Ryuichi Sakamoto on surviving cancer, the death of close friend David Bowie, and his last wish

The Oscar-winning Japanese composer and actor hasn’t allowed illness or grief to diminish his commitment to work – in fact, the quest for perfection continues to drive him forward

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 1:01pm

Before he dies, the Oscar-winning Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto wants to do just one thing: “To record the perfect album. That is my dearest wish.”

The actor-musician burst onto the international scene with his soundtrack for the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which he also played a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp commandant opposite his friend David Bowie. The rock legend’s death earlier this year shook Sakamoto badly, having only just survived throat cancer himself.

“It left me in shock for a long time,” Sakamoto says in a low, barely audible voice. “It took me more than a month and a half to accept the reality of his death. I couldn’t believe it.”

What Bowie read: a rock’n’roll polymath’s eclectic reading

Bowie died on the same day as the Golden Globe awards, in which Sakamoto had been nominated for his score for The Revenant, marking his comeback from cancer. Exhausted by his illness, the pianist had toiled for months on the soundtrack.

“I worked on the music for six long months. Normally it would take me two months maximum. Sometimes four weeks is enough. But it was terribly difficult,” he adds.

“It was just after my treatment, and I wasn’t back on my feet. My morale wasn’t the best and it wasn’t an ideal situation,” says the 64-year-old, a pioneer of synth pop, techno and house music genres.

But his love of nature and working on an installation with his friend and long-time collaborator, the artist Shiro Takatani, for The Great Animal Orchestra exhibition in Paris helped put him back on his feet.

“It’s a choreography of tiny [aquatic] creatures,” he says. “I’m just delighted to be living, to be able to have a simple conversation, to feel a ray of sunlight on my skin and listen to the breeze move through the leaves of a tree.”

The work is on show at the Fondation Cartier until January next year.

A huge star in his native Japan, like Bowie he has lived in New York for years. But Sakamoto still misses “the beautiful facets of Japanese culture” and particularly Kyoto, the most traditional of Japanese cities.

Working with Takatani – who lives there – helps bridge the gap. The pair have been collaborating for nearly two decades on works like Garden Live (2007) in the Daitoku-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto, and on Forest Symphony in 2013.

Sakamoto – who won his Oscar for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987, in which he also acted – says composing for an art installation is “completely different than for a disc, a concert or a film”.

While he was working on The Revenant for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, he was also preparing another score for Nagasaki: Memories of My Son by the veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada.

And he has done another soundtrack since then, for the Japanese-Korean Lee Sang-il’s Anger, which comes out later this year. But it is his own music which is preoccupying Sakamoto now.

Having gone seven years without making an album, he says “it is time to bring out another”.

“I hope to record the perfect album, my masterpiece before I die. That is my dearest wish, and I am working on it.”