Ryuichi Sakamoto: ‘To create something is a strange thing to do’

In a parallel universe, this paragraph would have been written in the JFK departures lounge with a bag of disappointing gifts at my feet, a 14-hour flight to Tokyo boarding any minute and a notebook still crackling with the previous day’s electrical discharges from Ryuichi Sakamoto.

I would have arrived early at Té Company in New York’s West Village to bag a table in a tea house described in The New Yorker as one of the city’s most thrilling places to eat: a fitting venue to interview a man whose great contribution to the 1970s and ’80s was to show the world via pioneering electronic pop that Japan was not just an epically ambitious industrial power but also a prodigious hive of cool. Sakamoto’s power as a musician — the force that has blasted him between early hip-hop and Olympic opening-ceremony anthems — has been the ability to shift between influences, instruments and technology, managing with each move to emerge as the arch innovator.

Inevitably and immaculately the musician, songwriter, performer, producer and activist would, I imagine, have arrived 15 minutes before me. I would have found him in his favourite corner with a mug of oolong and, perhaps, the first filaments of a new composition meshing in his head. Droplets of $10-a-pot tea steam would have condensed on his designer glasses. Té Company’s peanuts with Sichuan peppercorns, braised pork and signature pineapple linzer would have far exceeded their reputation. The bill would not have troubled the FT expenses department. The flight to and from Japan would have registered as perfectly ordinary business travel.

It would all have been lovely. “But plans,” the real-life, gently spoken Sakamoto declares, with the bittersweet tone of someone who had a brush with cancer just a few years ago, “no longer mean very much.”

He is right. The globalised, mass theft of the world’s plans — of everything from restaurant bookings to Glastonbury, geopolitical summits and the Tokyo Olympics — has been another dismal outcome of the Covid crisis.

By the time Sakamoto and I meet virtually over Skype, the musical genius who wrote the haunting score for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, is show-stoppingly kissed by David Bowie in that film, scored The Sheltering Sky and won an Oscar for The Last Emperor has not taken a step outdoors for weeks. He is self-quarantined in Manhattan, where he lives with his partner; I am in Tokyo, where Sakamoto was born, under a state of emergency, and with a box of supermarket sushi on my desk. Neither of us is going anywhere. “And these,” says the electronic maestro, raising a small glass of orange juice, a flask of water and a cup of coffee to his laptop camera, “are my lunch with the FT.”

Sakamoto, who wears black and grey and conducts our discussion as if he has just closed the door on some brilliant piece of mischief, nevertheless counts himself lucky. He bemoans the damage the pandemic has done to musicians and live music, and how it has culled the variety of roles that music plays in day-to-day life. But, an optimist, he sees creative opportunity in the virus’s shadow.

“It is at times like these that the creators and musicians get more unique ideas than they do in normal times,” he says, arguing that the brokenness of normal life is an unexpected fillip to a certain type of artist. “To create something is a very strange thing to do. Because I want to create something new, it means I have to break what I have, break down what I think and what I would normally do.”

There are other spurs: fellow artists around the world have suggested projects to him under lockdown that might never have arisen otherwise, and the pandemic has spurred connections or reconnections that pre-Covid schedules would have made impossible. “The reconnection . . . ” he says, pausing for several seconds and visibly deciding against revealing that he might be working with a former collaborator, “ . . . particularly in these times, it’s very important.”

And the truth, he confides, is that as a permanently busy composer, he actually didn’t go out all that much anyway. The fundamental shape of the Sakamoto day — what he calls the essential on-off switching between the part of the studio where he works and the part where he “freshens his brain” on the sofa — is only partially changed.

As it turns out, he is in the studio while we are talking, but is reluctant to allow it to be seen and has instead set a digital background to block it with a vista of New York’s skyline. Sakamoto, for almost five decades a pioneer of synth-pop, electronica, ambient house and cyberpunk, offers a traditional tatami room as an alternative background. Which we decide feels wrong.

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Throughout our conversation, we touch on the influence of moments of great trauma, of which Covid is merely the most recent. For many years, Sakamoto has lived primarily in New York and was there on September 11 2001. For a long period after the attacks, he was quite unable to listen to any music. “I was too tense,” he says.

A decade later, on a visit to Tokyo, he experienced the same terror when the Tohoku quake and tsunami tore through Japan’s eastern coast, causing almost 20,000 deaths and triggering the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. It was the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in particular that pushed him to anti-nuclear activism — turning a widely beloved, avant-garde troubadour into a committed critic of the government and its industrial base.

And now, he says, Covid-19 is reviving that same suite of fears for a third time — a creeping sense of a crisis and a failed response. He wonders, for example, whether Japan’s reluctance to engage in wide-scale testing was an effort to downplay the early weeks of the outbreak to preserve the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And yet he knows, in his heart, that activism in Japan is too often fruitless.

Ryuichi Sakatmoto in New York

Orange juice

Coffee

Leo Lewis in Tokyo

1 x box minced tuna sushi rolls

2 x 350ml cans Kirin Ichiban beer

Purchased at Ozeki Supermarket, Shimokitazawa

Total ¥983 (£7.35)

“This is the right time for the Japanese people to finally express their anger. There are so many people concerned about safety and security. So many Japanese are anxious and angry. But they won’t do it, unfortunately. The younger ones — they are actually more conservative. It’s very sad, actually,” he says.

We linger on how Sakamoto, both cherished at home as a national treasure but so long an observer of Japan from afar, views certain clichés of the Japanese character. We discuss, in particular, the notoriously punishing culture of long hours and overwork that pervades corporate Japan and which extends throughout the country’s creative industries. He vigorously agrees.

“About 35 years ago, I met the French composer Pierre Barouh. He told me at the time that he was going . . . to Brazil for three months to write lyrics,” says Sakamoto, briefly unable to continue because he is laughing so hard, “ . . . for just three or four lines of lyrics. To Brazil! It was so extraordinary to me. At the time I was doing four to five sessions a day, jumping from one studio to another and working from noon to midnight every day. I did that for three decades, and I only stopped when I was diagnosed with [oropharyngeal] cancer a few years ago. The idea of going off somewhere for inspiration for a lyric was more than I could ever dream of.”

Sakamoto is still both amused and worked up when I ask him about monozukuri. The term, which literally translates as “thing-making”, is used to ascribe a shared DNA to a Sony Walkman, a Toyota pick-up truck and a lacquerware jewellery box, and is often touted as the pre-eminent quality of Japaneseness. I ask whether his composition of music — so widely varied and yet so distinctively of Sakamoto — could be described as monozukuri.

He hates the word, and his irritation is revealing. “True creativity is destructive,” he says, taking a deep, ranty breath. “You have to break things to make something new. Monozukuri is just polishing existing thinking. True creativity is making something entirely new. Something revolutionary and something destructive.”

He illustrates his point by recalling his first ever walk down the King’s Road in London, at some time in the early 1980s. Sakamoto leans closer to the laptop camera — faintly conspiratorial but briefly causing his face to fishbowl across my screen. It is the only moment, during the lunch, in which he is anything other than absolutely poised.

During his stroll, Sakamoto encountered a young skinhead whom he reckoned was about nine years old. “He was so wild. Weird eyes, smoking a cigarette. It was so inspiring. Shocking, but I really liked it. I’d just never seen a child like that in Japan. The style, the expression and the attitude were different: it was a positive culture shock. I felt the same smell and texture of violence in the music, and I loved it.”

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Yet there are many who say that Sakamoto — particularly the generation that remembers him as the co-founder of Yellow Magic Orchestra and for songs such as “Riot in Lagos” — was also identifiably the essence of a particular time in Japan. In preparation for my virtual lunch, I have spent hours trawling YouTube for live performances of his concerts in the 1980s — performances where the aesthetics, vibrancy and the sounds of Sakamoto and his entourage felt like perfect symbols of Japan in its high-growth, bubble phase. In recent years, he admits, he has tried to distance himself from that phase of his career — mostly, one feels, to avoid having to perform and re-perform his best-loved music to endlessly ravenous audiences.

But I have touched a soft spot. In their mad excess and almost self-conscious strangeness, the 1980s in Japan, admits Sakamoto, were hugely enjoyable. “Around that time, Tokyo was the most interesting city in the entire world. Fashion. Music. A lot of strange stuff. Sometimes I am nostalgic for then. Sometimes,” he says.

It was, he adds, just part of a cycle. At any given time, he argues, some city in the world is at the epicentre of everything — the generator of creative waves that crash around the globe but at the same time suck in the greatest talent. But then the cycle moves on. New York, London, Tokyo, Paris — they have all had their moments. “Always strange creative people gather in the centre of money,” he concludes, ending the thought on an uncharacteristically mercenary note.

In addition to his work with YMO, Sakamoto has a long career producing music for films — a four-decade run of composition that has netted him an Oscar, Bafta, Grammy, Golden Globes and other trophies, but also includes work on some fabulously ropey lower-budget Japanese productions. One of these was the notorious 1991 film Tokyo Decadence, an erotic thriller about an abused prostitute that was so stunningly depraved it was banned in several countries. I mention to him that the opening credits — played to a haunting Sakamoto score that wildly outclasses the film — were shot along my usual route between home and the FT office. The film, we agree, is some distance from more recent work, which includes the 2015 Oscar-winner The Revenant.

The shift was a conscious one. Earlier in his career, he says, a younger and more selfish Sakamoto wrote film music for himself. He didn’t care about the films, so it didn’t matter if they were terrible. In fact, the worse they were, the more his name would stand out, which he used as an incentive to write superb music.

“But about 10-15 years ago my ideas changed 180 degrees. Now I do care about the film more than my own scores. I want to devote myself and my music to making the film better. So for instance with The Revenant I don’t want my music everywhere. I want it hidden in among the voices and the texture of the film,” he says, while noting that he is less interested in recreating the kind of anthemic theme tunes of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. “Younger directors offer me to write something like that. I can do that now but it’s not really my intention to make this very huge dramatic music.”

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A few minutes later, as we are nearing the end of our meal, something unexpected happens. He sings. Well, hums. The conversation, without either of us exactly knowing why, has tumbled upon what is arguably his greatest pop composition — the 1978 song “Behind the Mask”, which feels as if it was made for the Covid era. The song, which Sakamoto originally sang in English, was successful in Japan and even more so in the world beyond, eventually being covered by three western artists, including Eric Clapton.

The song famously caught the attention of Michael Jackson, who rewrote the lyrics and would, had there not been a rights dispute with YMO, have included the song on Thriller, the bestselling album of all time. As we reminisce, Sakamoto hums a single bar of the instantly recognisable riff of “Behind the Mask”. “I don’t know what exactly it was that drew western people to that song . . . some essence of rock ’n’ roll, the harmony, phrase, tempo, some combination. It’s completely extraordinary to me,” he says.

And if it had made its way on to the Thriller album? “It would have changed my life. I would have retired at the age of 35 and be on a Greek island.”

That didn’t happen. So what is the current Sakamoto work? The question takes us back from the zingy, Covid-free 1980s to Manhattan and the world under lockdown. His music will focus on the concept of “incomplete” — an appropriate notion, he says, for a man who has come close to death and could face it again at any time.

“It is music that is not finished. So incompleteness is for me finding something new all the time and at every moment. And also we are in the time when we don’t know where we are heading so the whole world is incomplete and our lives are incomplete. Maybe it sounds Buddhist. I like the sound of it,” he says, with that glint of mischief again.

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Asia business editor

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