Where there is contemporary music there is Ryuichi Sakamoto. With an oeuvre extending across genres, from synth-pop and hip-hop to post-classical and jazz, the Japanese musician’s work with influential trio Yellow Magic Orchestra brought experimental music to a mass audience, while Riot in Lagos, from 1980 album B-2 Unit, paved the way for a new generation of electro and hip-hop music.

It is perhaps no surprise that his portfolio also includes an array of diverse and award-winning film soundtracks. Between Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, The Last Emperor and Sheltering Sky, he has demonstrated an expansive knowledge of musical styles and genres – and the audacity and sensitivity required to heighten visual storytelling at its most epic.

But lately, the 65-year-old’s music has turned inwards. Following his throat cancer in 2014, Sakamoto is in remission, but shows no signs of slowing down professionally. His recent album async follows a personal narrative on his experiences of illness and ageing – themes that can also be detected in his 2015 soundtrack for The Revenant.

Indeed, it’s this ability to evoke mood, emotion, time and place that invests Sakamoto’s film scores with a certain timelessness – just look at how his compositions are drawn from again and again by music supervisors for cinema and TV. Here, in an act of celebration, we attempt to break down the themes and styles implicit in his music for film.

East Meets West

Like his work for synth-pop outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra, which cheerfully blended together “oriental” rhythms with Western influences like German synth pioneers Kraftwerk and 1980s poptimism, Sakamoto’s scores often combine asian melodies with Western harmonies.

Scores for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) and The Last Emperor (1987) evokes the orientalism of Debussy – who Sakamoto once called “the door to all 20th-century music” – with the repetitive hooks in pop music. “Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me,” the composer has said in the past. “So the music goes around the world and comes full circle.”

The title track Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, for example, is centred on a single refrain, which is juxtaposed with traditional asian percussion on drums and synths.

A lesser-known example is the track Laserman from 1989 Ridley Scott film Black Rain which follows two New York cops and a Yakuza member to 80s Japan. Here, Sakamoto plays with fetishised notions of Asia by interplaying a Western bassline with what sounds like a bamboo flute.

Techno-optimism

As mentioned earlier, Yellow Magic Orchestra paved the way for a utopian vision of technology, made using mechanical beats and giant modular synthesisers.

Although this “optimism” does not translate entirely to Sakamoto’s later film scores, the futuristic sounds of his earlier projects can be heard in The Wings of Honnêamise, a 1987 anime feature directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga.

Much of the film’s industrial-tempo and the computer-generated synth soundtrack is typical of Sakamoto’s early techno-optimism. Typical of the era’s fascination with sci-fi and the popularity of B-movies, the 80s bassline and funk melody channels the excitement and anticipation of technological advancement.

Grand Voyages

From three-hour Oscar-bait epic The Revenant and The Last Emperor, which follows the end of the Qing Dynasty in China, to The Sheltering Sky, shot in the Sahara Desert, Sakamoto’s movie scores accompany monumental journeys.

In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper fights for survival in the uncharted wilderness of America. Here, Sakamoto (alongside Chemnitz-born electronic composer Alva Noto) translate the vast landscapes and wilderness using a handful of strings and ebbing synths.

Meanwhile, the track Endroll from The Last Emperor uses fluid cello transitions to convey depth and mourning while the traditional zither carries a separate melody that transitions from minor to major in a repeated refrain that captures magnificently the lifetime and grandiose journey of the subject title.

Universality

Sakamoto’s ability to tap into universal emotions like love, happiness, sadness and anger is ultimately the common theme in all his film scores – and is what makes them so successful.

His song Germination used in this year’s Oscar-nominated film Call Me by Your Name by Italian director Luca Guadagnino is from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The film also features a piano version of M.A.Y. in the Backyard from his 1984 album Illustrated Musical Encyclopaedia. Both tracks are stripped down to their acoustic essentials to evoke the neoclassical mood which the film takes place. Solo piano is used to conjure feelings of young excitement and flirtation – themes that are explored by the teenage protagonist Elio.

The Human Condition

There’s an elegant track called Trust on the score for Rage, a 2017 film by Japanese director Lee Sang-il. The centrepiece is a single piano that calls and responds in a drawn-out, slow melody. While it is not suggested explicitly, the boundaries between life and death are central themes in Sakamoto scores and are often expressed in the spacious sounds of synths or the resonant plink of a piano key.

Bibo no Aozora, from the score for Babel (2006) by director Alejandro González Ińárritu, uses slight variations on cello to evoke feelings of transience, though the tempo remains constant. The familiarity of the tune, through its variations, offers continuity and reminds the listener that time is always passing.

Later, the cello morphs into classical guitar, marking a transition in the melody and another phase in the song’s lifetime. The track ends with a sparse melody that fades out – the result is profoundly contemplative.

Nature

The conflict between human and nature in Sakamoto’s soundtracks reminds us that nature is unflinching. The musician, who is based in New York and Tokyo, has spoken openly about the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 and how it has informed his later work.

In The Revenant, Sakamoto’s score is in tune with nature, invoking the simplicity and clarity of the natural world. In the primordial setting of the film, his music does not mimic DiCaprio’s desperation as he crosses over frozen river and sleeps in animal carcasses; but presents nature as something that is physical and transient yet omnipresent.

On Killing Hawk, the brief cello strokes are blended against one another into a disintegration loop. Like nature, it is a dispassionate reflection of the events on screen – organically in tune with the world.

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