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Artist, innovator, Oscar-winner, genius are only some of the words used to describe Ryuichi Sakamoto. Since his groundbreaking debut in 1977 with his group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto has changed the face of modern music.  He has lent his incredible range to the soundtracks of films like The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Revenant and even made the occasional acting appearance. 

Sakamoto spoke with me at Japan Cuts about his score for Nagasaki: Memories of My Son, the first film he chose to do after recovering from cancer.

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Nagasaki: Memories of My Son

Ryuichi Sakamoto


The Lady Miz Diva:  I think the first thing your fans will want to know is how are you feeling?

Ryuichi Sakamoto:  Generally, I am feeling much better.  I am feeling much better than last year. Before that year, that was bad. {Laughs} I am much better now.


LMD:  I read your beautiful letter that opens your website about your recovery from cancer written last year which mentions this film.  What was it about Nagasaki: Memories of My Son that moved you to make it the first project you did after your recovery?

RS:  Iím sorry, the answer isnít so romantic.  I was asked to do this film before I was diagnosed with cancer.  It was kind of a coincidence that they started shooting last year and I was okay, recovered enough to do this last year.  If I was not okay, probably I couldnít do it.  So then somebody else would do it.  Iím very happy and glad that I could.


LMD:  Nagasaki: Memories of My Son has such a poignant message that is very relevant for this time.  I wonder if that was part of the allure of the project for you?

RS:  Exactly.  There were two reasons that I felt I had to do this film; one, of course, is for what Master Yoji Yamada has been doing for a long time, for like 50 years for Japanís cinema.  The other reason is the subject of this film, because it is about the tragedy of Nagasaki and the atomic bomb, but not only Nagasakiís tragedy, but it is kind of the universal tragedy.  A story about why violence and wars?  That is what Mr. Yamada wanted to say, and I really 100% agreed about that.


LMD: When you create a score for a film that reflects a certain historical event (The Last Emperor was based on a true story and Nagasaki is based on a true incident) and takes place within a certain era, or region, do you feel you must reflect that in your score?

RS:  I wish.  That would be ideal, but in many cases, I was asked or offered at the very end of the filmmaking procedure.  The best worst example of this is The Sheltering Sky, they went on shooting for six months in the Sahara, they came back and the director {Bernardo} Bertolucci asked me to write music at the very end.  The very end, literally!  We were struggling to get enough time to write music.  They said two weeks, I said, ďThatís impossible, impossible. Four weeks.Ē Itís kind of always happening

An even worse case is The Last Emperor, they said to me, ďYou have a week to write the music.Ē  Thatís really impossible.  So they gave me two weeks. {Laughs} I did everything in two weeks. {Laughs}

{More time to research} would be ideal, but in many instances, I didnít have the chance to do that.  Of course, I do research as much as I can in a very limited time.  I wish Iíd went to the Sahara and seen the landscape with my own eyes, but I couldnít.  I wish I could have.

The Last Emperor was different because I was in China for shooting, so that was good and bad. {Laughs} I saw the Chinese society before the Tiananmen Square massacre, so I felt very lucky to have seen the society of China before.

With regard to researching time and space of the subjects, in many cases, I cannot do that, but scoring music for those films is really a journey for me.  Kind of an imaginary journey, maybe, but I have to go to India, or the Sahara, or 18th-century England, or Nepal.  Using my imagination, I have to go through those landscapes to get inspirations for music.  That is truly a privilege for me to do this kind of work.


LMD:  As you mention often being brought in at the end of many of the films you scored, would you prefer to be more involved with the film from the beginning to the end, as opposed to viewing it piece by piece?

RS:  Always time is limited, so the ideal case would be I would get the properly done edit of the film, but most of the cases, itís no good.  Usually the editing is still going on, and I have to write the music.  So the music that I wrote yesterday wouldnít work today.  So, that happens many times.  For example, in The Revenant, we got more than 12 versions of the edit.

I see the whole film, you know, with some missing scenes or not, but yes, I see the whole film.  I might see certain scenes like 50 times, or 100 times. {Laughs}  But even when I deliver my music to the director, the edits are still going on, and at the premiere screening of the film, I see an unknown film.  Really {Laughs}, itís heartbreaking.


LMD:  This film is based on a play and feels very much like a play captured on film, in other words, there is a lot of moments of concentrated dialog and a lot of silences.  How did you judge where the correct places to add your music were?

RS:  Well, there is no rule for film music.  It is up to us, the composer and the director to discuss about that.  Sometimes I have to write underneath the dialogue or very noisy scenes; you can barely hear the music, but still they need music, sometimes.  Usually, the very strong or complex melodies would interfere with the dialogue, so if there was a lot of dialog going on, the music shouldnít have too many movements.  More like sustaining, just assisting the mood, yes.

For Brian de Palmaís film {Femme Fatale}, for example, I was challenged with a very difficult thing.  I calculated all the times - very specific times, like 2.56 seconds of this dialogue and that dialogue in between - and I had to write the melody to avoid the dialogue. It was a really difficult challenge, but it was fun. {Laughs}


LMD:  On the idea of film that are like plays; I always felt the film Gohatto {Taboo} was also more like a play, but more surreal and avant-garde toward the end.  Did that surreal quality influence your idea to keep away from classic themes for that film?

RS:  It was probably more of my intention around that time to make music which would be in between soundtrack music and pop music, like more ambient style.  The music for that movie, Gohatto, couldíve been more classical, more traditional; it couldíve been like a regular Japanese samurai movie soundtrack, but it was my strong intention to make more like an atmospheric, ambient music for samurai movies, very mismatching.  Itís fun. {Laughs}


LMD:  I felt like that very different discordant score added so much to the fever dream quality that rises toward the end of the film.

RS:  Yes.  Also that way, with the more ambient music, it could be more sensual, erotic.  Itís an erotic movie between men - samurai - so instead of making the melody go very sentimental, romantic.  I wanted to make it more under the skin.


LMD:  Working with some of the worldís greatest directors; Bertolucci three times, Nagisa Oshima twice, Takashi Miike, Yoji Yamada and Alejandro GonzŠlez IŮŠrritu.  Do these directors have a commonality that attracts you to work with them?

RS:  The reason is because the regular Hollywood type film directors wouldnít offer me. {Laughs}  And also, I always want to work with unique types.  Iím not a big fan of entertainment movies.  But I should try it, maybe. {Laughs}

I truly respect all those names; Oshima, Bertolucci, as artists - not only as film directors - as artists.


LMD:  Youíve created music that have cinema as a theme or underscore like Broadway Boogie Woogie {Which samples Blade Runner} and the whole Cinemage album.  Youíve been a judge at the Venice International Film Festival. Youíve scored for anime and documentaries.  Please talk about the role that cinema has in your songwriting and your artistic consciousness.

RS:  I donít know why, but cinema has been getting bigger and bigger inside me.  Itís becoming a bigger part of inspiration, inspirational sources inside me, I donít know why?  Cinema has everything, like images and music and sound and philosophies, it has everything.


LMD:  I canít let you leave a film festival without asking about acting.  The roles youíve played that stand out most for me are Captain Yonoi from Furyo {Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence} and Amakasu Masahiko {The Last Emperor}. 

From our view in the West, there seems to be a concerted effort lately in suppressing anything that portrays Japan negatively for any of its wartime responsibilities.  I interviewed a Japanese artist who played a similar role to yours in Furyo, in a US production and he avoided any questions about the subject and the film took forever to be shown in Japan despite having a major star behind it. 

Given the climate of the current government, would you still take those roles?

RS:  Well, I was always joking after The Last Emperor, no more fanatic Japanese officers or spies.  Please donít. {Laughs}  No more Mishima.  I respect Mishima as a writer, but he was a fanatic nationalist.  I wouldnít accept those offers anymore, but for Oshima and Bertolucci, it seemed I had no right to refuse because I respected those guys too much.  Just too much.  Whatever they wanted me to do, okay, I would always say yes.

But Oshima is gone and Bertolucci is alive, but he is in a wheelchair, unfortunately, for almost 10 years now.


LMD:  I know quite a few musicians who idolise you.  In my interview with Sugizo from the classic Japanese rock group, Luna Sea, he said he owes absolutely everything to you and your music.  Is having that big a legacy, and that much influence on modern music, being nicknamed The Professor, a burden at all?

RS:  Well, nowadays, Iím not thinking or caring about that so much.  So, itís okay.  But when I was young, especially when I was in the band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, I was really annoyed by the eyes of those fans.  The very young fans, like teens at the Budokan; those eyes worshiping like {they were looking at} gods and goddesses.  And Iím just a regular person; please donít with those eyes. That was one of the biggest reasons we broke up the band.

In contrast, Mr. {Haruomi} Hosono, the leader of the band, really loved that kind of a God role.  Now we can talk about it, but at that time he was really into mysticism and gods.  He liked all of that so much, and Iím anti-God.  I was anti-religion at that time.  Now I support that a bit more.  Iím not that religious, but I really respect Buddhism.


LMD:  In a recent interview, you stated ďIíve been saying this for a long time, but if you take Sony, which is a company that really represents Japan, and compare it to Akira Kurosawa - just one person - Kurosawa is probably worth more worldwide. A lot of people donít seem to get that.Ē Could you explain what you meant by that?

RS:  Of course, Sony has a huge impact worldwide, but maybe for a longer perspective, just as a person - one person - to think about this personís cultural impact in the long-term; like centuries.  We are not using a 20 or 25-year-old Walkman anymore, itís gone, but the Kurosawa films will last centuries.


LMD:  Please tell us what your fans have to look forward to from Ryuichi Sakamoto?

RS:  After the recovery, I did two films, one for Yamada, one for IŮŠrritu.  I finished the third film, which is a Japanese film called Rage for director Lee Sang-il, and it is very good; deep and powerful.  Although itís an entertainment film, but it is a very serious, deep, powerful film.  I was really glad to work with Lee Sang-il.  That was earlier this year.  Then I started making my own album, which would be the first one in eight years, since "Out of Noise".  So thatís my news.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 17th, 2016



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