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5 Songs from Ryuichi Sakamoto that Impacted Japanese Culture

Revisit the late composer's best-known works and discover what made him so beloved in his native country.

By 4 min read

The world lost an incredible musician last month. Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away from cancer on March 28. Astonishingly prolific, he left a massive body of work behind that spans more than four decades, including everything from synth-pop and dance music to film scores and avant-garde classical works.

Although Sakamoto preferred to be known as a “world citizen” (to paraphrase his song with vocalist David Sylvian) and lived in New York City since 1990, he was loved in his home country of Japan.

While much has been said about his international activities, such as his Oscar-winning soundtrack for The Last Emperor and scoring the opening ceremony for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, his cultural impact in Japan is less widely known.

Here are five pieces of music Sakamoto created that influenced Japan.

1. “Kimi ni Mune Kyun”

Ryuichi Sakamoto first made his name as a member of the band Yellow Magic Orchestra, which also featured legend Haruomi Hosono and the late Yukihiro Takahashi. With a focus on synthesizers and drum machines, they blazed a trail for electronic music. They were particularly popular in Japan, establishing a new genre of music, techno-pop.

Although they started as a largely instrumental affair, 1983’s Naughty Boys album saw vocals pushed to the front of the mix. “Kimi ni Mune Kyun,” a single from the album, was a massive domestic hit, turning them into household names and Sakamoto into an idol-like pin-up star.

The band broke up the following year but would continue to get back together for reunion albums and tours until the 2010s. “Kimi Ni Mune Kyun” remains a popular song in Japan and has been covered many times.

2. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

The same year as Naughty Boys, Sakamoto would take a job scoring (and appearing in) the Japanese film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Directed by Japanese New Wave veteran Nagisa Oshima and starring David Bowie and Beat Takeshi, it was popular worldwide, with Akira Kurosawa and Christopher Nolan proclaiming it as among their favorite movies.

Part of the charm of the film is Sakamoto’s dreamlike soundtrack, whose theme song has become ingrained into the Japanese collective unconscious. Most Japanese people will instantly recognize the melody even if they have never seen the movie.

The score won a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music, catapulted Sakamoto into the international limelight, and ushered in a new phase of his career by scoring major motion pictures, which he continued doing until his death.

3. Sega Dreamcast Startup Screen

Although Sakamoto studied classical composition at a conservatory and was as comfortable writing a fugue as he was an atonal neo-classical work (something that caused his YMO bandmates to jokingly call him “Professor”), he was also fascinated by the music of everyday life: elevator music, urban beeps and whistles, corporate jingles.

At the same time that he was writing Oscar-winning film scores, he was also composing music for commercials for Pampers diapersNokia ringtones and video games. One of his most heard sounds from this time was the startup screen music for the Sega Dreamcast console, although most people probably don’t even realize it. Classic Sakamoto, the short tune captures a mysterious and unspecified emotion.

4. “Energy Flow”

By the late ’90s, Sakamoto had moved away from pop music and was embracing the piano, an instrument he would return to again and again. Emblematic of this new music focus was BTTB, a 1999 classical album for solo piano. Standing for Back To The Basics, the album saw him reworking some of his best-known songs and composing new ones.

Never one to distinguish between high and low, Sakamoto debuted the similarly solo piano piece “Energy Flow” in a commercial for Sankyo Pharmaceutical’s Regain EB Tablets the same year. When it appeared on an EP, Ura BTTB, it went to number one on the Oricon weekly single chart, the first instrumental song to do so. The song was included on the international version of BTTB and in later re-releases.

Naturally, this brought him new fame in Japan, with housewives and grandmas now counted among his biggest fans.

5. “Zure”

On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s Tohoku region, killing almost 20,000 people. Ryuichi Sakamoto subsequently made several trips to Japan, working with local schools to help repair and replace instruments that had been damaged in the disaster.

One of those instruments, a piano recovered in a school gymnasium in Miyagi Prefecture, made its way onto recordings for 2017’s album, Async.

Elegiac and sorrowful, the album was recorded after Sakamoto’s initial cancer diagnosis in 2014. Facing his own possible end and thinking about those lost in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the album meditates on what it means to be mortal. “Zure,” a song from the album, features the badly out-of-tune piano recovered in Miyagi.

Sakamoto refused to tune it, wanting its natural state to contribute to the piece’s emotion. In a documentary about the piano for NHK, Sakamoto said, “Here we had modern civilization, our science, our technology. But everything is so fragile. I should have known that.”

How did Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music affect you? Let us know in the comments.

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