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Ryuichi Sakamoto Smithereens Milan Music

Black Mirror may have jumped the shark years ago, walking into a state of unknowing self-parody, but Ryuichi Sakamoto – having racked up some 41 years making music by this point – has taken a very different path to Netflix’s stilted flagship.

Whether it’s as part of pioneering 80s synth pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra, working with glitch king Alva Noto, soundtracking films, or simply creating music truly of his own, the Japanese maestro has not so much carved out his niche over four decades as he has created and thoroughly expanded one.

With some of Sakamoto’s most well-known works being his many film soundtracks – even those who don’t think they know Sakamoto know the haunting piano refrain of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence – and his last solo album, 2017’s async, essentially a study of his own experiences with the finite nature of life, it’s perhaps no surprise that Netflix came calling for Black Mirror.

Smithereens, the second episode of the show’s fifth season, is a Black Mirror classic. It’s a dark, brooding, often funny attack on the evils of social media and a nod to the plight of overworked rideshare drivers – the kind of reductive, loosely relatable politics that has come to define the Black Mirror narrative. Having Ryuichi Sakamoto onboard doesn’t necessarily change this, but it does vastly improve it. There is an elegance to everything that Sakamoto does, a particular lightness of touch, something you could argue Black Mirror has been lacking in recent times.

The opener, Meditation App, is notable for this subtlety above anything else. Its sprawling, floatation tank-like soundscape is not so much a sonic void to stare into, but more an all-encompassing feeling of emptiness. It’s a reflection of the conflicting nature of omnipresent technology; how it coddles and asphyxiates simultaneously, both a warm hug and a chokehold.

Sakamoto, in his total lack of cynicism, finds beauty in the mundanity of repetition and release. Rather than being a critique, it is the perfect guided meditation. One where he simply looks on, a stoic smile spread across his face, as if to say “yes, it is whatever you feel – let go and go with it.” It’s as perfect an opener for an episode of Black Mirror you’re likely to get, as it lulls viewers into a false sense of security; welcoming them rather than putting them immediately on edge, waiting for the (inevitable) twist.

The rest of Sakamoto’s soundtrack is perhaps less subversive and more functional, providing apt accompaniment to the unfolding social media psychodrama. This is the type of glittering darkness that Sakamoto can so effortlessly create, and with his pulsing synthesisers and distant twinkles and trills, he’s produced one of the most fully enveloping soundtracks of recent memory.

Sakamoto’s way of writing has a serenity to it which can’t be forced. An acceptance of life as fleeting, filled with potential struggle, yet ultimately a thing of extreme beauty. This, of course, is more unsettling than any attempt at synth-laden edginess could ever be. Sakamoto, in a sense, is more Black Mirror than Black Mirror itself.