Ryuichi Sakamoto
"We are destroying the world."

There's a scene in the documentary Coda, based on the life of pioneering Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, where plagued by the weight of his throat cancer, he questions his ability to go on scoring the soundtrack to the Academy Award Nominated film The Revenant. It's a haunting reflection of how art can sometimes mirror one's own life.

It could pass as a good analogy for the way Ryuichi sees the world; he describes artists as canaries in the coal mine, with the idea that they are highly attuned to the pertinent issues of our time.

Ryuchi does this by speaking two languages. One through his powerfully sensitive music, and the other through using his voice to talk about humankind’s catastrophic influence on its environment.
His rattled conscience is something you see a lot of in this film. If he is not surveying the damage from the Fukushima nuclear reactor then he’s heading on a ship to Antarctica to witness the fragility of its ecosystem firsthand.

One of the most profound pioneers in music, he starts this discussion by lamenting the passing of one of his late contemporaries and at one point acting partners, David Bowie.

[On Bowie]

I kind of lost contact with him for some time in the 90s. I knew that he was living in New York and I thought that we would meet somewhere in a restaurant or on the street, so I didn’t make too much effort. And then he passed. So I have a big regret of course. I couldn’t believe his passing because I loved his last album. Two days before he passed, it sounded very vital. It was full of energy.  

Like a last push of energy.

Yeah, but we didn’t know it was his last. The album sounded full of energy and full of hope for the future. It didn’t sound like a last will.

And do you relate to this? Without sounding insensitive, you’ve been through something similar.

Almost at the same time, I was diagnosed. Of course, I feel very close to the situation he was in. Of course, I was very lucky. I recovered, but he didn’t. It’s just a difference in luck.

How do you feel about reverence?  People like David Bowie or Lou Reed, many of these people get to a certain point where they feel the weight of their energy; they know they mean something. Do you also identify with this?

Well since my background is of a traditional Asian culture, I’m not like that. It also has to do with my interest in Buddhism. I have been thinking about nothingness for a long time. Nothingness is the key philosophy of Buddhism. Ego is nothing. Sight is nothing.

I’m interested in indigenous cultures all around the world. Aboriginals, Native Americans, Ainu people in Japan. Their lifestyle is very familiar to me, so I’m not like a Westerner with a big ego.

When you take your work to cities around the world, when you show who you are through your music and your art and your creativity, do you have a message you bring with you?

The message is something only the individual listener or viewer knows because I’m not giving a political or social message through my music.

"Looking at my younger self in the film, I wanted to punch him. He had too much ego, too much desire, too much of everything."

No? I think there are political messages throughout your work.

Well, I use my words to do that, but with my music, I don’t put my messages in. In the foundations, I am the same human being so it’s there, but what I’m saying through my music is separate. Music should stand by itself. It’s not a tool to communicate my social and political messages. That’s my belief.

Did you watch the documentary?

Yes. Well, it’s not my documentary.

When did you first see it?

A year ago.

What did you think when you first saw it, looking back on yourself as a young man?

Looking at my younger self in the film, I wanted to punch him. He had too much ego, too much desire, too much of everything.

What an interesting life you have had. The fact that you almost stumbled into soundtracks by coincidence. But I couldn’t help notice there is a melancholia to your life and music. Would you agree?

Yeah, it’s always there in my music.

And for you?

I think so.

Where does this come from?

Well, the sadness comes from my concern about life. From the early 90s, I knew that the world would become disastrous with environmental problems. I decided to speak out about that in the late 90s and a lot of fans thought I was mad.

I am a huge fan of Bach and back when he was making music the world was full of sadness and tragedy. People only lived to a maximum of 50 years old. At the time people expected God to save them but he didn’t, he never came. So that was a motivation for Bach to write such sad music and for me as well.

Coincidentally one of the projects that was featured in the documentary was Opera LIFE that centred around the devastating usage of the nuclear bomb.

We interviewed the scientist  Freeman Dyson recently, who was one of the last remaining scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. He talked about the legacy that Oppenheimer and Bohr left and the hard choices they had to make. Oppenheimer’s famous words being – “I am a destroyer of worlds.”

I understand the background of the people behind that. They were trying to stop Nazis from developing the nuclear bomb. But after the Nazis were eliminated, they wanted to stop development, but they were not taken seriously.

Still, instead of dropping the real bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki they presented other ideas to the military like dropping a bomb onto mount Fuji to destroy the shape. People were worshipping Mount Fuji as a holy mountain so by destroying the shape, you could ruin the identity of the Japanese people. That was one of the scientists’ ideas, instead of killing real citizens.

But at the very moment Oppenheimer witnessed the use of the nuclear bomb he regretted it.

One of the things that was contrasting in the movie was the fact that at the same time that you were visiting Fukushima, a destroyed nuclear reactor, you were having radiation therapy. Nuclear energy can help you and it can also destroy you. What do you think of this strange contrast?

Of course, I thought about that, and there was an option not to choose that treatment. I thought about not choosing the Western medicine treatment. I was thinking of many many other treatments but in the end I wanted to live a little bit longer, and that was to me the natural decision.

But there’s a slight bit of humour in this.

Of course. Irony.

"In the music world age doesn’t mean anything."

I also think it’s fascinating how you see nature. When you went to visit Fukushima, you said “a tsunami acts almost as a state of restoration, trying to get back to its original state”.
So we think we’re important but in reality, nature is trying to assert itself all the time. What do you think about this?

Well, that’s related to the sadness we talked about. Honestly, I think my belief is that homo sapiens should be gone. We are destroying the world, not with nuclear bombs, but with our activities. We are like a cancer for this planet and for other species. 

But it’s obvious we’re going through a paradigm shift at the moment. Something is happening.

I hope it’s not too late. I mean there are still some small pockets of hope everywhere but the power of money destroys so quickly. The earth has lasted roughly 4.5 billion years, and during that time some things appear and then they are gone, like dinosaurs. So it’s OK if humans are here or if they’re not. But we’re killing most of our ecosystem so I’m very sad about that. 

Let’s talk a little bit about music.  If you were to have a soundtrack for your life, what would it be?

My life as a film?

As a film, but as an idea. You’ve created music for wonderful films but is there a soundtrack that you like, that you think would accompany your life?

It’s not fair to present someone’s whole life with just one piece of music. People’s lives are much more complicated than just one piece of music.

You know some people say, “at my funeral, I want this song played,” – is there a soundtrack that you go back to that you love and that somehow characterizes you as a person?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the music of Bach. St Matthew Passion. But maybe that’s too melancholy because I’m kind of a funny person. So maybe that’s too heavy.

Your role in the emergence of hip-hop, electronica and techno is so vital. Some of my favourite artists can trace a thread back to you in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and I wonder as an influencer, what do you think of your role in affecting all of these artists? Everyone from Air to Africa Bambaataa?  

Well in the music world age doesn’t mean anything. So I can share the same feeling with other generations, young or old. It’s timeless. That’s real happiness to me. I started earlier and I influenced them but we can share the same language and that’s true happiness.

Do you listen to modern music?

Yes, I like Oneohtrix Point NeverWe are 30 years apart, but we can talk about the same music. So that’s true happiness for me.

My last question for you is, do you have one quotation that you connect with? Maybe not “I am destroyer of worlds”.

[laughing] I don’t want to be a destroyer of worlds. But the quote I like is, “less is more”. 

All original images by Phil Sharp.