In Conversation With The All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto

The Japanese composer talks scoring revenge film The Revenant, recovering from cancer, what makes him stay hungry, and more.

December 04, 2015

Manhattan's West Village is not like anywhere else in New York—the air has a stillness to it, and there is no sense of urgency, no pressure. That calm feels like a luxury, and, of course, it is. On a pretty street across from an arty cafe lies Ryuichi Sakamoto's basement studio office. I was supposed to meet the eminent Japanese composer in said cafe but thanks to a particularly noisy interview there the day before, I lucked out. Down a couple of steps and through a gated door is an L-shaped room. The first half is an office space in which his assistant and colleague quietly work at their desks, and around the corner, there is a jam-packed but methodically organized studio lined with CD-stacked shelves, many keyboards, and a computer. It feels cozy and peaceful, and it's where he's been working out of following his recovery from a throat cancer diagnosed in summer 2014. Sakamoto will turn 64 in January but he wears it well—his sharply cut white hair and tortoiseshell glasses lend elegance to his black zip-up hoodie. He speaks softly but purposefully, and his eyes dance when he laughs.

It was in August of this year that Sakamoto announced his return to work but in actual fact he'd already secretly started earlier. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu had reached out about him scoring The Revenant, an Oscar-friendly blockbuster due out Christmas Day, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. While the trailer will tell you it's a wilderness survival flick, it's a lot simpler and a lot more complex than that. Adapted from a true story about a 19th century white frontiersman, it is both a tale of revenge—the son of DiCaprio's character, a child he raised with his since-murdered Native American wife, is brutally killed in front of his eyes while he himself is badly wounded—and a tale against revenge. For all the bear-mauling, horse carcass-gutting, and needless piling up of bodies, it is rare moments of kindness amidst the cruel fallout of colonialism that sting the hardest. At his bleakest hour, DiCaprio's character is shown friendship by a Native American man whose family had suffered a similar fate as his own.


"What happens after revenge?" is the question the film whispers, and it's one we all know the answer to: more revenge. That truth—that violence breeds violence—is one that feels especially raw in a week that's seen the U.K. government vote to bomb Syria. I have no doubt Sakamoto is feeling that too, as during our almost-hour long conversation he made his feelings on the industrial military complex, amongst other things, very clear.


What attracted you to working on The Revenant?


Ryuichi Sakamoto: Well, more than the theme or subject or superstars in the film, I have been a big fan of Alejandro [González Iñárritu] since his debut film, Amores Perros, maybe 15 years ago or something. Since then I've been following him, checking all of his films, and I still like everything he has done. Some years ago in his film called Babel, he used two pieces of my music. I felt a huge respect in the way he used my music in his own film. At that time we had a phone conversation about how to use the music, how to make music, et cetera. Then soon after, when I had a concert in L.A., I invited him and finally we met. For this film, The Revenant, we had a phone call from his office in May of this year and it was kind of a very demanding call: “Come to L.A. tomorrow.”

Okay, that's definitely not a request.

Because I had cancer last year, I was still in recovering mode in May and my energy was not full yet. I couldn't decide right away whether I should do this or not. I should care for my health first. But then I decided to go to L.A. and we had a long conversation about music. The early stages of the film edits were missing some important scenes that they hadn't shot yet—very important ending scenes were missing. But I love Alejandro and his talent. Especially Birdman—amazing film.


You must like him a lot to go when you were still recovering. What made you decide to do it?

We musicians often get inspiration from films and books or photographs, not only by music. I don't get so much inspiration from other musicians. Especially alive musicians. Late musicians are good—Bach, Beethoven, yes, good. Maybe I naturally avoid heavily listening to music made by other musicians. But films, I'm always ready and hungry to observe these inspirations. So I'm sure that what I saw in May was not fully edited, but after Birdman, I immediately thought this was the next level. There was also temp music in the film, and again, he used a lot of my music as a temp. So that made me say, “Okay, maybe I'll give him a shot.” But, you know, the strength of his visuals—I like his personality, of course, but more than that, the film itself convinced me to do this.

You've scored nearly the same amount of films as you have made albums. How does having a rigid framework like a film change your musical creative approach, compared to the blank page of a personal project?

Each time I work on a film, I say to myself, “This is it. This is the end.” Because it is so stressful, it's like torture. I see my finger is cut, my nose is cut, my eyes are taken, because my music is my child. But they, naturally, cut the child's arms, legs, take an eye, nose, because they scratch everything. It's heart-breaking. Literally every time, I repeat, “This is it. This is it.” But, you know, I still do it [laughs]. Because I cannot get the same excitement or challenge or inspiration by doing my solo albums, my own music. It's a very intimate, closed universe, doing my own music. It's just me, basically. I have to inspire myself; I have to do everything by myself. I'm not a player; I'm a composer, I'm a writer. Maybe players get a lot of inspiration this way, doing some work with orchestras or whatever—[it’s] probably a similar thing to me doing the film, dealing with lots of people, lots of opinions, and ideas. Inspiration as well, but also stress. But I cannot get that by doing my own thing.

A love-hate relationship?

Yeah, but it's exciting. Working on the film is like a journey to an unknown place. [The Revenant] is a 19th century, 1820s, wild west story—but I have experienced that. Little Buddha, The Sheltering Sky shooting in the Sahara desert, The Last Emperor about the end of the Qing Dynasty in China—each film is a big journey. And I cannot experience that or get that doing my own thing.

Your career has been long and varied—what keeps you hungry? Besides film, there has got to be something inside of you that makes you keep exploring and searching.

I also have the same question for myself. I've been thinking about that for many, many decades. I'm not a singer, so sometimes I use words and lyrics but just occasionally. I mainly deal with sounds and notes and timbre, all that. If you base [your work] on your own words and language, your foundation is very rigid. I don't have that. Related to that, in Japanese history, almost 150 years ago, Japan politically opened its window to the world—before that it was closed for 250 years; 2.5 centuries! When it opened in 1868, it almost destroyed the traditional music because, at that time, the Japanese government thought only Western culture and music was good. They destroyed all of the traditional cultures, not only music, but many. Religion—Shintoism. So it's a huge damage. We lost a stream of our traditional music—since then musically we are flowers without root. Rootless. That's probably a big reason for me endlessly seeking what I have to do.

Do you feel the duty to try and repair that in some way?

That's not my role, I cannot do that. The ironic thing is that most Japanese people don't know that they lost their tradition. And since then, we are speaking the European language, musically. You know the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, and harmony-wise, structure-wise. Even our pop music has become very Westernized—or totally Westernized. But they don't know they're speaking the European language and that they lost their own language. They do not know that, they are not aware. So I am trying to wake them up and warn them: "No, the language you are speaking is not Japanese, it's from Germany, England, or America." It's not wrong, because that's the only language that they can speak at this time. It's like, what's it called, Creole English—a colonial form of English. Japanenglish [laughs].

“In 1868, the Japanese government thought only Western culture and music was good. They destroyed all of the traditional cultures. Since then musically we are flowers without root. That’s probably a big reason for me endlessly seeking what I have to do.”—Ryuichi Sakamoto

How does the traditional Japanese language of music of the past differ from the Western dialect?

The difference between European and Japanese music is that there is almost no common element, there is nothing shared between them. It's a very different system. Like languages: the Japanese language is so far away from the European languages. When we see European languages—even English and French—they share 50,000 vocabulary words between them, but compared to the distance of all the European languages and Japanese language, it's so far away. It's the same with music. Very different.

Is it the structure?

Structural, and also the fundamental musical system is very different. Let's say, in European music one beat is this [picks up a tiny control from a synth], and in Japanese music one beat is like this [picks up his computer’s mouse]. That's a big difference. Interestingly, the first Europeans who went to Japan five centuries ago were Portuguese missionaries.

I never knew that.

Interesting, right? They brought Christianity and guns.

Don't the two always go together? It makes me so angry.

Of course, of course, it's a mission. At that time—it was before Japanese closed the window and the country—they kind of welcomed Christianity and Christianity's music. You know, Renaissance music. And the guns. So there was a tiny influence of Western music of that era on Japanese music, that's very interesting.

Music, art, and culture have traveled around the world because of power struggles that are often linked to an idea of morality or religion. And yet people still treat music as this entertainment bubble, rather than seeing it as a part of something bigger.

Often, music is brought by soldiers or slaves, along with sugar or tea or something like that; politics, war, money, everything. And religion, of course, because it is a tool for propaganda. But also, when people travel they bring music with them.

Going back to wordless, instrumental music—there's this popular idea that you need the voice to humanize something but I firmly disagree, and your legacy speaks to that. Maybe we need wordless music now more than ever because modern life is so overwhelming—we need that space in which to shake everything off.

I like that aspect and I share it with you. Yes, pop entertainment has dominated so vastly. I just saw the premiere of the new James Bond movie in China. First world premiere in China, probably the biggest market share of the world. And they are crazy about that. Chinese people love James Bond, and they love pop icons and superstars. It's dominating the world and it's so loud, to me. I don't like sugar-coating music.

Do you think we're gonna get past it? Obviously over the past 2000 years, humans have been through a multitude of different periods. Do you see a moment where we're gonna get out of the monolithic, overwhelming system that we have now where pop = words = good?

I don't know. On the other hand, it's much more on the small market, but the popularity of people like Max Richter, a German post-classical electronic piano artist, is growing. So I guess some people want quietness. To me, pop music now is like Times Square—42nd Street, a huge Nike ad, it's like that to me.

With Yellow Magic Orchestra, you became a pioneer in electronic music and embraced technology. Do you still have that same techno-optimism?

Well, I'm done with the vision of techno-utopia. The world is getting worse and worse to me. Drones and super-weapons and super-ultra-weapons. Satellite laser weapons. Along with that, the same people [are] getting more greedy with money and selling heavy weapons everywhere—they are seeking battles and conflicts everywhere. All that they are making is conflicts. Like in between Japan and China right now, there are islands and they are both saying they belong to them. Same old story. But those people need those kinds of conflicts to sell and produce more weapons, so I am over that.

“If I see the news on TV too much, maybe I would get another cancer.”—Ryuichi Sakamoto

It’s very upsetting—how do you keep refocusing to make something beautiful?

If I think about that too much, or if I see the news on TV too much, maybe I would get another cancer. I try to minimize how much I think about those political things, or the future of humankind, because it makes me really blue.

Was music something that helped you in your recovery from cancer?

I started my career in my early 20s, like 23, and since then I've worked non-stop. This was the very first time in 40 years that I had a long period of doing nothing, so I thought this was the time to read a pile of books or watch a pile of DVDs. But then, there's not so much you can do. Vital energy is low, so you can't concentrate doing one thing so much. But I listened to some music that I normally don't. I had never liked the music of Gabriel Fauré since I was a kid, but this time I listened to Fauré’s music a lot every day. I don't know why, just by chance. Maybe, again, being hungry—I know lots of people enjoy this type of music, and I'm trying to find out what's there.

Over the last five years, America has remembered about electronic music—but it’s the Times Square version, like you said. It’s very frustrating that there's a lot of young American kids who don't know that house music came out of the black gay Chicago scene, and that techno was invented by working-class young black musicians in Detroit. There's this missing history. Do you think people are going to find their way to these roots of electronic music?

I don’t know. The majority of people don't know about the history and the roots, but some people do know. And some good people who have a good sense will remember. DJs and producers have respect for the history, the ‘80s and ‘90s music. And artists like Flying Lotus—I haven't met him, but I'm sure he has a lot of respect about that.

Yes, he’s wonderful. What your next step on your exploring list?

From the middle of my recovery, I started doing The Revenant and also, simultaneously, I've been doing a Japanese film called Nagasaki: Memories Of My Son and it's going to be out in December too. I'm asked to do another Japanese movie, which maybe I'll be working on that next February, and then after that I should make my solo project. I was going to do that last year, but I didn't. Since my latest solo was out in 2009, it's already been six years, so it's gonna be seven or eight years, which is too long. Obviously, this illness is a huge event in my entire life, so I should do something after.

The Revenant is in cinemas on December 25 2015.
In Conversation With The All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto