Document curates a selection of the musician’s far-ranging work, from synth-heavy film scores to classical ballads to indelible video game soundtracks
Ryuichi Sakamoto—Japanese composer, Yellow Magic Orchestra founding member, electronic pioneer—died last Tuesday at 71.
Between 50 or so film scores; a slew of solo albums, Grammys, Academy Awards, Madonna cameos, and modeling gigs; a stint designing ringtones for Nokia phones; and collaborations with Iggy Pop and David Byrne and David Bowie, Sakamoto was a cultural polymath and musical genius. He read sound deftly, like it was laid out on a map; Japanese pop feels like traditional Arabic, and “Bali is next to New York,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2002. With his sweeping knowledge of the global sonic landscape, Sakamoto could arrange the building blocks as he liked—breaking the rules of music, and reassembling them for the future.
Here, Document curates a by-no-means exhaustive selection of Sakamoto’s far-ranging work—celebrating the artist’s enormous legacy, traversing genre and medium and place.
“TECHNOPOLIS” by Yellow Magic Orchestra (1979)
Soon after graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts—where he studied composition and ethnomusicology—Sakamoto joined forces with bassist Haruomi Hosono and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi to form Yellow Magic Orchestra. This track off their second album, Solid State Survivor, spawned the Japanese technopop movement—and, arguably, the techno genre as a whole.
“opus” by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1999)
“opus” is the opening track to BTTB (Back to the Basics), one of Sakamoto’s many solo albums—in this case, dedicated to piano instrumentals. The story goes that this melody came to the artist as he waited in Tokyo traffic, calling home and singing it to his answering machine. Comparisons have been drawn to the work of two of Sakamoto’s idols: the Impressionist oeuvre of Claude Debussy, and the more experimental stylings of John Cage.
“With his sweeping knowledge of the global sonic landscape, Sakamoto could arrange the building blocks as he liked—breaking the rules of music, and reassembling them for the future.”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1983)
The filmmaker Nagisa Oshima asked Sakamoto to star in his film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, opposite David Bowie. He agreed, under one condition: that he would compose the score. This title track, to-date, is one of his most famous pieces—the starting point of a long and prolific career in the film industry.
“Opening Theme” by Ryuichi Sakamoto (2000)
It’s said that Sakamoto revolutionized the video game industry, heavily influencing its first generation of composers, from Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) to Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros). This track is the theme to L.O.L. (Lack of Love), a simulation game released on Sega’s Dreamcast console across Japan. Fans compare the score to Sakamoto’s debut solo album, Thousand Knives.
“Firecracker” by Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978)
YMO’s debut single, released under the name Computer Game. This track had a particular influence on Black American sound. The group appeared on Soul Train and reached number 18 on Billboard’s R&B chart; the DJ Afrika Bambaataa played it during a set at a Bronx high school, a recording of which stayed in circulation in New York’s music scene for years to come.
“Riot In Lagos” by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1980)
A cult hit from the album B-2 Unit, one of Sakamoto’s more experimental ventures. Drawing inspiration from Afrobeats, and produced in collaboration with reggae guitarist Dennis Bovell, it played on repeat in clubs around the world—leaving its mark on the spheres of electro and drum and bass.
“fullmoon” by Ryuichi Sakamoto (2017)
Sakamoto’s first solo album in eight years, Async, grapples with mortality—recorded in the wake of the artist’s diagnosis with throat cancer, the beginning of his gradual decline in health. This track, meditative and raw, features the voice of the writer Paul Bowles: “Because we don’t know when we will die / We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well / Yet everything happens only a certain number of times / And a very small number, really…”