Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ryuichi Sakamoto + YMO

Twenty-seven years ago Ryuichi Sakamoto made his not-quite-so-thrilling acting debut in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, opposite David Bowie, Tom Conti and Jack Thompson. He also composed the soundtrack.

We’re not here now to talk dramatics, since Sakamoto let his acting career slide. It’s the man’s music, including many more film scores, that has continued to flourish.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was actually the first movie for which I created music,” Sakamoto is quick to point out. “I’ve liked movies since I was a kid, but I never imagined I’d compose music for them.”

Well before techno and house music, there was Yellow Magic Orchestra - a Japanese trio subsequently cited in the same sentence as ‘70s peers Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, Can, Throbbing Gristle and Tangerine Dream.

More recently they've been appearing on Japanese tellies to promote chocky treats Pocky, from local brand Ezaki Glico - first sold in 1966, the treat is a thin sliver of biscuit stick coated with chocolate, and you can check out the commercial here:

While these days YMO may be hawking popular snacks, three decades ago these above-mentioned bands improvised experiments with new-fangled synthesizers and analogue electronic gadgetry that eventually inspired a deluge of DJs, producers and bands across the globe to lay down the club sounds we now take for granted.

Sakamoto was a principle member of YMO, but it’s obvious he’s laid that legacy to rest rather than continue banking on yesterday’s glories.

“That’s in the past,” he confirms with a laugh.

“What can I say? There isn’t anything enlightening to add, except that my relationship’s still good with the other two members of YMO.”

After the wide-girth, experiential YMO years, conforming to a structured musical palette would be a difficult detour to take - something Sakamoto confirms.

“At the time I had no idea what I could refer to so I asked Jeremy Thomas, a British producer, and he recommended Citizen Kane. When I now contemplate Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I’m not sure if the soundtrack succeeds as film music - but the director, Nagisa Oshima, encouraged me to produce it my own way without any inhibitions so it ended up rather like my solo music.”

Sakamoto subsequently scored three movies for Bernardo Bertolucci, starting in 1987 with The Last Emperor - for which he shared the Oscar with David Byrne and Cong Su - and winding up with Little Buddha (1993).

“When you create a soundtrack of course you care about emotion,” Sakamoto says, “but I’m equally intrigued with the actors and other elements within the movie - like the actor’s eyes, a slight movement of someone’s moustache; those things are vital to me. I want to paint the structure of the story through music even though this isn’t always required by a director.”

More recently Sakamoto composed the sound track for Women Without Men.

"It was awarded the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival," Sakamoto enthuses, quite obviously excited by the filmmakers.

“Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist, originally involved in the visual arts, and this is the first fiction film she’s made - for which I did the music.”

Given Ryuichi Sakamoto’s long-term experience, it would be educational to understand how one annotates a line between the creation of a soundtrack and producing one’s own music for an audio release. The man’s response reveals that this lineation itself is blurred; it’s the people involved who make a difference.

“Both are my music, so there’s not so much dissimilarity,” Sakamoto muses.

“However, when it comes to doing a soundtrack there are clients, such as directors, and what they require is of principle concern. In that case it doesn’t matter how much I love the work I develop - if they don’t like it, that score goes straight into the trash. This is the major difference. Then we also have different taste and preferences and things may not always gel, so there is quite the added tension. By contrast, if it’s my own music I make the decisions and never have to deal with this kind of stress.”

The collaborative fusion of the two is key, however.

“Bringing them together is enriching because the odd demands of a film score force you to think outside your usual comfort zone, in order to meet the challenge; this is an essential experience for me as a musician.”

On the new release Playing the Piano Sakamoto combines twelve of his best known pieces, much of the content film music from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor. It’s been rendered far simpler as the album title suggests - recorded from live performances in Japan by the man behind the music, utilizing just a piano.

The album even comes with a bonus disc, Out of Noise, which is Sakamoto’s first solo studio opus in five years. Comparing this with Playing the Piano is like comparing milk-based food products and soft, white, porous sedimentary rock; they’re that diverse.

Out of Noise is a complicated journey that’s at times sublime, ethereal and prescient; at others the mood is challenging and focused, like an icy exercise in yoga meditation.

While the ageing process causes other avant-garde musicians to lose touch - or to shift into safer parts of the mainstream - Sakamoto continues to bracket himself with current musical concepts, technology and ideology, and he’s embraced the digital age as much as he did its analogue predecessor 30 years ago.

Yet you have to backtrack further still to uncover Sakamoto’s favourite movie soundtrack.

Without a moment’s hesitation he selects Nino Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954).

“That movie is fantastic and the music is superb,” he appraises.

Big thanks to Yoko for doing most of the work here, and to Filmink for organizing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cure Moonlight!

2010 been an absolutely dire year for televised anime over here in Japan, with most of the more innovative studios (Madhouse, Production I.G, Gonzo, Studio 4°C) seemingly in hibernation over the past twelve months – or at the very least keeping their claws sheathed.

While Madhouse did pull off something nifty in the Redline feature movie directed by Takeshi Koike, and Keiichi Hara’s anime movie Colorful has been one of the cinematic highlights this year, the medium was lacklustre on the tellies.

It’s quite clear that the Japanese anime scene is going through a rough patch right now, very much like that which has crippled the newspaper/magazine and music industries, which may (or may not) have a bit to do with either the Internet or the global financial downturn or both; I’ll leave that appraisal to better qualified people.

There is a bright note here, however.

One series that's kept me amused and even a little infatuated over the past six months or so has been HeartCatch PreCure!, the infectious, disarming kids’ series you might've spotted elsewhere in this rambling blog.

The yarn started up with our shy, upright schoolgirl heroine Tsubomi (Cure Blossom), swathed in pink, who was joined by trusty neighbour and fashion-minded sidekick Erika (the all-blue Cure Marine). Five months into the series, the third heroine emerged with the gold-hued, androgynous Itsuki (Cure Sunshine) – who dresses in boys clothes but shines in her girly PreCure persona.

More recently, over the past few weeks, a reticent, quietly cantankerous and quite possibly bitter senior high school student, Yuri, was revealed to be the purple-shrouded Cure Moonlight - the predecessor of our other three champions who lost her powers in a big battle with Dark Pretty Cure (that's a long story for another blog entry - or not) and two weeks ago had those powers and her attire restored.

I'd like to pretend to have some dignity, but stuff that - bring on tomorrow morning's episode...

Oh, and my excuse is that I watch it to spend time with my four-year-old daughter Cocoa, who also loves the series. Which one of us digs it the most is up for debate.

For a bit of a sneak preview, here you get to see Cure Moonlight reclaim her identity a couple of weeks back (zounds!):

© ABC All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The HAL 9000 Building

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (モード学園コクーンタワ) is a relatively new building in Shinjuku that I've been passing nearby for months on the way to work, but I only got around to taking some happy snaps of the place the other day.

Better known to me as the HAL 9000 building because it houses HAL Tokyo, a special technology and design college (and it just looks so darned "designer modern", like something that'd be right at home in 2001), the Cocoon Tower was actually completed 2 years ago, designed by Tange Associates, the company set up by famous architect Kenzo Tange.

As far as facts and figures go, the 204-metre-tall (669 ft), 50-storey tower is apparently the second-tallest educational building in the world. I think the highest building I set foot in at Melbourne University clocked in at five storeys, which is a wee bit shorter.

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is currently the 17th-tallest building in Tokyo - and it won the Kewpie Doll when it was awarded the 2008 Skyscraper of the Year by

It certainly gets this wayward blog's nominations as well.

While it does stick out like a sore thumb directly outside the West Exit of Shinjuku JR Station, it's the kind of aching digit you're more than happy to put up with.

I guess we could throw in the old punchline here about suffering for art.

And speaking of HAL 9000, here he is for a bit of nostalgia's sake.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Love Songs

What music do you like to make love to?

A simple question, really.

“Sometimes I sing ‘Danger Zone’ in the bathroom. I like the music from Top Gun. When I was a child I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, and to this day Top Gun is my favorite action movie. But this is not bathroom music,” laughs Takashi Watanabe.

“Hmm. I think jazz house, because of swing and the punchy hi-hat accents and R&B horn riffs.”

As DJ Warp, Watanabe usually spins far harder techno and tech-house tunes.

Toshiyuki Yasuda, who makes music under his own name as well as doing vocoder crooning as Robo*Brazileira, jumps at the opportunity to answer this one. “Coleman Hawkins’s ‘Body and Soul’,” he cites.

“It never repeats the same riffs or theme throughout the tune, so I feel fresh and stimulated each time I listen to it - which is important for it, isn't it? Although actually no music is really the best, I think.”

“I like deep and dark minimal because it makes me erotic,” suggests Rie Kurihara (better known as veteran DJ/producer Ree.K), and then she goes one step further and debunks the idea in agreement with Yasuda.

The rest of this article is online HERE at Forces Of Geek.