Ryuichi Sakamoto: A Musical Career Overview, Part Two

Ryuichi Sakamoto: A Musical Career Overview, Part Two

Written by John Seetoo

Part One focused on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work in the groundbreaking Yellow Magic Orchestra. In Part Two I look at his solo work, film scores, collaborations into different types of ethnic music, and his activism.

Solo Artist and World Music Collaborator

Even prior to the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto had pursued numerous musical directions as a solo artist. While his blend of electronic experimentation, classical training and love of orchestral textures has made his solo music distinctly different from the more song oriented styles of Hosono and Takahashi, Sakamoto’s interests in music from other cultures and eras has allowed for fresh approaches and arrangements towards both new and previously recorded material from his catalog.

Sakamoto has continued to explore different collaborations in experimenting with a host of music genres, such as: bossa nova, Renaissance music (with period-accurate instruments), musique concrète, and has also appeared with a number of artists, such as David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, David Byrne, Iggy Pop, Thomas Dolby, Arto Lindsay, Robbie Robertson, Brian Wilson, and Alva Noto, among others. He has over 250 releases as a solo artist, composer, or collaborator. As this is an exhaustive body of work, some of the more significant recordings are worth mentioning:

After his Thousand Knives album, he continued issuing solo records filled with electronic experiments, such as his B-2 Unit and Left Handed Dream. With the commercial success of YMO, Sakamoto’s solo releases served as his alternative creative outlets.

The End of Asia (1982) was a collection of traditional European (13th – 16th Century) works and Sakamoto compositions rearranged for and recorded on Renaissance-era instruments, including: recorders, harpsichord, pump organ, violins, lutes and horns. It was credited to Ryuichi Sakamoto and Danceries, a Japanese Renaissance music ensemble. Sakamoto played keys and various percussions.


Thanks to the success of the soundtrack to the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Ryuichi Sakamoto issued a few noteworthy commercial solo releases in the aftermath, the first being his Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia (1984; international release in 1986), which featured “Tibetan Dance.”



This track continued the electronic lounge sound approach from YMO’s Naughty Boys. It also featured “Field Work,” a collaboration with noted electronic synth whiz Thomas Dolby.


His 1986 Media Bahn Live CD and DVD release is a good example of a Sakamoto concert at his peak: full electric band, some solo piano, as well as loops and sound effects all blended together. The tour featured a top-notch band of seasoned vets, including bassist Ray O’Hara, Bernard Davis on drums, Ronnie Drayton on guitar, avant-garde percussionist David Van Tieghem, and Robbie Kilgore on supporting keys. With Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler leading a pair of female harmony vocalists, Media Bahn Live captures the best of Sakamoto’s commercial music sensibilities: synth pop, R&B, jazz fusion, lounge and ethnic music, linked together by his classical training and electronic music expertise. Sakamoto’s solo piano portion even includes a nod to Erik Satie, as well as his most popular song,“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.”

Sakamoto steps out from behind his keys to share lead vocals on “Field Work” with Fowler (37:25) and on the YMO song “Ongaku” (40:00) Sakamoto launches into the breezy lounge pop song with a decidedly more energetic beat while Fowler sings admirably in phonetic Japanese.



Neo Geo, (1987), a solo record released on CBS/Sony, melded funk and jazz fusion rock with traditional Okinawan folk melodies and replaced the black female soul singers with a kimono-clad Japanese trio accompanied by a tabla player on its title track. It was his most assertive foray into world beat and other ethnic musics at the time.



Sakamoto interspersed classical piano and strings compositions, such as “Before Long,” which foreshadowed some of the themes he would weave into his future film soundtracks.



The incongruous but ultimately perfect guest appearance of Iggy Pop on the record’s single, “Risky,” was only one of a number of musical peers that contributed to Neo Geo. The light lounge rock jazziness of Naughty Boys gains a harder and darker edge on “Risky,” while Japanese biwa, shamisen and Korean gayageum counterpoint the electric instruments and Iggy Pop’s seductive croon.



Produced by bassist and experimental “collision” music luminary Bill Laswell, Neo Geo included bass from funk icon Bootsy Collins, drums by jazz legend Tony Williams and reggae titan Sly Dunbar, guitar from session stalwart Eddie Martinez and pipa from Lucia Hwong.

Following in the same “collision” music vein of mixing ethnic music instruments and motifs with electronica and other stylistic elements, 1989’s Beauty found Sakamoto exploring pop, African, flamenco, Chinese, and techno rock combinations while enlisting additional iconic musical peers to the project. Chinese ehr-hu, African talking drums, zithers, Japanese shamisens, and a wide array of Brazilian percussion instruments were interwoven with Sakamoto’s keys and his all-star guests:

Brian Wilson contributed his signature vocals. Robbie Robertson (guitar), Pino Palladino (bass), L. Shankar (violin), Youssou N’Dour (vocals), Nana Vasconcelos (percussion), Pandit Dinesh (tabla), and New York noise rocker Arto Lindsay joined Neo Geo holdovers Martinez, Dunbar, and a host of other musicians and singers.

“You Do Me,” the single, was sung by Jill Jones. Full of funk motifs, it was probably the most commercial song on Beauty and could easily have been recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park, with its little keyboard snippets and R&B vocal arrangements tightly grooving with incessant dance beats and throbbing basslines.


With 1990’s Heartbeat and fresh off his Academy Award and Grammy Award wins for The Last Emperor soundtrack. Sakamoto’s records finally demonstrated his final transition from rock star artist to highbrow experimental composer. By this time a resident New Yorker, Sakamoto was a fixture in the downtown New York arts scene. Eschewing the rhythm section of rock and funk, Heartbeat contains mood pieces, collaborations with friends like David Sylvian, Ingrid Chavez, and Arto Lindsay, atmospheric jazz guitar from Bill Frisell, bluesy harp wails from the J. Geils Band’s Magic Dick, and New York Lounge Lizards’ founder and saxophonist John Lurie. Last but not least, celebrated avant-garde composer John Cage made a cameo spoken word appearance on the title track.

’s strings and horns, arranged tastefully with an orchestrator’s deft touch, showed Sakamoto’s new focus on the use of music for creating atmospheres and evoking specific emotions – not coincidentally the primary objectives for his soundtrack music, which would increasingly comprise a major portion of his subsequent musical output to the present.

While Sakamoto would continue to touch on popular music in Sweet Revenge (1994), the Latin tinged Smoochy (1995), and Chasm (2004), his composer sensibilities had so thoroughly supplanted his commercial pop song instincts that he would return to his past catalog for rearrangements of his work for different instruments in various attempts to rekindle that part of his music writing. This would have mixed critical and commercial results, such as with Three (2012). Discord (1998) was Sakamoto in New Age instrumental chamber music mode with religious underpinnings and subsequent remixes and mashups with New Yorkers DJ Spooky and Laurie Anderson.

Sakamoto’s interest in ethnic music forms steered him towards bossa nova and the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. A critically acclaimed triptych of albums recorded with Jacques and Paula Morelenbaum: Casa (2001), Live in Tokyo (2001), and A Day in New York (2003), gave Sakamoto some respite from composing and he seemed to have genuine fun playing bossa bova with his new friends.

Jacques Morelenbaum would also join Sakamoto for UK charity NML (No More Landmines). To raise awareness over the dangers of landmines, Sakamoto composed an EP of material, including the single, “Zero Landmine.” Sakamoto brought in many Japanese musicians, including members of the band Dreams Come True, and old YMO friends Hosono and Takahashi. International musician friends who would contribute included Cyndi Lauper, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Bosnian singer Jadranka Stojakovic, drummer Steve Jansen, and Jansen’s former bandmate in Japan and singer/lyricist for “Zero Landmine”: David Sylvian. The song had a number of different instrumental arrangements on the EP as well as vocal versions and parts.



German musician Alva Noto also began collaborating with Sakamoto on experimental cut and paste musical works using various loops and percussion, with each one working independently and sending the work in progress back and forth. Vrioon (2004), the first of five Sakamoto/Noto collaborations, was voted 2004 electronica Record of the Year by UK’s The Wire magazine. The collection was dubbed the “VIRUS series,” as an acronym for the subsequent releases: Insen (2005), Revep (2006), utp (2008) and Summvs (2011). Alva Noto’s collaborations with Sakamoto continued through to his 2016 soundtrack for The Revenant.

As much as Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a trailblazer in electronic and world beat music, his solo piano work is of special note.

In the 1980’s, Edgar Froese (ex-Tangerine Dream) started a label called Private Music. One of their first releases was an acoustic piano CD entitled, Piano One, which featured solo piano works by Sakamoto, Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music) and jazz artist Joachim Kuhn. Sakamoto’s solo piano rendition of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” became extremely popular, leading this version to become a Sakamoto concert highlight.

While self-deprecating in interviews about his piano technique, Sakamoto is clearly a masterful pianist, whose playing is disciplined, yet subtle and nuanced, with influences from Chopin, Debussy and Satie noticeable in his impressionist melodies. In fact, Satie’s, “Gymnopedies” was a regular concert staple of Sakamoto’s solo shows.

Though certainly a prolific composer for a staggering range of media, including opera and custom ringtones for Nokia, Sakamoto has frequently showcased the acoustic piano on a number of his recordings, often re-arranging some of his popular hits in different formats. His 1996 (1996) reworked his catalog for piano/cello/violin trio. BTTB (1998) (acronym for Back To The Basics) featured a number of original solo piano cuts, and 2009’s, Playing the Piano/Out of Noise was a 2-CD set that combined a solo acoustic performance of his famous film score themes, as well as synth-pop hits like “Tibetan Dance” and “Thousand Knives.”

Sakamoto has also contributed piano to other artists, most notably the solo records of David Sylvian. In Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive (1987), Sakamoto’s gorgeous and elegant piano accompaniment and chord voicings are the perfect counterpoint to Sylvian’s poignant lyrics, especially on the epic, “Orpheus.”


Sakamoto also contributes most of the keyboards for Sylvian’s Dead Bees on a Cake (1999), Brilliant Trees (1984), Words With the Shaman (1991) and several singles.

As a sideman keyboardist, Ryuichi Sakamoto has recorded on Arto Lindsay’s Encyclopedia or Arto (2014), Paula Morelenbaum’s Telecoteco (2008), Nine Horses’ Snow Borne Sorrow (2005), Towa Tei’s Best Korea (2003), Mick Karn’s Each Path a Remix (2003), and arranged for Lang Lang and other artists. His extensive work on fusion guitarist Kazumi Watanabe’s Tokyo Joe (1978) led to Watanabe becoming YMO’s touring guitarist and contributor to Sakamoto’s earlier solo recordings.

Film and Television Composer

With the success brought about from YMO, Sakamoto has channeled his celebrity into a film scoring career that includes composer/acting roles in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor, the latter which garnered an Academy Award for Best Soundtrack. Other film soundtracks include Little Buddha, The Sheltering Sky, Snake Eyes and High Heels. His most recent scores were for the Academy Award nominated film, The Revenant (2016), Haha to Kuraseba (Nagasaki:Memories Of My Son) (2016), Ikari (Rage) (2017), the French film Proxima (2019) with Eva Green, and the recently released short film, The Staggering Girl (2020), featuring Julianne Moore and Kyle MacLachlan.

During a 1982 YMO hiatus, Sakamoto was approached by director Nagisa Oshima, best known in the West for his art-porn biopic of notorious murderess Sada Abe, In the Realm of the Senses. Oshima wanted to make a World War II film about a Japanese POW camp and the power dynamic between a determined Japanese commandant and the British prisoner who refuses to break.

Starring Sakamoto as the commandant and megastar David Bowie as the stubbornly stoic POW Jack Celliers, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence also featured the dramatic debut of comedian “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (who would later become identified for his violent Yakuza roles) and Tom Conti as the title character, whose point of view narrates the film. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was also Sakamoto’s first international feature film score, winning the 1984 BAFTA Award for Best Original Music Score.

Easily his most famous solo song globally, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is usually performed on solo piano in most Sakamoto concerts.



Sakamoto’s first of several collaborations with David Sylvian also spawned the 1983 hit single, “Forbidden Colours,” which featured the original “Mr. Lawrence” instrumental track with additional vocals and lyrics by Sylvian inspired by the similarly homoerotic-themed Yukio Mishima novel of the same name. The song reached #16 on the UK charts.


Once he caught the bug, Sakamoto would go on to work heavily in the film and television fields, on both Japanese and international productions. In addition to the aforementioned films and shows, Sakamoto scored The Handmaid’s Tale, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Silk, Wild Palms, Love Is The Devil, Femme Fatale, Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Gohatto, Babel, Black Mirror: Smithereens, Ni de lian, and numerous others.

Sakamoto has mentioned in past interviews that even though he was Japanese, his musical background and roots are almost entirely based upon Western Classical music. Pop, jazz and rock music only caught his attention years later. His preference for piano and strings with occasional electronic, rock, funk and ethnic music elements combined with a rare film genre eclecticism shares more than a few traits with his contemporaries, such as Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, and Mark Isham.

The Last Emperor (1987) put Sakamoto into the A-list film composer category. Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic about the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty and the early 20th century history of a turbulent China won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture and the Oscar for Best Soundtrack (shared with David Byrne and Cong Su). The Last Emperor also won the Grammy and the Golden Globe that same year for Best Film Score.

Sakamoto would continue scoring for Bertolucci on The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha, and would also work with Brian DePalma on Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale, and other acclaimed directors such as Pedro Almodovar, Oliver Stone, and Alejandro Inarritu.

The dedication to film scoring is something Sakamoto seems to have been destined for, and it has garnered him some of his most noteworthy achievements and recognition. According to IMDb (Internet Movie Database), Ryuichi Sakamoto’s film scores have notched 18 wins and 21 award nominations. Some notable wins and nominations in addition to the aforementioned include:

Academy Award:
2006 – Best Soundtrack winner for Babel (shared award as it was a compilation of works from different composers; Sakamoto contributions include the “Bibo no Aozora” closing theme).

Golden Globe:
2016 – Best Score nomination for The Revenant
1991 – Best Score winner for The Sheltering Sky

2016 – Best Score nomination for The Revenant
1989 – Best Score nomination for The Last Emperor

Asia Pacific Screen Awards:
2012 – FIAPF Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film

Grammy Awards:
2016 – Best Score for Visual Media nomination for The Revenant
1995 – Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture or Television nomination for Little Buddha.

Taipei Film Festival:
2018 – Festival Prize Winner for Best Score for Ni de lian

Tokyo International Film Festival:
2017 – Winner, Samurai Award

World Soundtrack Awards:
2016 – Winner, Lifetime Achievement Award

Sakamoto’s other awards include The Ordre des Artes et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture (2009); MTV Breakthrough Music Video Award for “Risky” (1987); International Samobor Film Music Festival Golden Pine (Lifetime Achievement) Award (2013 – shared with Clint Eastwood and Gerald Fried).

In 2014, Ryuichi Sakamoto announced that he had been diagnosed with oropharyngeal (tonsil) cancer and would be taking an indefinite break to focus on his recovery. A year later, he felt strong enough to return to work, and would compose scores for Yoji Yamada’s Haha to Kuraseba (Nagasaki: Memories Of My Son), Irari (Rage), and The Revenant.

Sakamoto also released another solo record in 2017, async, and another film score: The Fortress, a Korean period film directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk and starring international Korean star Lee Byung-hun (The Magnificent Seven, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Red 2).

In 2018, documentary director Stephen Nomura Schible released Coda, a retrospective on Sakamoto’s resumption of music work during his battle with cancer, as well as his involvement with nuclear power protest activism in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami disaster.

Ryuichi Sakamoto is a consummate musician with an indefatigable spirit. Constantly exploring new sounds, both natural and electronic, new music and cultures, his art melding these sounds to images for the world to enjoy. Even in the wake of cancer, he continues to produce, as with his latest releases, Proxima (2019) with Eva Green, and the recently released short film, The Staggering Girl (2020), featuring Julianne Moore and Kyle MacLachlan.

Acclaimed veteran violist Liuh Wen Ting, who had previously contributed viola to Sakamoto’s Snake Eyes score, recently disclosed to me that she just finished recording music for Sakamoto’s latest film score: the highly anticipated period drama Love After Love from celebrated Hong Kong director Ann Hui. She told me that Sakamoto was very friendly with all of the musicians and conducted the orchestra in strictly classical style, with no electronic or non-traditional Western instruments, at least not in the recording sessions of her participation. She also reported that he appeared in good health and was preparing to record a newly composed score for a forthcoming Japanese documentary expose on the deliberate 30-year mercury poisoning of a Japanese village that was hushed up by the government.

At age 68, Ryuichi Sakamoto seems to be in no hurry to retire. With his musical prowess still intact, his activism streak undiluted, and his steely work ethic untarnished, he is back in the game with a vengeance, and fans across the globe will eagerly await his next musical revelation.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joi Ito.

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