Inside the Mind of the Legendary Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto

Reflections on Life, Music, and Death from How Many More Times Will I Watch the Full Moon Rise?

In the previous article, I shared my reflections on the passing of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the legendary composer, producer, and artist. Despite knowing his time was limited, Sakamoto dedicated himself to his art until his final breath. His journey reminds us that a meaningful life doesn't have to be long, and that finding the work we love is essential to achieve fulfillment.

In this article, I extracted some intriguing pieces from "How Many More Times Will I Watch the Full Moon Rise?", his final memoir. Because there's no English version of the book yet, I have translated some excerpts myself with help from our dear friend ChatGPT.

I've sorted these notes into three parts:

  • Random insights into life and work
  • Philosophy and Sakamoto's Music
  • Gazing into death

But first, here's a playlist from a story you can listen to along with this article.

A playlist curated for a restaurant because their music sucks.

Although Ryuichi Sakamoto loves a Japanese Restaurant named Kokage in New York City, he once mentioned:

"One time when I was dining at 'Kokage', I couldn't help but notice their background music. The playlist was a mix of Brazilian pop and jazz that sounded like Miles Davis—quite mediocre and annoying. After noticing this, the more I listened, the more it took away from the experience and became unbearable."

"After returning home, knowing that it was rude, I still sent an email to the head chef of the restaurant: 'Your dishes are as beautiful as Katsura Imperial Villa, but the music in the restaurant is like Trump Tower.' I then said that I would help them select the music."

You can listen to the Kokage Restaurants playlist Sakamoto curated on YouTube and Spotify. Unfortunately, Kokage permanently closed in 2022.

Random insights into life and work

They treated my music like the cheap stuff they play in dental offices.

Sakamoto hates being called "the guru of therapeutic music":

"It infuriated me when my song "Energy Flow" (1999) was used as background music for an advertisement and was praised as "therapeutic music". They treated my music like the cheap stuff they play in dental offices."

"I also avoid the words praising me as "the guru of therapeutic music." Because of this, I have always resisted the term "therapeutic" and swore never to use it myself."

"However, after more than a decade, the gentle breezes of Hawaii comforting me when I’m sick made me reconsider—maybe this is what "therapeutic" truly means."

Why did he stop playing "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence", and why did he change?

Sakamoto on why he stopped playing "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" in concerts and what makes him start playing it again:

"Why do I still want to write music that transcends "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"? Of course, this piece is well-known to the public and is my representative work, but I am actually very tired of this public image. Therefore, I have not performed this piece in concerts for about ten years. Wherever in the world, I feel annoyed when people ask me, Why don't you play Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence?"

"So, why did I start performing it again? The reason was that in 2010 when I was in Japan, I attended a concert by Carole King and James Taylor at the Budokan. Including me, all the audience naturally hoped to hear Carole King's hit "You've Got a Friend". But that day, they seemed to deliberately keep the audience waiting, not performing it until the very end. I waited until the last moment. And when they finally performed this song, I felt so glad to hear it live."

"Even though there were more songs in the encore, I happily went home after hearing that. Even I, who was so stubbornly insistent on not playing "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence", felt uneasy when other artists didn't perform their signature songs in their shows. At that moment, I could accept those who came to Ryuichi Sakamoto's concerts just to hear "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"; their presence also could not be erased."

He later changed his mindset from breaking the frame of "Ryuichi Sakamoto equals Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence".

"Of course, I still reject being introduced with clichés like "Ryuichi Sakamoto, known for 'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence'." Until a certain period, I was desperate to destroy this established image, but now my mindset has changed. It's not worth wasting precious energy on this."

"I don't live to change others' perceptions; isn't it enough just to continue quietly creating the music I want to make? Although the last piece may not necessarily be good work, I don't want to lock my lifelong goal on breaking the frame of "Ryuichi Sakamoto equals 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'". It would be too foolish to spend the remaining time achieving this goal. This is my true feeling now after various changes in thinking."

He stood up the whole class as a guest lecturer because he drank until the morning.

He told a story about how he hates teaching and how annoying he can be.

"I realized that I am not suitable for teaching, and I really hate my time being restricted by others. So I found all sorts of reasons to avoid teaching."

"When I was younger, Yoshiaki Tono from Tama Art University once invited me to his class as a guest lecturer. However, right before the class, I drank the whole night until that morning. Because I thought going to University was too troublesome, I directly stood him and the whole class up. This is how annoying I am."

Insecure of lacking a signature artistic style

Though once insecure about not having a signature style, Sakamoto realized it's okay because that's who he is:

"I've always made albums based on my current mood, or put another way, each work is quite scattered in its purpose, lacking a consistent artistic theme".

"I've always felt somewhat insecure about this because I lack a signature style. For example, when you listen to any album by Tatsuro Yamashita or Brian Eno, you can feel their signature style. But I've figured out that I'm just different from them. I always only do things I love, and there's really nothing I can do about it."

Rehearsal at home is meaningless. Real practice is in the performance.

Sakamoto thinks real practice occurs in the performance, not in rehearsal:

"I've always hated practicing the piano. I have a theory that the real practice is in the formal performance in front of an audience. I'm not boasting, but I rarely rehearse."

"This theory holds for other musicians as well. Musicians, who originally thought to perform very well, often reduce their public appearances for various reasons. Sadly, they can lose their luster after a few years because of fewer public appearances."

"It's the same with actors. Only by showing their acting skills in front of people can they demonstrate professional standards. No matter how much one rehearses at home, it is meaningless."

Philosophy and Sakamoto's Music

Music comes out of noise.

In his "Out Of Noise", Sakamoto tries to learn from how children play in a sandbox.

"The title "Out Of Noise" omits the first half; for me, the full name of this project is "Music comes out of noise," However, this isn't like Michelangelo, who saw David in a block of marble the moment he saw it. For me, it's more like playing with sand."

"When children play in a sandbox at the park, they don't necessarily think about creating something specific. They simply pile up the sand, sometimes making a bridge or a castle, without any prior design. In "Out Of Noise", I also hope the final product resembles music that emerges while listening to noise."

"During the era when TV was still broadcast in analog, snow noise was broadcast late at night after all the day's programs were over. Accompanied by a sharp "shhh" sound, I once stared at that snowy screen while completely drunk and inexplicably saw images and music within it. Perhaps that's something similar to what's in Out Of Noise."

How can we transcend Logos and come closer to Physis?

When making his 14th solo album, async (2017), he talked about Logos and Physis.

"It's probably due to the nature of the human brain. When we see stars in the night sky, we connect those bright points to form constellations. In reality, those stars are tens of thousands of light-years apart, yet we perceive them as being on the same surface." 1

"Similarly, if we were to place a dot on a white canvas and then place a second dot, our minds would instinctively connect the two dots with a straight line. If we add a third dot, we would connect them to form a triangle. This also applies to music. For instance, in the theme song of "The Revenant", as soon as we hear the first two notes, we feel that there's some inherent meaning in them." 2

"According to Shin-Ichi Fukuoka's view, this characteristic of the human brain to connect stars in the night sky is what we call Logos, or reason. Its counterpart, the actual state of the stars, is known as Physis. This term is the root of "Physics" and means "nature." Since a certain point in time, whenever Fukuoka and I are together, our conversation inevitably turns to: how can we humans transcend Logos and come closer to Physis?"

Everything is interconnected, but language divides them with boundaries.

Sakamoto often ponders on how language divides the interconnected world.

"Looking back at the function of human language, it assigns frameworks even to things that don't have a physical form. When we hear the word "mist", we feel as if we can see it. When we hear "emptiness", it's as if we can sense it."

"Everything in the natural world is inherently interconnected, but language divides them with boundaries. Of course, this isn't entirely without benefits. However, as I've grown older, I've started to think that this might be the root of all human errors."

Gazing into death

The following are some notes I had from reading the afterword written by Masafumi Suzuki, the editor of the book who interviewed Sakamoto in his final days.

The last sushi from Araki.

Sakamoto once said, "I want to eat Araki's sushi one more time before I die." Chef Mitsuhiro Araki contacted him and said, "If Sakamoto can still eat, I want to make sushi for him." Just for Sakamoto, Araki temporarily borrowed the kitchen and prepared sushi for him on January 30. Sakamoto said, "Make a little less," and ate all the dishes. It was the last time Sakamoto ate out.

I'm sorry, Yukihiro. I have to keep going.

Just after the New Year, on January 2, Sakamoto contracted pneumonia. Moreover, he found out on New Year's Eve that his long-time friend from the Yellow Magic Orchestra era, Yukihiro Takahashi, was seriously ill with pneumonia. "I wonder who will go first..." Sakamoto murmured at the time. On January 11, when Sakamoto first heard of Yukihiro's death, he reportedly said, "I'm sorry, Yukihiro. I have to keep going."

Bertolucci's joyful final days with wine and marijuana.

Sakamoto said goodbye to his close friend, Bernardo Bertolucci, in November 2018. After stopping life-sustaining treatment, Bertolucci spent the last month of his life at home while drinking red wine and enjoying medical marijuana with his friends all day. His widow Claire told Sakamoto, "He laughed as if he had never laughed like that in his life, and he passed away joyfully." Sakamoto thinks he must have been very happy in his final moments.

More artists' final moments.

Sakamoto mentioned two other stories regarding how some artists approach their end of life.

In November 1995, 70-year-old Gilles Deleuze, who had suffered from asthma for years and relied on an oxygen machine, decided to end his life because his body could no longer function. He jumped out of the window of his Paris apartment.

In September 2022, 91-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, who had suffered from multiple disabling pathologies, took his life by assisted suicide with Exit. His wife and friends said to him by his side, "Bon voyage". Godard responded, "Thank you all for allowing me to reach such an end in life", and took the lethal medication and his final breath.

Sakamoto's final days and funeral playlist.

On March 25, Sakamoto himself requested to enter palliative care. That morning, Sakamoto shook hands with his doctors to express his gratitude: "I truly received a lot of care from all of you." And with a calm tone, he said, "I hope the treatment ends here. Thank you all."

After that, Sakamoto finalized the funeral playlist, the list of songs to be played at his funeral when that moment arrives. He listened to each song on the playlist and removed some songs he thought were unsuitable. His dedication and will to music remains unyielding.

And that's all the pieces I gathered from the book. For more about Sakamoto's reflection on life, music-making, and social activism of his final decade, read his memoir "How Many More Times Will I Watch the Full Moon Rise" (我還能再看到幾次滿月? / ぼくはあと何回、満月を見るだろう)

Thank you, Ryuichi Sakamoto.


坂本龍一氏 by chiaki hayashi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

And thanks for reading.

  1. ^

    This reminds me of Motion Parallax, where you can make animation just by moving lots of white dots at different speeds.

  2. ^

    This function of our brain automatically connecting dots to derive meaning is also shown in the Kuleshov Effect, where viewers of videos derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation.

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