Knowing when to keep quiet: Ryuichi Sakamoto, writer, pop star, 'not very good' actor and composer of film scores - including the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor - talks to Sheila Johnston about music and the movies

Sheila Johnston
Thursday 08 October 1992 23:02

After Ryuichi Sakamoto's acting debut 10 years ago in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, he was asked if he was on the look-out for any more roles. 'No,' he said. 'Why not?' 'Because I'm not very good.' That is the typical Sakamoto exchange: minimalist, politely outspoken and mildly self-deprecating. The interview cuttings reveal a definite pattern - a late arrival, profuse apologies, a diffident request for permission to smoke, a powerful, uninsistent charm.

Acting, anyway, is only one of many options in an extraordinarily eclectic career that also includes male modelling, writing dialogues with the philosopher Shozo Omori, making avant-garde videos and - his main business - music: a degree in classical composition, pop stardom with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a string of solo albums.

Apart from all this, Sakamoto has developed quite a sideline in film soundtracks including Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence; Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky; Schlondorff's The Handmaid's Tale; Almodovar's High Heels. There are some odder credits too - a Japanese cartoon, and The Story of Chatran, a Disney-ish feature film about a little ginger cat; alas, the UK version was re-dubbed with a facetious soundtrack of jokes and barnyard music. He has been in demand since his Oscar (for The Last Emperor), and picks projects for their directors' reputation - even the kitten picture came from the distinguished Japanese film-maker Kon Ichikawa. That's not the case with Wuthering Heights, his latest commission, however: 'Peter Kosminsky is brand new, so I had no idea - I came in because of Juliette Binoche. WOW]'

This is rather sweet, coming from someone who was once habitually described as 'the most beautiful man in the world' and, at 40, must be still one of the leading contenders. But there's not much arrogance on display here (although you get occasional glimpses of a steely determination). Sakamoto, who true to form reports for duty some 40 minutes late for our two meetings, speaks slowly, in a very soft, strongly-accented voice, with much ingenuous laughter and gaping pauses between each phrase.

It seems logical that silence also lies at the core of his musical thinking: nice as it is to know that somebody likes Binoche (most Brits have bridled at the thought of a Frenchwoman playing Cathy), she was not the only reason for his accepting the film. 'They showed me some footage and immediately I got a feeling totally different from the earlier version. That was, to me, a typical Hollywood melodrama. This is kind of New Wave. Usually a love story is noisy: 'I love you]' 'Oh, I love you]' and music crashing. Here the landscape and atmosphere are very quiet. That's the major reason I chose it.'

Much of the art of film music is, after all, knowing when not to use it: in The Handmaid's Tale, one of the strongest moments - a scene of mechanical, loveless sex - takes place in total silence. 'As a rule, inexperienced directors want more music, because they are afraid. Afraid of silence. At a deep level they know that silence is very strong. They can't control it. In Wuthering Heights there are many cues, wall-to-wall. I wrote 36 cues (slightly below his average, of 40-44) but they're very long - three minutes, four minutes each. The total music length is 60 minutes and the film itself runs 104 minutes, so almost 60 per cent is music. The director would want a new cue to start while the last chords of the previous one were still going. I didn't think that was possible.' Maybe, this being his first feature, Kosminsky didn't realise . . . 'He does now]' says Sakamoto crisply.

Here's how he works: 'In most cases the director knows what he wants - the only exception was The Sheltering Sky, where Bertolucci didn't know what the music should be. We listened to all kinds of music CDs, from Arabic music to jazz, Mahler, Strauss. I found the saddest and strongest music was Verdi's Requiem and started writing, inspired by that. On Wuthering Heights I listened to Irish folk music, I read the book and saw the video of the old version, which wasn't very inspiring. But the important thing is obviously the film itself.

'The music shouldn't annoy or disturb the film; on the other hand it should be able to stand up outside it. So it's a very, very narrow game.' His favourite soundtrack is Psycho - 'the value of that music is very rare. It's like a piece of string music by Bela Bartok'. By a curious coincidence, the composer, Bernard Herrmann, has written an opera - based on Wuthering Heights (less auspiciously, Michel Legrand addressed himself to the subject too, in a 1970 film version).

The technicalities can be constricting: I had vaguely imagined, for instance, that the music over the opening credits would be a free-form piece, like an opera overture, introducing all the score's leitmotivs. Not so, says Sakamoto: 'The opening title cue should have some hit points - moments when there's a cut or the camera moves. Sometimes there's dialogue to work around too. So it's limiting.'

He is well inured to working within bizarre disciplines - he composed the music for the spectacular opening ceremony of this year's Olympic Games and has even written a symphonic score for a Japanese video game - a cut, he says, above the usual plinky-plonk jingles. 'The whole game program is on CD-ROM, including the sound, so you hear CD-quality music.' After that, a film soundtrack must seem simplicity itself.

'The major frustration is the directors. I believe I know music. They believe they know music in a different way. I explain that this cue should be like this, and they don't agree. When I write pop songs, everything is up to me, beats, lengths, melody. In film, everything around me makes the decision - the film, the script, the story. It's like an exam, and when you pass it you get satisfaction, more than from writing pop songs.'

All the same, there must the indignity of finding some exquisite morsels of his score missing from the final film - indeed it's not unknown for soundtracks to be scrapped entirely, as happened on the British film 1984 for example. 'Bertolucci has taken out cues that I wanted; so did Almodovar. Usually I write, say 40 cues, and he would use about two-thirds. I mind it, I always get angry when I watch the completed film. I'm expecting the next cue at a certain moment and it's not there. Or someone else's brand-new music comes up. Really very sad]'

Film soundtracks raise a broader question too, of whether music, generally speaking, should be narrative and illustrative or whether it's an abstract medium. 'I have visions sometimes when I'm writing contemporary music, even when it's very logical. For example, for one of my songs on the album Beauty, I was always having visions of Amazonian rainforests, a little plane flying very low over the trees. Trees, trees, trees, and some birds. But the title of the song is Calling From Tokyo]'

Not very good or not, Sakamoto's on- screen career has continued. After his nasty Japanese officer in Merry Christmas he appeared in The Last Emperor (as a nasty Japanese officer), but is nursing a project that will expand his range: a biopic, directed by Oshima, of the silent movie star Seshu Hayakawa. 'People have forgotten about him now, but in the Twenties, he was a big sex symbol - in this film Valentino is following him and Hayakawa teaches him how to act and do make-up. It's a love-hate relationship.

'We have no idea of that era, it was almost impossible for a Japanese guy to be an international film star. But he was famous in Europe. A French studio invited him over and he lived in Paris during the war, a Japanese in an enemy country. Afterwards he went to New York and appeared on page one of the New York Times. So he was an unbelievably rare case.' At the moment, the project seems to be beached on financing difficulties but it would be satisfying if this exotic matinee idol could be played by the man who must be his closest contemporary equivalent.

(Photograph omitted)

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