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Music / Ryuichi Sakamoto

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Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一 Sakamoto Ryūichi, January 17, 1952 - March 28, 2023) was a prolific Japanese composer, singer, songwriter and record producer, and an anti-nuclear activist. He also had some acting roles, and wrote some anime and video games in addition to soundtracks.

He graduated from Tokyo National University's Fine Arts & Music program with a M.A. in music composition with special emphasis on electronic and ethnic music, which would define a good chunk of his musical career. He has pursued a diverse range of styles both solo and, famously, as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra. He also collaborated with former Japan frontman David Sylvian extensively in his early solo career. Alongside YMO, Sakamoto is considered a major influence on western electro, techno, and Hip-Hop artists, with analysts labeling his 1980 song "Riot in Lagos" the Trope Maker for electro.

Acting-wise, his best known roles are without much doubt the World War II-era Captain Yonoi in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, who ends up extremely troubled by David Bowie as a prisoner of war, and Masahiko Amakasu in The Last Emperor. He also composed the soundtracks for both films and plenty of others works such as the 1992 film version of Wuthering Heights, The Revenant and Black Mirror: Smithereens, as well as the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona.

In 2014, Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer, leading him to go on hiatus for a year to seek treatment. While he announced his recovery in 2015, he also pointed out that the length of its effectiveness was highly variable and that he was at risk of remission. In 2017, he released async as a meditation on his experiences with cancer and his newfound awareness of his own mortality. Four years later, he announced that he was recovering from surgery to remove a rectal tumor. On Sakamoto's 71st birthday, six days after Yellow Magic Orchestra bandmate Yukihiro Takahashi's death from pneumonia in 2023 (a complication of his own battle with brain cancer), he put out 12 as an elaboration on async's themes of mortality. Two months later, Sakamoto himself passed away.

Studio album discography:

  • Disappointment - Hateruma (1976)
  • Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto (1978)
  • Summer Nerves (1979) (billed as featuring The Kakutougi Session, but they were simply a band he put together for the release).
  • B-2 Unit (1980)
  • Left-Handed Dream (1981)
  • Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia (1984)note 
  • Esperanto (1985)
  • Futurista (1986)
  • Neo Geo (1987)
  • Beauty (1989)
  • Heartbeat (1991)
  • Sweet Revenge (1994)
  • Smoochy (1995)
  • 1996 (1996)
  • Discord (1997)
  • BTTB (1999)
  • Comica (2002)
  • Elephantism (2002)
  • Chasm (2004)
  • Out of Noise (2009)
  • Playing the Piano (2009)
  • Three (2013)
  • async (2017)
  • 12 (2023)

Films scored by Sakamoto:

Tropes featured in Sakamoto's work:

  • All There in the Manual: Even though the Japanese title appears on the cover, the Japanese release of Left-Handed Dream features the English title on the inner gatefold.
  • Animated Music Video: The 2013 re-recording of "Psychedelic Afternoon" received one as part of the associated charity project, featuring David Byrne as a mystical hippie grandpa helping his grandson cope with the trauma left by the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
  • Book Ends:
    • The Japanese version of Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia opens with "Tibetan Dance" and closes with a remix of the same.
    • On later pressings, the international version of Beauty opens with "You Do Me" and ends with the song's single mix, which is a Hidden Track.
    • On a meta level, Sakamoto's first and last scoring projects were for Japanese queer drama films. The first was 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which focuses on the homoerotic tension between a Japanese prison camp commander and a rebellious South African prisoner. The last was Monster 40 years later, which details the tension between a mother and her closeted son.
  • Boxed Set: Sakamoto released The Complete Güt Box in 2012, compiling the four studio albums he released in Japan under Güt Records, the soundtrack to Little Buddha (originally released in Japan by Güt's parent label, For Life), and various remixes, live performances, and associated rarities.
  • Canon Discontinuity: On Sakamoto's Spotify page, Thousand Knives is listed as an EP rather than an album despite having been billed as the latter when it first released. As such, B-2 Unit is treated as his first "proper" solo album on the platform.
  • Concept Album: Futurista is themed around the Italian Futurist movement, to the extent where "Milan 1919" is an extended lecture on the history of Futurism.
  • Cover Version: Both the Japanese and international versions of Beauty feature a cover of "We Love You" by The Rolling Stones.
  • Genre Mashup: "Paradise Lost" combines Japanese traditional music and reggae, made on a Fairlight synth computer, and even featuring steel drums.
  • Genre Roulette: He frequently did albums in different genres, but in terms of an album where that is the case, he really went for it on Heartbeat, as its theme is that it features musical genres from around the world in multiple languages. Consequently, while House Music and acid jazz glue the album together, the individual songs vary between stuff like Trip Hop, chaoui music, French rap, New Romantic music, electric swing with Ukrainian monologuing, and Classical Music.
  • Green Aesop: "World Citizen — I Won't Be Disappointed" is a Protest Song about the continuing issue of pollution and the grave consequences it holds if it continues progressing at its current rate.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Every track on 12 is titled after its recording date, written in the Japanese Year/Month/Day format and represented as a continuous series of numbers without any spaces or dashes (e.g. "20210310" for March 10, 2021).
  • In the Style of: The Title Track of Thousand Knives was envisioned as a homage to the reggae-jazz style of Herbie Hancock.
  • Lighter and Softer: His soundtrack to The Adventures Of Chatran is incredibly relaxing, as suits the mood of the movie it was made for.
  • Limited Lyrics Song: The lyrics to the David Sylvian collaboration "Bamboo Houses" consists of a single verse, recited in Japanese and sung in English.
  • Live Album: Several, with Media Bahn Live being his first.
  • List Song: "G.T." and its remixed version, "G.T. II°", features a text-to-speech chorus listing the planets in the solar system (as recognized in 1986), conspicuously skipping over Earth and tying into the verses' use of space travel as a metaphor for love.
  • Longest Song Goes Last: Beauty is an interesting case. Japanese LP and cassette releases and initial international releases end with "Chinsagu no Hana", which clocks in at nearly seven and a half minutes. Japanese CD releases end with "Adagio", which is even longer at 7:47. Later pressings of the international edition avert this entirely, tacking on the 7" mix of "You Do Me", which is only four minutes, at the end as a Hidden Track.
  • Machine Monotone: Sakamoto used an early text to speech voice on the Futurista track "Milan 1909", which certainly has this effect. It is paired with disconcertingly uncomfortable music, which goes on for over a minute before the voice comes in. This was over a decade before Radiohead were noted for doing the same thing on "Fitter Happier".
  • Market-Based Title:
    • The movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was renamed Furyo in Europe; the soundtrack album was consequently renamed there to match.
    • The European release of ''Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia" renames "Ma Mère L'oie" to "Zen-Gun".
  • Match Cut: Used extensively throughout the music video for "Forbidden Colours", in which shots of David Sylvian posing fade into shots of characters from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in identical positions (and vice-versa).
  • Multilingual Song: "Bamboo Houses" consists of a single verse recited in Japanese by Sakamoto and sung in English by David Sylvian.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Sakamoto is one of the most successful cases of a pop star entering the world of soundtrack composing, having been an in-demand scorer since his first project in the field, 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (which he also co-starred in). He kept it up all the way until his death, with his last scoring project being the queer drama Monster, which premiered two months after he passed away. Outside of Japan, he ended up being more successful as a composer than as a pop musician, despite many attempts to crack the western pop market in the '80s and '90s.
  • Protest Song: Chasm is an entire protest album, venting out Sakamoto's frustrations with the state of the world in the 2000s, covering themes ranging from the jingoism of The War on Terror to the longtime issue of pollution.
  • Rearrange the Song:
    • Sakamoto's solo compositions "Thousand Knives", "The End of Asia", and "Happy End" were reworked with Yellow Magic Orchestra in the early '80s. In the same vein, YMO's "Behind the Mask" was based on a jingle Sakamoto wrote for a watch commercial, and Sakamoto would in turn rearrange the song as a solo single in 1987, based on a Cover Version by Michael Jackson that went unreleased until 2010.
    • The Thomas Dolby collaboration "Field Work" features a bombastic, funk-leaning "London Mix" handled by Dolby, a minimalist, electro-tinged "Tokyo Mix" handled by Sakamoto, and extended versions of both.
    • Futurista features "G.T. II°", a remixed version of the non-album single "G.T." with heavier percussion and samples from "Legs" by Art of Noise.
    • Chasm features remixed versions of "World Citizen — I Won't Be Disappointed" and "World Citizen", respectively suffixed "Looped Piano" and "Re-Cycled". The former song's remix is mostly faithful to the original, albeit with the instrumental based around a piano loop, but the latter remix is far more drastic, altering the lyrical Alternative Rock song into a mostly instrumental ambient piece.
    • In 2013, Sakamoto and David Byrne re-recorded their 1994 collaboration "Psychedelic Afternoon", with redone lyrics and Byrne taking up vocal duties this time, as part of a project to raise awareness and funds for children impacted by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
  • Re-Cut:
    • The UK release of B-2 Unit replaces "Participation Mystique" with the Japanese non-album single "War Head".
    • The international release of Left Handed Dream axes "Relâché", "Tell 'em to Me", "Living in the Dark", "Venezia" and "Saru no Ie" and adds in the four songs from the concurrent EP The Arrangement — "The Left Bank", "The Arrangement" "Just About Enough", and "Once in a Lifetime". The song order is also reshuffled to account for this. The Dutch CD release, meanwhile, mostly follows the Japanese tracklist, but appends the songs from The Arrangement to the end as bonus tracks.
    • The international release of Illustrated Music Encyclopedia adds the London Mix of "Field Work" and "Steppin' into Asia" and removes "Self Portrait", "Tabinokyokuhoku", "Morinohito", "A Tribute to N.J.P.", "Replica", and "Tibetan Dance (Version)". The running order is also considerably altered to account for this. Consequently, the album is shortened from just under an hour to roughly 41 minutes.
    • The international release of Beauty adds "You Do Me", remixes the Cover Version of "We Love You", and drops the Cover Version of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings". Later copies of the international edition edit the album further by adding the 7" version of "You Do Me" at the end as a Hidden Track, consequently bookending the record with the same song.
    • The international release of Heartbeat replaces the Japanese-language versions of "High Tide" and "Sayonara" with English-language ones and "Tainai Kaiki II" with the David Sylvian collaborations "Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki II) — Returning to the Womb" and "Cloud #9".
    • The international release of Sweet Revenge replaces the Japanese-language versions of "Sentimental" and "Water's Edge" with English-language re-recordings, remixes "Moving On", "Regret", "Pounding at My Heart", "Same Dream, Same Destination", and "Interruptions", and drops "Anna" and "Psychedelic Afternoon".
    • The American and Brazilian releases of 1996 drop the last four tracks, while the UK release drops only the very last one.
    • The international release of Chasm drops "the land song — music for Artelligent City" and adds "Song" and "World" just before the closing track. The vinyl release, meanwhile, drops the Title Track, "only love can conquer hate", "break with", and "laménto" in order to fit the album on one LP.
  • The Remnant: The music video for the Thomas Dolby collaboration "Field Work" sees Sakamoto play Tenshi Tanaka, a fictional Japanese holdout who was discovered on Iwo Jima sometime after the end of World War II.
  • Sensory Abuse: "Coro", composed for the 2004 film adaptation of Appleseed and later included on Chasm that same year, consists of loud, discordant chiptune blasts and buzzes meant to invoke an atmosphere of chaos and disorder.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The Title Track of Thousand Knives opens with Sakamoto reciting the Mao Zedong poem "Jinggang Mountain", in the original Mandarin, through a vocoder.
    • "Tribute to N.J.P." is, as the name implies, an extended nod to the work of Korean video artist and jazz pianist Nam June Paik, who'd previously collaborated with Sakamoto.
  • Special Guest: Several of Sakamoto's solo albums feature collaborations with well-known western musicians, usually to try and make his work easier to market outside of Japan; many of them were even released as singles. On the flipside, Sakamoto has frequently done session work for other notable western musicians over the years, from mutual collaborator David Sylvian to avant-garde Post-Punk collective Public Image Ltd..
  • Spell My Name With An S: A number of early '80s releases Romanized his given name as "Riuichi" instead of "Ryuichi," despite the latter having been used since his debut album. The "Ryuichi" spelling would eventually become standard with the release of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983, which credited him as "Ryuichi Sakamoto" for audiences around the world to see.
  • Updated Re-release: The 1990 CD of "The Arrangement" added the A and B-sides of two singles released shortly before the EP (and consequently making it as long as a proper studio album), these being "War Head"/"Lexington Queen" and "Front Line"/"Happy End". A later reissue three years later further added on all four mixes of "Field Work" and both mixes of "Steppin' Into Asia". The bonus tracks are removed on the 2015 CD.
  • Video Full of Film Clips: The music video for "Forbidden Colours" intersperses clips from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence with footage of David Sylvian miming under a spotlight.
  • White Void Room: The music video for "Bamboo Houses" is set in one, interspersed with a number of video effects.