In an act of desperation I turned to Tumblr (I know, I know) and quizzed the many eighties music fans I follow there on what they thought I should write about. And got one response. Interaction is my bitch.
"Can you explain Ryuichi Sakamoto?"
Well, obviously not. Musician, actor, composor, electronic pioneer, ambient soundscaper, Oscar winner, activist, bossa nova enthusiast - he's got quite a few strings to his bow. For some reason I've never entirely understood, Wikipedia even credits him as a dancer. I doubt even Ryuichi Sakamoto could explain Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Born in Tokyo in 1952, Sakamoto began playing the piano at the age of three and briefly believed himself to be the reincarnation of Claude Debussy. As you do. After studying at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, he found fame as one third of the hugely influential Yellow Magic Orchestra as well as enjoying a successful (and incredibly varied) solo career of his own.
He acted alongside David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, composed film scores for the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Pedro Almodovar, modelled for Kenzo/H&M and even appeared in a Madonna video...honestly, explanations are clearly pointless here. Ryuichi Sakamoto makes no sense. So instead of an explanation, I decided simply to bring five of his eighties highlights (as far as I'm concerned) to your attention. Highlights that conveniently start with the rest of the decade, in 1980.
Riot in Lagos (1980)
And lo, in 1980, Ryuichi Sakamoto invented techno. Or maybe not. Still, Riot in Lagos was a huge influence on the development of not only techno, but hip hop too. The Guardian even listed this track as one of the 50 key moments in dance music. 37 years later, it still sounds like nothing else out there.
Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)
Sakamoto made his acting debut in Nagisa Oshima’s WWII era drama, playing a Japanese POW camp commandant who develops a homoerotic fixation on David Bowie’s rebellious Major Jack Celliers. As far as acting talents go, Sakamoto was never destined to give the greats a run for their money. In fact, he was apparently so appalled by his own performance he actually fainted during the film’s premiere. It’s his BAFTA winning soundtrack that really shines, combining electronic, ambient and world music to great effect. Sakamoto’s main theme to the film is probably more famous than the film itself these days. Although it doesn’t feature in the actual movie, Sakamoto teamed up with frequent collaborator David Sylvian to produce a vocal track based on this theme, the glorious Forbidden Colours. The song takes its title from the Yukio Mishima novel of the same name – which is apt really, as Sakamoto’s father was Mishima’s editor on the classic Confessions of a Mask.
Yellow Magic Orchestra - Naughty Boys (1983)
When thinking of which YMO album to include here, my head told me the obvious choice was 1981's Technodelic, an album notable for it's experimental (at the time) use of samples. My heart, however, argued in favour of Naughty Boys. Terrible title, terrible cover, brilliant album. Compared to previous YMO albums, Naughty Boys is pure eighties J-Pop joy. The song I’ve chosen for you lot is Kimi ni, mune kyun (My heart beats for you), a piece of sugar-sweet bubblegum with a video that sees YMO cheerfully send up their robotic image while dancing on their own faces. Make of that what you will.
The Last Emperor (1987)
The film that turned Sakamoto into an Oscar winner, alongside fellow soundtrack composers David Bryne and Cong Su. The Last Emperor also provided Sakamoto with another acting role, although as with all of his acting roles that’s best left undiscussed.
Risky (featuring Iggy Pop) (1987)
In 1987 Sakamoto released Neo Geo, a collage of different world music styles featuring contributions from the likes of Bootsy Collins, Sly Dunbar and Iggy Pop. Risky, the album’s only English language track, has Iggy Pop crooning away while the accompanying video pays tribute to Man Ray and transhumanist philosopher FM-2030. It’s worth pointing out that the video is rather NSFW, so viewer discretion is obviously advised…
And there you have it. In no way have I explained Ryuichi Sakamoto, the self-confessed “schizophrenic”, so apologies to that anonymous Tumblr blogger for failing their assignment.
As if there’s any point in even attempting an explanation. When David Sylvian first met Sakamoto, it was for an interview with a Japanese magazine. Sylvian didn’t speak Japanese, Sakamoto didn’t speak much English – yet the pair still became good friends. It’s the best way to approach the man, really. You may have no idea what he’s all about, but you can still think it's pretty spectacular.