"After all this time, I feel like I'm covering new ground," Ryuichi Sakamoto told viewers. He was performing "Playing The Piano 2022," which was live-streamed internationally on December 11.
Sakamoto was shown playing solo piano in NHK's legendary 509 Studio in Shibuya, Tokyo, which he described as "the best studio in Japan."
When he announced the event, Sakamoto explained: "I no longer have the energy to do live concerts. This might be the last time that you will see me perform in this manner."
I have seen many live shows by Sakamoto over the years and I am sad that he has not booked any more tour dates. However, I felt privileged to watch him up close in this intimate film directed by Neo Sora, shot in rich monochrome. If this proves to be his finale, it was a graceful and memorable way to say farewell.
The show began with a version of the theme for the 1993 film Little Buddha, which starred Keanu Reeves. It was one of several pieces of cinematic music which were originally orchestral but for this show were rearranged for solo piano.
The first part of the set had a particularly melancholic feel. Viewers could only see Sakamato's face through the shadows. His hands were lit by an anglepoise lamp, as he played the keyboard of a Yamaha grand piano.
After a while, the lights began to shine a little brighter. The musician's features became clearer — especially his thick white hair and owlish round spectacles.
The performance lasted an hour but this was not actually a live show. Instead, it consisted of footage of Sakamoto performing a few pieces of music each day over a week. The songs were then thoughtfully edited together to create a coherent whole.
For this special gig, Sakamoto chose to focus on the more melodic end of his repertoire, rather than the avante-garde work which has been the focus of his bold artistic experiments in recent years.
For me, one of the highlights was a stripped-back piano version of a track called Tong Poo, which means Eastern Wind in Chinese. I recognized it from the 1978 debut album by Yellow Magic Orchestra — also known as YMO.
YMO split in 1983 and did not reunite for another ten years, when they drew over 100,000 people to shows in Tokyo. Another reunion tour in 2011 included gigs at The Hollywood Bowl and the Fuji Rock Festival. The band has not performed together since, although the members remain friends.
Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014.
According to his friend Masafumi Suzuki, the Editor of GQ Japan magazine, the musician has undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that had spread to both lungs. Over the past two years, he has had six operations and Suzuki says "the damage is very severe."
Throughout this period of illness, Sakamoto has continued to work on his music. In the show streamed from Shibuya, he included a recent composition — a melody called Sarabande written in 2022. It will be a part of his forthcoming album entitled 12, which will be released on January 17, 2023, his 71 birthday.
He has said about the album: "After a big operation in 2021, I recorded sketches of sounds as if to keep a diary. I chose twelve of my favorite pieces for this album. I'm intentionally putting them out 'as is', to present my raw and current sounds."
I have long been impressed by Sakamoto's ability to make music in a wide variety of styles. I recall shows he did in 2001, made up almost entirely of Brazilian bossa nova. His pursuit of this lush, romantic sound from South America was a disconcerting development, following his decision to play games with drum'n'bass and electronica in the late 1990s.
Big Screen Achievements
Sakamoto's dedicated fans admire all his work.
Nevertheless, the reason most people love him is the music he wrote for films. During the Tokyo live stream, he included melodies that originally appeared in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and The Last Emperor (1987). He also played a new solo piano arrangement of the theme to The Sheltering Sky (1990), which was originally recorded in Abbey Road Studios in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
To finish the live-streamed gig, Sakamoto performed Opus, one of his most cherished pieces, which has finished most of his shows since its release in 1999. Its lullaby-like tune is familiar to almost everybody in Japan.
Sakamoto did not comment on his choice of songs during the show, allowing the music to flow seamlessly. In the spring of 2020 - during the COVID-19 pandemic - he sent a message of encouragement via GQ magazine.
He said: "As a person involved in culture, my one source of hope is the fact that art, music, and poetry never once stopped over the 200,000 years of history that homo sapiens have been around."
His musical curiosity has also been a constant spring of creativity for more than four decades. I feel fortunate to have seen him again.
However, I share a regret with the tens of thousands of fans who watched this solo piano show online. The gig ended in silence, so there was no opportunity for us to express our joy by way of cheers and applause.
I trust that Sakamoto will recognize our silent appreciation for his achievements.
- Young Pianists from Japan and South Korea Share Top Prize at French Music Competition
- One Musician's Passion to Achieve the Ideal Sound
- ‘Head, Heart and Hands’: Praemium Imperiale Laureate Yo-Yo Ma on Inspirations in his Music
Author: Duncan Bartlett
Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward. You can read his other articles and essays here.