The esteemed Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto was back in the news over the summer, when the New York Times reported that he was so irked by the song selection at a favorite Manhattan restaurant, he politely wrote to the chef and offered to take charge of the playlist. Something about the story felt typically Sakamoto: the confidence, the sensitivity, the unswerving belief that music demands to be taken a little more seriously.
The 66-year-old is being honored as Asian Filmmaker of the Year at Busan, in recognition of a soundtrack oeuvre stretching back to Nagisa Oshima’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” in 1983. He’s the first composer to receive the prize, and it’s hard to argue with the choice. Other Asian film composers may have amassed larger bodies of work, but few can rival Sakamoto’s international clout, cultivated over a career that’s embraced pop stardom, avant-garde experimentation and political activism.
Such is the range of his activities — which have also included modeling, radio work and a series of educational shows about music theory on NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster — that when he took a hiatus to undergo treatment for throat cancer in 2014, he said it was the first proper break he’d had in 40 years.
At its best, Sakamoto’s music becomes an inseparable part of a movie’s texture — and “texture” is the operative term for a composer who tends to prioritize atmosphere over ear-worm tunes. His fondness for pentatonic melodies have made it easy for critics to highlight the Asian quality of his music, but his key influences are from the Western canon: the formal mastery of Bach, the romanticism and restraint of Debussy, Satie and Ravel.
Success came early in his career. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” was his first foray into cinema, both as actor and composer. He agreed to appear in the movie — starring as a WWII Japanese prison camp commandant opposite David Bowie and Tom Conti — on the condition that he be allowed to write the music, and its emotive main theme has become his signature hit. Though he’s written better soundtracks, none would produce a tune quite so indelible.
For many international viewers, Oshima’s film was their first introduction to Sakamoto. But he was already a major star at home, thanks to his role as a founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), his techno pop trio with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi. Pairing the man-machine fusions of Kraftwerk with a tongue-in-cheek Orientalist aesthetic and a knack for catchy melodies, the group was unlike anything the Japanese music world had heard before, and proved phenomenally successful.
Sakamoto had developed an interest in electronic music while studying ethnomusicology and composition at the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and he embraced the latest technologies, both with YMO and in his solo work. His 1980 track “Riot in Lagos,” which made extensive use of the newly released Roland TR-808 drum machine, paved the way for the electro and techno scenes that emerged later in the decade.
That same year, YMO became Japan’s top-selling act, after shifting over a million copies of sophomore album “Solid State Survivor.” The group also found fans overseas: they performed on “Soul Train” in the U.S. and scored a Top 20 hit in the UK with “Computer Game.” Michael Jackson was so taken by the Sakamoto-penned YMO song “Behind the Mask,” he recorded a version of his own to include on “Thriller,” until a royalty dispute put paid to the idea.
After YMO parted ways in 1984, Sakamoto’s solo career quickly threatened to eclipse that of his former bandmates. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” led to more movie work. He was cast as a Japanese officer in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” then enlisted to compose much of the film’s score, alongside David Byrne and Cong Su. As he would later recall, he was only given a week to write 45 cues, but the effort paid off: he picked up an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy award for the soundtrack.
His subsequent Bertolucci collaboration on “The Sheltering Sky” also won a Golden Globe, during what be a particularly fertile period in his career as a composer. He wrote the music for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and scored an eclectic range of mostly non-Japanese productions, including Pedro Almodovar’s “High Heels,” ABC’s “Wild Palms,” and Volker Schlöndorff’s ill-fated adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Outside his work as a composer, his solo albums ranged from electronica to slick ethno-pop and bossa nova, enlisting an international cast of collaborators including Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, Youssou N’Dour and Bootsy Collins.
He relocated from Tokyo to New York in 1990, and despite occasional threats to leave, he’s been based there ever since.
Like many artists who’ve moved overseas, Sakamoto resists being tied to his country of origin. “I’m not the ambassador of Japan or Japanese culture,” he told GQ earlier this year, and he has a complex relationship with his birthplace, where he’s treated with both veneration and a certain amount of exasperation.
That’s partly because of the increasingly experimental nature of his post-2000s work, both in his solo albums and in collaborations with electronic musicians including Alva Noto and Fennesz. But it’s mostly the result of his strident advocacy of environmental and political causes, in a country where celebrity activism is unusual, if not actively discouraged.
Sakamoto has campaigned on a variety of issues, from copyright law and artists’ rights to opposing the Iraq War. He’s best-known for his environmental work: he spearheaded a campaign against a controversial nuclear reprocessing plant in Hokkaido, and was at the forefront of the anti-nuclear demonstrations that erupted in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011.
The divergent aspects of his career are brought together in the recent documentary “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.” Stephen Nomura Schible’s film joins the dots between Sakamoto’s post-Fukushima activism and environmental concerns, and his cancer scare and return to creative work. The 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, along with his subsequent health problems, seem to have sharpened his focus; as he tells Schible, “I’m not taking anything for granted.”
When he resumed soundtrack work in 2015, it was with two wildly contrasting scores. While his music for Yoji Yamada’s nostalgic “Nagasaki: Memories of My Son” tended towards the quaintly melodic, for Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” he collaborated with Alva Noto to create a brooding, electronically sculpted soundscape that was like an orchestra suspended in ice. Subsequent credits have included Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “The Fortress” and Lee Sang-il’s “Rage,” while last year’s excellent “Async” album showed that Sakamoto’s creative energies are undimmed.
In a 2015 Vanity Fair interview, he expressed a hope to work with Jean-Luc Godard, and described a never-realized project, hatched with the late Toru Takemitsu, to compose fresh scores for the films of Yasujiro Ozu.
Yet the most tantalizing “what if?” in Sakamoto’s career is that he was once lined up to star in “Hollywood Zen,” Nagisa Oshima’s planned biopic of an earlier Japanese artist who flourished on the international stage: silent-era heartthrob Sessue Hayakawa. The two men may have had little in common besides nationality and good looks, but in reputation they would’ve been an equal match.