Ryuichi Sakamoto: 'We must have done something wrong to nature'

Interview: Ryuichi Sakamoto - Months after the Japan earthquake, the musician, composer and actor tells Phil Johnson he's still feeling its aftershocks.

On the afternoon of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March, the composer and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto was in a recording studio in Tokyo.

"I was waiting for the musicians to arrive when the building started shaking", he says. "Perhaps because I am a musician, instead of leaving the building, I tried to protect the equipment, the instruments and the microphones. As soon as we could we turned on the TV and looked at the damage across the country. I was shocked, stunned. Probably I am still stunned." He had been in another recording studio, in Manhattan, on 9/11.

Sakamoto, now 59 and silver haired, impossibly cool and handsome, is one of Japan's most important cultural exports. For more than 30 years his projects with a host of international names (the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence in which he starred with David Bowie; his Oscar-winning score for Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor; High Heels for Pedro Almodóvar; albums featuring Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, David Byrne) have always appeared to relate to the world at large rather than domestic issues. But if the earthquake served to redirect Sakamoto's attention to Japan, it also re-focused the conflicts between nature and culture, man and technology that have driven his work since he emerged in the late Seventies with the futuristic techno-trio Yellow Magic Orchestra. For Sakamoto's music has always mixed a lambent, infinitely melancholy mood that recalls the classical influence of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie with the latest trends. Last May, he brought to the Roundhouse in London a multimedia collaboration with Alva Noto, Summvs, in which acoustic piano frequencies were treated and distressed until the original material became a shifting pulse of digital patterns.

"It's acoustic versus electronic," Sakamoto says. "We talked of that even in the days of Yellow Magic Orchestra. 'What if there are power cuts?' we said. 'How can we generate sound?' So it might be better to have something instead of computers ... like the piano! It's probably why I stick to playing it."

But of course the piano itself was once new technology. "It developed through the Industrial Revolution, and this was partly why Beethoven liked it," Sakamoto says. "If he were alive today he would be into new technologies. But today's piano still has a pure sound generated by wood, steel and felt; it's not a virtual instrument like the things kids make music on now.

"Until a relatively short time ago, all music was made from the hair of horses, from the skins of animals, and for me this still represents the soul of music. I'm not sure if 'soul' is the right word, but it's not merely a nostalgic view. I think there's a genuine difference between the real and the virtual in music. As soon as I choose the timbre of an instrument, that dominates how I compose."

This traditional side to Sakamoto – favouring acoustic over electronic – is best heard in the music of his trio, the group he brings to London on Tuesday. Featuring his long-established colleague Jaques Morelenbaum on cello and relative newcomer Judy Kang on violin, the trio is where Sakamoto's very Japanese concerns with beauty and symmetry are perfectly expressed.

In 2001, the trio made an album, Casa, dedicated to the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, the co-inventor of bossa nova, a form of music Sakamoto loves, combining as it does the delicate impressionistic influence of Debussy, and the Afro-Brazilian rhythms of samba. The recording was made in the late composer's home in Rio, using the same old piano on which he had written "The Girl From Ipanema" and a hundred other classic songs, all of which Sakamoto knows by heart.

In 2002, I booked Sakamoto and the trio to perform the Jobim material at a concert hall in Bristol, and the live show was even more perfect than the album. Ryuichi Sakamoto also proved a very striking presence. I remember him sitting outside in the sculpture-garden designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay, smoking cigarettes and staring into space, as inside the hall his technicians tuned the piano – a Yamaha, which he had brought with him – with the specially sweetened voicings he favours. "As soon as I touched his piano some of Jobim's spirit came into me", Sakamoto recalls. "It was like animism ... the dirt underneath the keyboard, the ash from his cigars ... Even Western people like you, you could understand this feeling."

This thought returns him to the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath. "In Japanese culture there is a belief that God is everywhere – in mountains, trees, rocks, even in our sympathy for robots or Hello Kitty toys. In an animistic sense, then, this tragedy means we must have done some wrong to nature. To me, it is easy to fantasise about these things."

The Ryuichi Sakamoto Trio play at the Royal Festival Hall on 1 Nov

Career Highlights

Yellow Magic Orchestra

Formed in 1978 as a Japanese answer to Germany's Kraftwerk, YMO were pioneers of pop-electronica. Whenever you hear a singer using a vocoder, remember Sakamoto did it first on YMO's hit single "Behind the Mask", later covered by Michael Jackson.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

In Nagisa Oshima's 1983 film, Sakamoto played a Japanese prison-chief opposite David Bowie's PoW. He also wrote the score.

The Last Emperor

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 epic took nine Academy Awards and was Sakamoto's greatest triumph as a film soundtrack composer.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor