A Thousand Flowers for Ryuichi Sakamoto

After a spell in a Marxist youth movement, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s constantly inventive music came to soundtrack the consumerist mania of the 1980s Japanese boom. But in his most recent work, the late composer turned back to experimentation and activism.

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto performing in 1990. (Ian Dickson / Redferns via Getty Images)

“My conception of music isn’t based on day-to-day time,” Ryuichi Sakamoto tells an interviewer early in Elizabeth Lennard’s 1984 documentary Tokyo Melody. “In Japan, where music is everywhere, what we might call universal time continues to exist on the same basis as our day-to-day time.”

The dialectical implications of that claim move in two directions. Music is based in “universal time,” but stays close to the everyday, the demotic, the “popular.” It stays distinct from day-to-day time, dwelling in an aesthetic and spiritual temporality, but can live nowhere else.

Sakamoto suggests that a properly everyday and “popular” music — one that couldn’t really exist before imperial war and nuclear devastation imposed modernity absolutely on the country — is one that is necessarily bizarre, otherworldly, suggestive of another life beyond the pervasive social conformity that has been the subject of a century of Japanese art. In his work as a solo artist, member of electronic pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), and impresario in the golden age of J-pop, Sakamoto intertwined, in assemblages at once jagged and fluid, styles and sources: Western pop and the classical tradition, the most outré fragments of postwar electronic music and a great sweep of what would become “world music,” layers of the history of avant-garde and popular music, with more confidence and resourcefulness than perhaps anyone else. His easy movement between art, pop, and the gilded precincts of the middlebrow was facilitated by a personal magnetism he frequently disavowed.

By the time of Tokyo Melody, he was already one of the biggest stars in Japan. He appeared as a diffident, minimalist dandy with a sweeping fringe and sculpted cheekbones accentuated, on the cover of his 1981 solo album Left Handed Dream, by abstract pastel makeup. With YMO he was a frequent guest on the Japanese equivalents of Wogan or Live and Kicking. The year before, with several Top 10 albums already to his name, he had starred, opposite David Bowie and deranged TV funnyman Takeshi Kitano in Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

Born in 1952 to a firmly middle-class family, he entered the national conservatoire already a prodigy in piano and composition (he claimed to have composed his first piece at four years old). His tastes were catholic and vulgar, taking in Japanese jazz, Western pop, the swollen late romanticism of Maurice Ravel and Petrovich Mussorgsky, African and East Asian ethnic music, and the electronic lineage of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He had an especial reverence for Claude Debussy, who had dissolved nineteenth-century tonal music into fields of complex, ambiguous harmonies where chromatic chords and unanchored timbre floated like images, drawing on the non-Western form of Javanese gamelan. David Toop, who knew and collaborated with Sakamoto, placed Debussy at the heart of a view of twentieth-century music that did away with any notion of national “authenticity,” in which new technology and practices made music into a fluid, impure object. Sakamoto would carry that idea to its slightly absurd conclusion on albums like Beauty, Neo Geo, and Sweet Revenge, which deployed a Rolodex of world music stars.

Japan at the turn of the 1980s was the place where the future arrived first. Its peculiar postwar geopolitical position — a former imperial power flattened by World War II, rebuilt with American investment and cultivated as a bulwark against the spread of Communism in East Asia — had created a chimerical society unknown to the liberal capitalisms and social democratic states of Europe. An “economic miracle” with deep social inequality, it had one of the world’s largest Communist parties and a powerful socialist party, but neither were allowed to have much effect on official politics, due to a successful conservative parliamentary coalition formed in 1955. Meanwhile, the massive and militant student movement of the late ’60s had broken entirely with that old left and been repressed on a murderous scale.

The result was a mess of social splits and fissures patched over by strong traditionalism and top-of-the-line consumer goods. Extreme social and racial conservatism sat alongside the consequences of an unfettered consumerism that was, in the guise of the personal technologies of Sony, Nintendo, and Roland, preparing a new and immaterial lifeworld.

Japanese popular music underwent a creative explosion. A new form of smooth, romantic vocal pop, based on the resources of jazz-fusion, gestated, while increasingly austere electronic minimalism fulfilled the needs of design showrooms. Sakamoto was the artist who, perhaps more than any other, grasped these aesthetic contradictions — orchestral syrup and brutalist sonic high-tech, precise calm and rending passion, the hermetic localism of Japan and the global flows of which it was now a center — and pulled them together in their most extreme forms. The music he made between 1978 and 1986 didn’t just reflect this world, but gave form to its inner aesthetic potential.

As a jobbing session musician and arranger, Sakamoto met Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, and together they conceived YMO as a sort of instrumental novelty disco group. Both were already music-industry veterans, Hosono with the psych-rock band Happy End, Takahashi as drummer with Sadistic Mika Band. Their early recordings were, like their American near-contemporaries Devo, perfect expressions of culture after the destruction of the ideals of the ’60s: glinting, cynical parodies of postwar Japan that animated Orientalist kitsch and vulgar consumerism into hard-edged sonic hailstorms.

Dressed in primary-colored jumpsuits and occasional Mao caps, Sakamoto would blast flashcubes at audiences like a stereotypical Japanese tourist. (Takahashi was a moonlighting fashion designer and friend of Yohji Yamamoto and largely shaped Sakamoto’s style.) At a moment when synthesizers were, in the pop charts, regarded as a novelty item (or an anti-musical menace), they took uncompromising, alien, and baroque compositions with disturbingly hummable melodies to the top of the charts. The 1978 song “Firecracker,” a cover of Martin Denny’s 1959 piece of exotic easy listening, was a statement of intent: a sonic image of an imaginary Japan, rippling with complex keyboard lines and farting bass. “Computer Game,” released the following year, took the soundworld of early arcade games and turned it into an abstract swirl of bleeps and alarms out of which fragments of funk sometimes coalesce — a different imaginary world, whose contours cyberpunk would explore in the coming years.

Over their six following albums, all of which occupied places in the Japanese Top 5, they developed into a steely, shiny pop group, though one that found room for bizarre manzai sketches, daring sampling strategies, and pioneering uses of synthesizers (most notably the Roland 808 Drum Machine) that would come to dominate dance music. Sakamoto was already working on his 1978 solo debut, The Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, when YMO formed. The body of solo work he produced up to 1986’s Futurista forms one of the most remarkable pop achievements of the century: every album has more ideas, executed with greater technical ingenuity and formal complexity than many musicians’ entire careers. Fragments from distant corners of the period’s soundworld are smashed together like the hurtling abstract shapes of a Suprematist canvas. Rarely has such formal and textural audacity been combined with such accomplished, microscopic attention to the virtues of classic song-structure. Thousand Knives collaged together electronic simulations of nocturnal jungles,  fake cybernetic folk music, heavy electronic funk jams with the pinging sharp attacks of Japanese gagaku. The 1980 album B-2 Unit, with dub producer Dennis Bovell at the desk, ventured even further into minimalism and alienated electronic constellations.

“Participation Mystique” flings deconstructed guitar and voice around a nongeometric space of shuddering synthesizers; “Riot In Lagos,” based on the perpetual-motion Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, is synthetic funk as self-organizing cybernetic rhizome; instrumentals like “E3A” and “The End of Europe” are to the imaginative spaces of Tokyo and New York what Debussy’s “La Mer” was to the North Sea. Alongside Kraftwerk and Parliament-Funkadelic, “Riot” was one of the acknowledged kernels of the rhythm machines of black music that dominated the last forty years of popular music: the suturing of black futurism, rhythmic democracy, and digital tech that began with Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” was first dreamed into being halfway across the world.

In this music, the vivid new realities that global neoliberalism was creating — the world of instant consumption, digital immateriality, the cultural products of whole continents available on command — are extracted, deconstructed, reformed into jagged, clockwork pop music. Unreal holograms of the technocratic future, the diasporic present of funk and reggae, and the mythic emanations of the Japanese past that fascism had enshrined and destroyed are caught in a mesh of razor-sharp sequencer patterns and Fairlight editing.

Even comparatively minor works of the period, like his 1985 twelve-inch with Thomas Dolby or his contributions to David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees and Akiko Yano’s J-pop madhouse Tadaima!, display an astonishing grasp of contrast, tension, structural unity, technological shock-effects, and weightless beauty. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas…, which was responsible for establishing him as a major artist outside Japan, remains a gripping work whose radicalism is often underestimated.

The World War II setting and Sakamoto’s score — a stately, sweeping set of themes that mimic percussive and woodwind elements from Japanese classical music amid synthesized orchestral swells — suggests to the audience this is middlebrow Sunday afternoon TV fare; what they get is a chilling study of fatalism, honor, and homosexual bonds amid the unremitting horror and cruelty of Japan’s Pacific war, carried by the performances of two charismatic but inexperienced pop stars. The soundtrack’s beauty is almost too much — plasticky, overripe, ironized. He would later criticize its “sentimentality,” but frequently revisited the main theme in concert.

His output turned rather turgid in the 1990s: expansive and decorative albums sandwiched between middlebrow prestige projects and by-the-yard film soundtracks. But he underwent a remarkable creative renewal in the late ’90s and 2000s, at an age when many musicians succumb to the flattening effect of success. His collaborations with German producer Carsten Nicolai and Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz, among others, pulled his exquisite melodic talent into the fields of digital minimalism being carved out by labels like Raster-Noton and Mego.

The effect was audible in his 2017 solo album async, recorded while in recovery from his first bout of throat cancer. He can be seen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2018), standing with a bucket over his head trying to record the sound of rain, playing with shattered metal in upstate New York woodland, knitting these environmental sounds into a tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s soundtracks, with their glassy synthesizer drones and fragments of Bach integrated into thickets of wind and water.

Sakamoto’s environmentalist commitments revived in these years, as Japan’s anti-nuclear movement mobilized in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. He spoke at protests and visited the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant: in Coda he records the eerie ambience of the deserted towns and surveys the irradiated and waterlogged nature that remained. In a 1998 interview, he reflected on his brief period as a very young left radical during the Zengakuren, as “not a 100 percent Marxist, but kind of.” He had come to position himself as pointedly apolitical: “I don’t want any straightforward messages in my music.”

Nonetheless his work, in its brilliant cornucopia, had crystallized, in negative, the freedoms and desires that neoliberalism had betrayed. In many ways, Sakamoto’s was an enviable life: from early on he got to do what he enjoyed and was immensely successful in it. That he returned, at the end, to a sense of art’s relationship with politics doesn’t mean his work lacked something, but that it rediscovered something buried in its profusion all along.