He was part of the official 2018 Competition Jury, and also the subject of Stephen Nomura Schible’s 'RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: async AT THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY, the companion piece, the B side if you will, to 'Ryuichi Sakamoto' Coda', a film which screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2017.
When I first met Sakamoto in person, inside the Casinò in Venice, I was awe struck. His shiny, perfectly straight silver hair, those tortoise shell eyeglasses and the stylish black suit highlighting a crisp white shirt all made for an image that is so naturally fashionable and hard to forget. Yet Sakamoto is so much more profound than just how he looks, his magnetism delves deeper than his meticulously styled, outward persona.
The Japan native, who now calls both NYC and Tokyo home, is a composer, a singer, a writer, an activist, a dancer and an actor. Who can forget his turn as Captain Yonoi in 'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence' alongside David Bowie? He also provided the soundtrack for that movie. Double duty is what Sakamoto does best it seems.
In fact, it is through his haunting music, for the soundtracks of 'The Sheltering Sky', 'Babel', 'The Revenant' and 'The Last Emperor' among so many, many more that we have fallen deeply in love with Sakamoto. And I dare say, we live fuller lives through his art. In person, that statement becomes like a mantra that plays through this writer's mind, while observing the careful way in which Sakamoto chooses his words.
His recent struggle with throat cancer and his activism to stop the use of nuclear power in his native Japan -- all at the center of 'CODA' -- as well as his encouragement of young talents, make up the remaining pieces of the beautiful puzzle that is, and always will be Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Following are a few questions I asked Sakamoto in Venice. But this interview is definitely a work in progress with the man his filmmaker calls "a patriot, so amazing," and with whom, from the very start of their collaboration, Nomura Schible knew that, "something magical would happen!"
Do you consider yourself a radical?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Of course not, but I think I need to speak out. Yet I am too radical in Japanese society.
I’ve been doing this event annually, in Japan, it’s called simply “No Nukes” — the first one was “No Nukes 2012”, and we do it every year. As long as the Fukushima disaster is ongoing, we will be doing it. We have to do that.
Was it difficult to have this man follow you around every day, particularly during such a challenging time in your life?
Sakamoto: Yes, I’m a shy person, totally not an exhibitionist, so being followed by a camera was so annoying. Especially when I was seriously composing on the keyboard. Of course the eyes of some other people are really distracting.
Also, when I specifically try to record some noise, all other noises distract me.
Are you in a constant search for sound? Like with your head in a bucket to record the rain…
Sakamoto: Anywhere, everywhere, even when I simply walk around on the streets. Always, unknown events and unknown sounds will happen. So I’m constantly recording with my iPhone with a little mike. The quality is pretty good, thanks to Apple. I’m always searching for new sounds. Everywhere I go, to Greenland, or little streets of Paris or NY. But in NY I’m always recording so I can get bored with the same noises we hear in NY. So I will go outside sometimes, to a little forest, or to the sea, or the river and lakes. Or the North Pole.
Has your relationship with music changed since the beginning, or has it always been the same since the beginning of your career?
Sakamoto: Not always the same. In a way, before I trusted the piano more than I do now. The piano was much more than a friend. Like an extension of my own body. Now my outlook to the piano has been changed, I see the piano as an industrial product, like a weapon almost. The strength of those strings is ten tons, to hold iron and wood. Something very modern. Still now the piano is the closest instrument to me, I have to express my music on the piano in a way. There is that constant contradiction inside myself.
Music is of course your biggest passion, but is it also almost a burden? Like you explained, during your bout with throat cancer, you couldn’t stop, you had to do it even when you should rest...
Sakamoto: It’s good and bad. If I’d not been forced by commands as by some dictator by the filmmakers I worked with, I wouldn’t have been able to compose. Same if Bertolucci hadn’t been commanding me to make a certain kind of music, I would not have been able to. I’m a very lazy person. Without the commands, or offers I wouldn’t do that. That’s why I did compose some music, which I never expected I could write. That was the biggest joy I could have. You can do something you’ve never expected.
So is this so-called laziness of yours the reason you didn’t continue to act?
Sakamoto: It’s not related to my laziness. I just hate my acting.