Many, many people will write astute and intelligent appreciations of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the eclectic and influential songwriter, composer, performer and actor who died recently at the age of 71. For example, Kevin Nguyen argues in MSN.com that “there are very few forms of modern music that don’t reflect the influence of Sakamoto’s expansive, ever-changing four-decade career,” in an article headlined, Music Sounds the Way It Does Because of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and he makes a pretty good case for his expansive thesis.
I can’t write anything halfway smart about this great musician. I loved the music too, but I didn’t understand everything that made it great. Still, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music was a soundtrack of my life.
On my very first date with the woman who would become my wife, in late August 1983, I took her to see Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which starred David Bowie, and took place in a particularly sadistic Japanese prison camp in World War 2. I was a big David Bowie fan, and it seemed to me that I’d probably impress her and win her over by forcing her to like the things I like.
A bit of advice. On your first date with anyone, don’t go to a movie by rogue Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima. The movie was brutal, and within five minutes, I found myself apologizing in her ear. But the musical score by Sakamoto (who also co-starred) was overwhelming, a haunting mashup of electronic and orchestral music, of East and West, so appropriate to the theme of the film, and so unlike anything I’d heard before. It was weird and unique, but also immediately accessible.
Sakamoto became a reliable presence on our playlist. Our first apartment sported a wallsize poster of the Japanese release of Mr. Lawrence. We saw him in concert twice. His Beauty album was the first record we bought on CD, before we even owned a CD player. This past winter, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden near our home put on a light show; the Lawrence theme accompanied a vast multi-acre sea of synchronized waves of light.
As a young man, I thought someday I would write a novel that would be made into a movie that Ryuichi Sakamoto would score. I wouldn’t have dreamed of John Williams composing the score, which would be mainstream, well-known and Western. But also not as good. Sakamoto scored The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor (for which he won an Oscar), The Revenant and around forty others. He was our greatest film composer, and his music made movies monumental.
In the 1980s, our pet guinea pig purred with abandon, out of control, whenever we played “Paradise Lost,” a song from his 1984 album, Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia, another weird but irresistible composition, a tropical tune with steel drums, filtered through a Japanese sensibility. It was the only song that made our guinea pig purr.
It was his favorite song. And I don’t blame him.
This appreciation was written by Steven S. Drachman. Steven is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.
Image: Detail from Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia cover artwork