At 63, renaissance man Ryuichi Sakamoto’s creative verve has shown no signs of waning despite Sakamoto being diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer last year. As a member of the experimental Japanese electronic trio Yellow Magic Orchestra—colloquially, “Y.M.O.”—his sonic personality was furthered in a rich solo career, beginning with 1978’s heady Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Five years later he scored his first film, Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which also featured his debut as an actor. In 1987 his contribution to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor earned him an Academy Award for best original score. This month, adventurous moviegoers can hear his latest work, for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s wilderness epic The Revenant, a joint effort with frequent collaborator Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto) featuring Bryce Dessner (The National). We recently caught up with Sakamoto about his legacy and process, and to debut “The Revenant Main Theme.” The soundtrack is currently available for digital download, and a CD version will be available January 8, with a vinyl release via Milan Records scheduled for the spring.
Vanity Fair: Looking back on your career as a whole, you’ve always been terrifically difficult to precisely pinpoint. Has the unfolding of your oeuvre been the result of careful planning or spontaneous intuition?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: It’s almost completely spontaneous. I used to be a kind of person who didn’t think about even the next day. Now, I think about tomorrow, though.
Ever since the late great Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, your work scoring film has been versatilely prolific—is your approach to each director/movie wildly different?
Yes, I don’t have any particular method. But most of time the first impression is always the right one. For Merry Christmas, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, and this one, The Revenant, the very first idea, motif, or fragment became the main theme.
Congratulations on the Golden Globe nomination for The Revenant score. When did you first meet Alejandro González Iñárritu? When were you tapped for the film’s score?
Thank you! I met Alejandro over the phone when he was seeking to use my track “Bibo no Aozora” in his film Babel. Then I finally met him in person in L.A. when I had a North American tour in 2010. I invited him and his family to my show. The end of April this year, I had a phone call from his colleague about The Revenant. So, I went to L.A. to watch the film and spent a lot time of talking with Alejandro about the music.
How was Carsten Nicolai brought into the project? How did the creative process between the two of you differ from your previous collaborations? And how does Bryce Dessner fit into the picture?
Since the beginning, Alejandro wanted to have a lot of layers of both acoustic and electronic sounds. So, it was natural to call Carsten to help. Some parts were worked separately, other parts by exchanging files back and forth.
Bryce’s music had been [used as] temp music since the very early stage, and Alejandro strongly wanted his input. He recorded separate from us, but he heard what I was doing, so it’s an indirect collaboration. I was very happy to have an opportunity to work with those young, talented musicians!
Are there any filmmakers you would love to work with? Are there any older films you have fantasized about re-scoring?
I have been a long time fan of Jean-Luc Godard. It’s my dream to work with him.
I am a huge fan of Yasujiro Ozu too, but the only thing I am not happy with is the music in his films. So, the late Toru Takemitsu, the great Japanese composer who was also a big fan of Ozu, and I wanted to re-do all [Ozu’s] music […] together one day. Unfortunately he passed away and our oath hasn’t been fulfilled yet.
How has your classical piano training affected your musical output? What are your earliest memories discovering the piano?
It was one of my uncles who is a big music lover and record collector. Since the age of three or four I often visited his room to play his piano and pick some vinyl records to play. The first music I got really into was Bach. I was impressed with the music of counterpoint, with its way of writing. After that I studied harmony and counterpoint.
All these experiences deeply affected me in the way of thinking and expressing music. I always think about music horizontally and vertically at the same time. Also, to me, it’s very important the connections of harmony in time which is two-dimensional. Because similar to language, a meaning would be totally different if you change the syntax. The same thing happens in music.
You and your partners in Yellow Magic Orchestra were influential early pioneers in the use of synthesizers and other digital musical technology in the 1970s. What was the origin of your relationship with electronic music?
My main interest in synthesizers when I was an older teenager was to escape from the spell of the 12-tone system, or in a more broad sense the spell of the European modern-music system. That led me to explore towards electronic music and ethnic music. So, I was thrilled when I saw three big synthesizers were sitting in the classroom when I entered the music university in 1970. Around that time, I thought everything was already done and experimented in the Western music system. It wouldn’t do much if you even hit all 88 keys of the piano. A new kind of palette and color and system—that’s what I was eager to get.
When you have created an emotionally penetrating piece of music, and labor over the recording—and/or, perhaps continue to play it many times live—does the personal poignance for you fade as a listener? Does it stay the same? Or gain significance with time?
It changes in time. Naturally, I would lose the depth of the emotions with some pieces as time goes on. If a piece of music was written for a film, the memories of many images cling around the piece in the beginning, then those images gradually go away. Then the essence of the piece of music would be distilled at the end.
Is there music currently being produced that’s particularly exciting you?