to regroup following co-founder Yukihiro Takahashi’s death in January; it seems all our musical heroes are exiting, and it’s not getting any easier.
I first heard Sakamoto’s music while working for a music importer in 1981. YMO (previously Yellow Magic Orchestra) released BGM and Technodelic that year, and Sakamoto was one-third of the band.
Both are techno-pop classics. For the uninitiated, think Kraftwerk, add a sense of humor and savvy self-awareness, glints of psychedelia, and a global take on traditional and pop musics.
The word “legendary” is nearly faint praise when applied to these releases; the impact of both albums can’t be overestimated.
In 1980, Sakamoto released his second solo album, B-2 Unit. At the time, it sounded like something that had been created on another planet. Ratchet-y, repetitious e-rhythms, unearthly synth effects, processed vocals… it was a very odd, and often unsettling, LP. It remains a groundbreaking release in the techno-dub and electronic experimental sub-realms.
One of my favorite songs (by anyone), “Thatness and Thereness”, is a highlight. Along with a few other Ryu gems, it remains on a thumb drive in my truck, and the song comes up regularly. It always makes me smile.
Left-Handed Dream followed in 1981. If B-2 Unit was exoplanetary n’ skeletal electro-dub, Dream fleshed out those bones, with spectacular results. While retaining the exploratory nature of B-2, Sakamoto ventured into what might become to be known as “world beat” — with none of the rank dilettantism or annoying cultural appropriation that would eventually drag the genre down.
Yes, Left Handed Dream may be one of the most exotic, adventurous, and well-rounded works in Sakamoto’s catalog. The embracing vibe, however, was still, clearly, Japanese, with nearly all songs sung in Ryu’s native language.
Sakamoto’s eighties collaborations included work with Adrian Belew (above, on “Tell ’em To Me”), Iggy Pop, and, on this gorgeous tune, with David Sylvian:
1983 saw his first soundtrack, a landmark that melded synth atmospherics, classical motifs, and traditional Japanese themes. The title track of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence remains his most identifiable song.
The Coda album followed, instrumental piano versions of the tracks on Merry Christmas. On paper, it seemed it might come across as a mere demo. But the stripped-down solo piano renditions added another facet to one of Sakamoto’s most ambitious and accomplished works. A 7″ single was released in Japan, and this was the b-side. It remains one of my favorite Ryuichi Sakamoto compositions:
Esperanto explored the then-still-new possibilities of synth sequencing and sampling, technologies that’re now simplified, relatively inexpensive, and accessible to all. But, in 1985, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s implementation and execution were pioneering.
Ryu’s experimental techno phase is, obviously, my favorite aspect of his work. That style diminished somewhat throughout the remainder of the eighties. His musical vocabulary expanded, and he flirted with jazz, swing, and jazz-funk (and has noted the latter as one of the only phases of his career over which he has regrets), and moved on to classical composition and film scores. Most notable among the latter were The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and, later, The Revenant.
Sakamoto was no longer wandering the fringes of cult appreciation. He won an Oscar, a Grammy, a BAFTA, and two Golden Globes.
Despite his brisk schedule as an in-demand scoring artist, he found time to reunite with YMO to perform live on at least two occasions, and the three members — Sakamoto, Takahashi, and Haruomi Hosono — periodically participated on each other’s recorded works and live performances.
In 1993, YMO released Technodon, there last recorded work as YMO. It ably demonstrated the band could still create music that was relevant and innovative (and not only because William S. Burroughs, William Gibson, and John C. Lilly contributed spoken vocals). The early 90s were the coming of age of ambient dub, and YMO proved there were few true challengers in that arena.
UK ambient darlings The Orb even took on the considerable task of remixing YMO, and acquitted themselves in a most admirable fashion.
The clip below — with Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards, stage right — is from the band’s final formal live reformation in 2011, for which I was fortunate to be an enthralled audience member:
Along with his soundtrack and classical works, Sakamoto also released experimental music collaborations with Austrian avant-guitarist Feenesz and Germany’s Alva Noto, among others.
A documentary, Coda, was released in 2017. It can be rented online. It’s a must for fans, the curious, and …. everyone else.
Ryuichi Sakamoto issued two solo albums that drew upon his most adventurous inclinations: 2016’s Async (his first release following his diagnosis), and the starkly engrossing 12 in January, 2023.
Which brings us back to today. April 2nd.
I had been dreading Ryuichi Sakamoto’s passing for years.
I told myself, many times, I was ready.
I continue to play his music nearly daily, as I have since the early 80s, and played it on my weekly radio show 30 years ago. I bought everything he released; I forced all my friends to listen.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s life and work had an immeasurable impact on me — as a music fan, a music-biz urchin, a musician, and a person. He was inspiring, on so many levels. Our musical lives have been enriched by his existence. He deserves every laud he’s given.
Hildur Gudnadóttir’s Facebook tribute was particularly touching:
I am utterly heartbroken…
Ryuichi was the most gentle and kind human being I have ever met. His listening abilities were unparalleled, he always made the time to meet for a coffee or dinner, no matter how busy he was, he embodied such genuine curiosity, creativity and a deep concern for the planet. Getting to be his friend and be little part of his larger than life orbit was a great honour that I will always cherish.
Dear Ryuichi, thank you for the gifts of spirit, music and kind humanity you have given us.
Farewell, my friend.
And I’ll leave you with a 2009 quote from Ryuichi Sakamoto, and a piece from his final performance, broadcast online to a worldwide audience last year.
It is hard to truly divide music from noise. When you are listening to a record you are hearing noise and music at the same time, but your brain splits them in two. You hear one but you are listening to both. My concept when making music is that there is no border between music and noise.</font size>
(from Turning Japanese: The philosophy of Ryuichi Sakamoto)
Today, Sakamoto’s management posted the playlist he requested for his funeral.