In Silence, Without Pomp and Circumstance: An Ode to the Great Ryuichi Sakamoto
Almost exactly one month ago, the world mourned the loss of a great musical legend, gone too soon. Throughout his decades-long career, Ryuichi Sakamoto pursued a diverse, ever-evolving range of styles, whether as composer, musician, record producer, pianist or actor.
Last year, in December, following a two-year public absence, Sakamoto returned to the stage for his final concert, “Playing the Piano 2022”, live streamed internationally from NHK’s 590 Studio in Tokyo, which he referred to as “the best studio in Japan”.
Previously, in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Sakamoto also performed “Playing the Piano for the Isolated”, which was recorded in isolation and uploaded to YouTube for his fans to enjoy during difficult and lonely times.
Throughout the years, Sakamoto dabbled in different genres, transitioning seamlessly from electronic, pop, film scores, traditional Japanese folk, and even experimental music.
As a pianist, he was best-known for his emotionally expressive melodies and minimalist techniques, which gave his playing a sense of meditative stillness and simplicity.
‘FROM NOW ON, I WILL BE LIVING ALONGSIDE CANCER’
In July 2014, Sakamoto announced that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer.
Over the years, he valiantly fought the disease, up until 2021 when he posted a letter on his website, sharing that though his throat cancer had gone into remission, he now had rectal cancer.
While he sounded positive, he remained honest: “Due to these circumstances, travelling long distances for work will be difficult... There may be instances where I have to cancel work.
“From now on, I will be living alongside cancer. But, I am hoping to make music for a little while longer.”
Reconsidering filmmaker Stephen Nomura Schible’s previous invitation to shoot a documentary about him in 2012, Sakamoto reconnected with Schible and accepted his proposal.
In 2018, Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA was released, giving viewers a glimpse into Sakamoto’s life as he recovered from cancer and got back into making his favourite music, while making time to create awareness against nuclear power plants as an activist.
July 2022’s issue of Shincho magazine published an article written by Sakamoto. Bearing the title “How many full moons will I see in the future?”, it described his state of mind while living with cancer.
The title of the article was inspired by a passage from American writer Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky.
It read: “How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”
In fact, Sakamoto loved this passage so much that he included it in “fullmoon”, from his 2017 album Async.
Recited in various languages, the overlap of voices and emotions is clearly felt, accompanied by an almost-melancholic chiming of keys in the background.
>In the same Shincho article, Sakamoto wrote: “Novelist Natsume Soseki died of a gastric ulcer at the age of 49. In comparison, if I had died from throat cancer at the age of 62 in 2014, that would have meant I’d lived long enough.
“Now, at 70, I’m living with cancer yet again. Although I don’t know how many times I’ll watch the full moon rise in future, I’ve already come this far. I hope to be like Bach and Debussy, who continued making music until their very last moments.”
‘ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT MUSICIANS OF MY LIFE’
Having met Sakamoto on the set of the 1983 war/drama film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, David Bowie was deeply impressed by his co-star, who also composed the film’s score. “Ryuichi Sakamoto has been one of the most important musicians of my life, and I'm grateful for his inspiration and guidance,” said Bowie.
From his days in Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s, to his numerous electronic music collaborations in recent times, Sakamoto was never one to shy away from the unknown.
He was not afraid to deviate from the norm, always staying ahead of the times and at the forefront of trends.
In 2021, when the NFT craze swept across the globe, he contributed his own spin by simultaneously offering 595 NFTs, achieved from digitally splitting all the notes from his award-winning composition, “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence”.
Priced at 10,000 yen each, the notes were linked with an image of the music sheet for the bar it belonged to.
As a gift, NFT owners also received a link to download the song, and were eligible to join an auction to bid for the music sheet, personally handwritten by Sakamoto.
The version of “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” used in the NFTs is from a recording of Sakamoto’s performance at Bunkamura Studio, Tokyo, in July 2021. Due to his ongoing battle with cancer, it was also the only recording of his work that year.
‘SAKAMOTO-SAN IS A TRUE ARTIST, BUT ALSO A TRUE HUMANITARIAN’
Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister of Japan, praised Sakamoto’s work in activism, saying: “His activism is not limited to his music, but extends to his own lifestyle and values. Sakamoto-san is a true artist, but also a true humanitarian.”
In Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA, we see Sakamoto tirelessly highlighting the ways in which music and art can be used to generate attention for activism and social change, as he visits the Fukushima nuclear disaster site and melting glaciers in Greenland.
Even as a student, Sakamoto was a regular participant of social movements.
After settling down in New York at the age of 38, he paid even more attention to anti-war activism and environmentalism, often making music based on issues that were close to his heart.
Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Sakamoto became an outspoken critic of nuclear power in Japan, organising protests and concerts to raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear energy and the need for alternative solutions.
Chasm (2004) was released a year after the Iraq invasion by American troops.
Admitting to completing the album driven by anger, Sakamoto spoke to The Independent about one of the songs in the album, “Word Citizen – I Won’t Be Disappointed”, saying, “That track is an expression of my feelings about the Iraq invasion.
“I'm a world citizen and I want to connect with people all over the world. I don't want to be disappointed, but sometimes it's hard not to be.”
In 2008, Sakamoto also participated in an art project, travelling to Greenland to see the possible consequences of global warming.
Shocked by what he observed, he released Out Of Noise the following year, with sounds of melting arctic ice and snow added into the tracks.
“I want to express the beauty of the earth, and also how the earth is in danger... I hope that some of these sounds and images can remind people that we are in a serious situation,” he explained to Pitchfork.
A fan of Sakamoto, Japan Forward contributor Duncan Bartlett, clearly recalls how the “Playing the Piano 2022” concert ended: “The gig ended in silence, so there was no opportunity for us to express our joy by way of cheers or applause.”
In a way, this reflected Sakamoto’s calm and collected self – we’d like to think that this was how he’d wanted to be remembered – in silence, without pomp and circumstance.
And that, in itself, is how a musical legend is defined.
Headphones On, Music On.
Immerse yourself in the beauty of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music in our playlist below:
Elevate the way you listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto with KEF
All Images: Avex
Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.