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Sayonara to a Techno-pop Pioneer
A farewell to Ryuichi Sakamoto, architect of sonic futures.
Image credit: GraphicsHunter94
On Monday, the world learned that pioneering Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away at the untimely age of 71 last week. I am often asked if there was anything I wanted to write about in Pure Invention but couldn’t. There are many such topics, but the number one “chapter that wasn’t” would have been about music. Sakamoto’s work played a key role in building aural bridges between East and West, shaping all of our sonic futures.
The story really begins in the 1960s, when Kyu Sakamoto, no relation to Ryuichi, scored a surprise #1 American hit with a catchy Japanese-language ballad called “Sukiyaki.” Originally titled Ue wo Muite Aruko, or “Walking While Looking Up” (to keep the tears from falling), it debuted in Japan in 1961, becoming an insta-classic. What superficially seemed a romantic lament was actually, according to songwriter Rokusuke Ei, political: dejection at his and fellow protestors’ failure to stop the enactment of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty. Predictably, none of this political context made it abroad. It was released in the States in 1963 under the incongruous name “Sukiyaki,” apparently picked for the simple fact the hot-pot dish was one of the few Japanese words an American might know. Sukiyaki spent three weeks on the Billboard Top 100. It was the only single by an Asian artist to top the American pop charts until the BTS megahit “Dynamite” came along in 2020.
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It must have been jarring for Americans to hear Japanese singing over their (uh, Japanese-made) transistor radios, given they’d been at literal war with these people less than two decades earlier. “Sukiyaki”’s run at the “toppermost of the poppermost” was a testament both to Sakamoto’s talent and how far US-Japan relations had come in such a relatively short time. NASA even played an instrumental version over the radio for Gemini astronauts in 1965, making it one of the first pieces of music transmitted to humans in space. Even my father, born and raised in Milwaukee and who had absolutely no connection to Japan in any way, could still whistle it decades later. But truth be told, the impact of “Sukiyaki” on American music was fairly minimal. While everyone agreed it was a catchy tune, most wrote it off as a novelty hit.
It would be many years before another Sakamoto, Ryuichi Sakamoto, would truly put Japanese music on the map. More specifically his group, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO for short), co-founded in 1978 with bassist Haruomi Hosono and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi. And even more specifically, their smash “Behind the Mask,” released on the amazing, transformative electropop album Solid State Survivor the following year. The synth-heavy Solid State Survivor dropped on the cusp of the Bubble like a digitized premonition from the near-future. It opened with the robo-voiced syllables TO-KI-O, heralding a technopolis where everything would be as sexily synthesized as a liquid-chrome Hajime Sorayama painting. It helped that the album came out in the same year as another pivotal moment in musical culture, the release of the Sony Walkman. Wittingly or unwittingly, YMO delivered the perfect soundtrack for humanity’s migration into technologically-assisted personal entertainment spheres.
Solid State Survivor wasn’t anywhere nearly as successful in the States. None of its Japanese singles even charted there. Yet something interesting happened. One of its tracks, “Behind the Mask,” emerged as something of an industry sensation. The song’s title is said to be a nod to novelist Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, a thinly-veiled autobiography about a closeted gay teen that was edited by none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto’s father. But none of that angst comes across in the track itself, which is a relentlessly upbeat melody built around a pair of addictive synthesizer hooks with almost indecipherable robo-voice lyrics. Over the course of the Eighties and early Nineties, Michael Jackson, then Eric Clapton, and finally Human League would record covers of the song.
How did a track that never charted in the States make such waves there? It seems super-producer Quincy Jones heard it somehow and introduced it to Jackson. Then Jackson’s keyboard player, who also sessioned for Eric Clapton, introduced it to him. I asked my senpai from Japanology Plus, Peter Barakan, about this as he worked for YMO around the time. He recalled that they received a letter from Jackson’s lawyer, asking for permission to cover the song on a yet-unnamed Thriller, with Jackson penning new lyrics, and splitting the royalties. Sakamoto’s manager said they’d like to listen before making a decision, but then never heard back. The track apparently was recorded during the Thriller sessions, but wouldn’t see the light of day until after Jackson’s death.
Despite this promising start, Japanese pop music turned increasingly insular over the next two decades. Eccentric innovators like YMO continued to find fans abroad, but at home, they were replaced by carefully curated celebrity idols – proto boy-bands and girl-bands. The introduction of “communications karaoke,” the world’s first music-streaming system, in 1992 further accelerated this trend. It served up karaoke over specialized phone lines, tracking what was sung in realtime so that rights-holders could be compensated with royalties. But this also allowed “big data'' to be applied to pop music for the first time. As average singers naturally gravitated towards easier-to-sing tracks, this information fed back to the producers, who started greenlighting songs that average folk would be more likely to choose. This paved the way for the ouster of technicians and divas in favor of bands composed of boys/girls next door chosen not for their musical range, but ability to sound pretty much like anyone else.
Meanwhile, there’s the “jimusho” artist-management system (read David Marx’s excellent dive on that topic here, and his also-excellent newsletter here). Draconian, overzealous rights-holders conspired to keep nearly every aspect of mainstream J-pop artists’ oeuvres off the Internet, even down to imagery of band members. As a result, Japanese mainstream pop managed to entirely disappear from the eyes of foreign youth just as Korean bands were hitting their stride. This is one of many reasons why K-pop rather than J-pop dominates the global music scene today.
Of course, a few divas did make it through this great purge, like the great Namie Amuro and Hikaru Utada, but they’re the exception, not the rule. And over the ‘90s and Aughts, Japanese bands did continue to attract attention abroad: the kawaii-rockin’ Shonen Knife, and “Shibuya-kei” innovators like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius, just to name a very few. But none really captured the zeitgeist in their home country as YMO briefly had. YMO’s members parted amicably and went their separate ways in 1984. Sakamoto carved out a new reputation abroad as a craftsman of exquisite movie soundtracks: The Last Emperor in particular, for which he took home an Oscar in 1987.
So it was that Sakamoto emerged as one of Japan’s most famed musicians, but even still, knowledge of his work outside of film remained limited to music nerds. (There’s a great moment in the 2000 film High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character busts a group of music-loving miscreants for shoplifting Sakamoto albums from his store.)
I’ll always recall the one time I caught Sakamoto in concert, in Washington DC in the spring of 2000. He arrived in town with little fanfare. I only knew of his appearance from seeing his name in the “Upcoming Shows'' listing of the 9:30 Club’s weekly ad in the Washington City Paper. By this time he was a legend, winner of Oscars and Grammys and Golden Globes and the rest of it – yet he wasn’t playing an arena, but a grungy club, and a near-empty one at that; there couldn’t have been more than a few dozen of us there, and most of them were Japanese expats. Unruffled, Sakamoto played a song or two, then started calling out for requests. He played them in turn, like he was some piano man rather than one of the world’s top composers, and we all had a blast.
In a sense we are all solid state survivors. I still dream of the techno-pop utopia that YMO portayed in sound at the dawn the 80s, holographic skylines etched in silicon, ringed in chrome and neon, shimmering in the distance behind as we hurtle inexorably into far less enticing realms. Now that Sakamoto is gone, that future-that-never-was glows a little less brightly. He will be missed.