Obituary – Ryuichi Sakamoto – Sayonara Mister Lawrence

head and shoulders picture of Sakamoto
Japanese musician, composer, record producer, pianist, activist, writer, actor and dancer Ryuichi Sakamoto poses on June 30, 2016 in Paris. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP) (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sunday we received the sad news of the death from cancer of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese composer and musician, born in 1952. He was influential in many musical genres, from classical to electronic pop to hip-hop, and was a true musical polymath.

I had been a fan since 1979, when I first came across his work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, which introduced me to Japanese contemporary music, which, although being somewhat of a niche interest, became one of my true delights.

The advent of the synthesiser in popular music took root in Japan, where the process that miniaturised and digitised components ensured a mass consumer audience. The names of Roland, Yamaha and Korg became widely known in music circles, with incredible leaps in innovation that meant that the instruments could at last become viable on a live stage, with the ability of switching sounds with a button. Prior to that, a knowledge of the physics of sound wave generation and manipulation was almost necessary to play them. Japanese composer Isao Tomita had created a stir with his classical albums played on synthesiser in the mid 1970s, notably Debussy’s tone poem works, capturing Wendy Carlos’s territory after the Bach-based synthesiser soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange.

a young man with a double keyboard and a huge arrange of electronic panels

My own first synthesiser in 1980, was a Yamaha CS-5. To get any noise you had to tweak an oscillator to produce a sound wave, shape it, filter it and use an envelope generator to decide how long the sound would last and how it would start and finish. Easy, eh?

And if you wanted a different sound, you had to repeat the process, and, to cap it all off, you could only play one single note at a time.

electronic keyboard

Over the next few years the Japanese companies set about ensuring these had built in sounds that you could edit, change with a button, and eventually play chords on. Naturally, many of their own electronic musicians, such as Sakamoto and his YMO colleagues were able to get these first and utilise them in their compositions and performances, with many of their sounds becoming industry standards. For example, that hellish electric piano that dominated so many Whitney Houston-ish ballads in the 1980s was produced by the Yamaha DX7. Eventually, it seemed mandatory to appear on Top of The Pops with a DX7.

The Yellow Magic Orchestra, featuring Sakamoto with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, went straight to innovation rather than rehash the classics, with albums like Solid State Survivor producing startling pop music that also used its Asian reference points to often bewilder the listener, leaving behind European equivalents such as Kraftwerk, who sounded positively pedestrian in comparison. It also led to a blossoming of Japanese rock/electronic hybrid bands, such as Sandii and The Sunsetz.

Eventually sometime in early 1982 I watched the Old Grey Whistle Test and there on BBC TV was the visible evidence that this had now seeped into Western music. Japan had released ‘The Tin Drum’, referencing Gunter Grass’s novel and the resulting art house German film released in 1979. Until then your basic rock band, Japan were performing their single ‘Ghosts’, which reached number 5 in the Singles charts and were hunched around a number of newly released Prophet 5 synthesisers. And there, along with them and validating their name, was Ryuichi Sakamoto, pouting and looking like the predecessor of K-Popstars who would appear 40 years in the future.

A young Sakamota on The Old Grey Whistle Test playing keyboard

Indeed, Sakamoto’s good looks did not go unnoticed, and by the end of 1982 he found himself making his first movie with another musician, David Bowie, a movie that would inspire him to compose and perform what would become his most loved musical piece.

The World War 2 Laurens van der Post story ‘The Seed and the Sower’ was adapted as the Oshima movie, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence”, with Sakamoto and Bowie starring as the two leading protagonists/would-be lovers.

David Bowie and Sakamota in the film sitting beside each other in a jeep

Sakamoto had never acted before and was adequate whilst somewhat unconvincing as a brutal Japanese officer, whereas Bowie, about to make his ‘Let’s Dance’ album, seemed to be seeking the Oscar for Trendiest Haircut in a Japanese POW Camp. The film is now seen as a cult classic, but the emotive theme music performed by Sakamoto became a staple in his live shows and got to number 5 in the UK charts in a vocal version with David Sylvian of Japan titled ‘Forbidden Colours’. He received a BAFTA for the movie’s soundtrack in 1983.

This opened the gates for future movie scores for Sakamoto, and in 1987 he received an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy for the soundtrack of Bertolucci’s ‘The Last Emperor’, in which he had a role. He also won a Golden Globe for the score ‘The Sheltering Sky’ in 1990.

These were followed by numerous nominations for awards for the scores of such movies as ‘The Revenant’, ‘Little Buddha’ , ‘Snake Eyes’ and many others.

In contemporary music he worked with many artists in collaboration and production such as Roddy Frame, David Byrne, Thomas Dolby, Youssou N’Dour, Andy Partridge, Brian Eno and others, and his work was used in art installations and many video and cultural projects around the world, including the music for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

He was quoted as saying he disliked nationalities and borders and liked to be a stranger.

Sakamoto was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in 2014, and seemed to be in remission, but in 2021 he was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2021, and despite surgery died on March 28th 2023 at the age of 71.

Recommended listening

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Soundtrack). –

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (live with cello and violin)-

Eamonn Keyes

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4 replies »

  1. I remember seeing this film when it came out. The scene that stayed with me is where the bullies make the little boy sing, while his brother stands by and lets it happen, because he’s afraid.

    The rest is war – un-connected killing and hurting – this betrayal by a bother – was terrible.

    I suppose it could be said that we’re all kin, so any hurting shouldn’t be seen as objective – but still – that is the scene that stays with me.

    As chance would have it, today, when your piece was posted in TON, Bartholomew Barker posted a poem in his blog about emotional hurt….

    Here it is…


    Our connection
    is thicker than blood
    stronger than muscle

    Our bond is like bone
    flexible and resilient
    made of the earth

    A honeycomb of winks
    and slow caresses
    and if it breaks
    it hurts worse
    than any gut-punch
    or cigarette burn
    and takes months
    to heal

    Bartholomew Barker

    My lord though – look at Bowie……

  2. Very interesting comments as always, Bernie. I love that poem by B Barker. And again, a coincidence, I was up at 3.30am writing the beginnings of my first poem ever, and realising how important poetry is in todays world.

    • Your first poem ever? I’d like to see that!
      I’m wondering what it’s about – you have so many ‘strings to your bow’….

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