Remembering Ryuichi Sakamoto


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Often listing French composer Claude Debussy and German electronic band Kraftwerk as his two biggest influences, the late Ryuichi Sakamoto forged a career that made him a worthy successor to each. After gaining fame in the late ’70s as a member of pioneering electronic music trio Yellow Music Orchestra, Sakamoto began scoring film with Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), marking the beginning of a remarkable 40-year run of film scoring that saw Sakamoto collaborate with such directors as Bernardo Bertolucci, Pedro Almodóvar, Jun Ichikawa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Along the way, he also composed an opera, a symphony, and released over 20 solo albums, with his final, 12, debuting in January of this year, just months before his passing from cancer at age 71. Always a musical pioneer, never content with the commonplace, Sakamoto’s film work was only one facet of his extraordinary creative life. 

As our film series Ryuichi Sakamoto: A Celebration pays tribute, Metrograph has gathered quotes and anecdotes from collaborators across the film and music world to remember, and honor, the incredible work he made across his life. 

Alejandro González Iñárritu, director, The Revenant (2015)

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The Revenant (2015)

“I vividly recall the emotional experience I had the first time I listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was in a car, stuck in traffic in Mexico City with a friend of mine, and we put a pirate japanese cassette on—this was 1983. I heard some piano notes and I felt as if the fingers were penetrating my brain and giving me a cranial cosmic massage... and it was ’Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.’”

Haruki Murakami, writer, Tony Takitani (short story)

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Tony Takitani (2004)

“Personal and intimate music—somebody (an anonymous somebody) sitting alone in front of the school piano early in the morning, weaving a melody, exploring harmonies. Music that gradually fills a space with high ceilings that contains the wafting presence of rain… But music that leaves gaps where necessary. Once in a while, we need music like this and this way of being… no, perhaps all the time. We need it as much as we need hot black coffee at the break of dawn and a cat napping next to us in the afternoon.”

Bernardo Bertolucci, director, The Last Emperor (1987)

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The Last Emperor (1987)

“For The Last Emperor I had three composers and I wanted different things from each of them. From Ryuichi Sakamoto I wanted something epic with an Eastern flavor. Cong Su was brought back from Germany, where he lives, to do Chinese-flavored court music. And I also had David Byrne. In the end Sakamoto did a kind of Western, symphonic music and David Byrne did the chinoiserie because his music is always full of subtle irony.”

David Byrne, musician, The Last Emperor (1987)

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The Last Emperor (1987)

“Me and Ryuichi were both pretty popular, so we couldn’t just drop what we were doing and say ‘I’ll cancel my tour to work on your movie.’ But both of us had little slots… 

“[Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas] would give us scenes to do, and there might have been a bit of overlap that we weren’t told about where we were told to score the same scene... 

“I can’t listen to the stuff I’ve done objectively, but I hear some of the ones Ryuichi did—there’s one where it goes duh duh duh duh duh. Very rhythmic and pulsing. I thought, ‘Now, there you go! There’s some real music that’s really working in a scene.’

“I think I expected Ryuichi would write some themes that were vaguely Asian sounding. Which he sort of did, but they’re a lot less Asian sounding then the stuff I wrote. So people often get the cues we did mixed up. His have a kind of subtext, there’s a melodic reference to Asian music in his orchestral themes, but the fact that they’re orchestral means they don’t sound typically Asian.”

Brian De Palma, director, Snake Eyes (1998)

Snake Eyes (1998)

“Ryuichi Sakamoto was not very happy about me putting the Meredith Brooks song at the end of Snake Eyes.

Min Yoon-gi, aka Suga of BTS, musician


SUGA: Road to D Day (2023)

“There is this method of reversing samples, chopping, and splicing which is commonly used among songwriters a lot. Some people would see this and ask, ‘Is this really composing?’ And it actually is because all these samples are being taken from their original sources and then recorded again. I needed to practice that kind of production through sampling, and I ended up using Sakamoto’s songs… So Sakamoto naturally was one of the legends that I dreamed of meeting, and when I expressed my interest in meeting him, he accepted without hesitation.”

John Maybury, director, Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

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Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

“I loved his music… I wanted something that would be romantic, but what I really wanted was the clinical aspect of his electronic work. I was lucky enough to go to his studio in New York and work with him…. Music’s very important to me, always has been. I used to make music videos. Film soundtracks are crucial. You can put stuff on the screen that’s not on the screen. Sakamoto was a perfect match for Francis Bacon. I asked him. I sent him the script and he said yes.”

Steven D. Bingley-Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, musician

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Thousand Knives (1978)

"If you want to talk about his history and what he’s done in the past, there’s a lot of stuff from Thousand Knives... that was like some really early stuff… But if you play it up against something today, it still sounds like the future…. He found the beauty in all the little things."

Stephen Nomura Schible, director, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)

“He works very fast and he often creates several different songs at the same time; it was hard to know what he was doing sometimes until he shared the ultimately completed album with us. He is extremely knowledgeable of the technical aspects of his craft and it was inspiring to see how he applies his knowledge and technical capabilities to his work.”

Chloe Flower, musician

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

“It’s like every performance from the beginning of Sakamoto’s career to now has more layers and more growth… Everyone knows and loves Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. His work has crossed all barriers, and continues to inspire Asian composers around the world.”

Alan Menken, composer

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)

“In many ways, he defies categorization because he embraces so many different genres. He is a master at introducing compelling musical motifs and developing them in powerful and original ways; always keeping the listener engaged both emotionally and intellectually. One moment, there’s impressionism; next, there’s rock, jazz, classical or new-age meditative elements. He blends tonal and atonal, symphonic and electronic, Western and Eastern seamlessly. He’s a brilliant chameleon whose work is always soulful and spiritual at the same time.”

Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, musician, The Revenant (2015)

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The Revenant (2015)

“One never understands everything, there must always be some kind of mystery—that’s the magic and also what makes us question things we spend more time on.

“There is much about Ryuichi’s music and life that I have not questioned, I have only touched upon these answers. Ryuichi has written so much into his music and if you listen carefully you can find so much of him there. When you work together as musicians, it’s not the speaking that’s important, it’s the telepathic communication that you learn.”

Hildur Guðnadóttir, musician, The Revenant (2015)

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The Revenant (2015)

“It’s like every performance from the beginning of Sakamoto’s career to now has more layers and more growth… Everyone knows and loves Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. His work has crossed all barriers, and continues to inspire Asian composers around the world.”

Antoine Silverman, musician, Love After Love (2020)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017)

“I had the distinct privilege of working with Ryuichi over the last five years or so of his life as his primary violinist and orchestra contractor in NYC. His thoughtfulness, kindness, serenity, massive talent, and exceptional ear were always on display. He had an almost childlike joy at hearing his music come to life, as if he couldn’t believe he had written something so beautiful. The last time I worked with him he had to send a replacement pianist and conductor as he was not able to travel to the concert. He sent a video to express his regrets to the audience, and in many respects it prefaced the imminent loss we would be facing. We all hoped he could stage another comeback but alas, it was not to be.

“His musicians in New York are profoundly grateful for the experience of having worked with this great composer and tremendous person.”

Susie Ibarra, Musician, Beckett (2021)


Photo credit: Euroarts

“One afternoon in 2019, I stood in the recording booth with Ryuichi and his team, and listened to his music track for a film scene of newspapers printing on rolls. I was to record a track of percussion with this afterwards. In that moment I really felt how much more vivid a sensory experience of watching a film is with powerful sound and music that shape each movement. Maestro had transformed that paper printer into the most lush organ sound and the music was magical. I’m forever grateful for his brilliant artistry, deep empathy, and generous heart.”