“I was with him for a month, every day, on a very small island in the South Pacific Ocean.”
When we scheduled an interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto, there was a lot we already wanted to talk about. The influential composer and electronic music pioneer is currently navigating award season for his incredible score to The Revenant, his first new work since being treated for throat cancer.
On Sunday night, while Sakamoto was attending the Golden Globes, the world was shaken by the news that David Bowie had passed away following his own battle with cancer. Besides their legacy as musicians, Sakamoto and Bowie had the unique experience of working together as actors in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.
The film, about English POWs in a Japanese prison camp, framed its central conflict between Bowie’s rebellious Jack Celliers and Sakamoto’s fierce, conflicted Captain Yonoi. The pair give revelatory performances despite being non-professional actors, and though Sakamoto never acted again in the same capacity, his film score produced an international hit with ‘Forbidden Colours’, launching a career in soundtracks that is still going strong today (with the occasional Oscar and Golden Globe win along the way).
In an excerpt from our forthcoming interview with Sakamoto and fellow Revenant composer Alva Noto, and in the wake of the Bowie’s death from a disease the composer is intimately familiar with, Sakamoto reflects on the time he spent with Bowie.
When did you get the news?
Sakamoto: Last night after the ceremony.
What was your first reaction?
Sakamoto: I still cannot believe. Even now I can’t believe, especially because the new album came out two days ago. This morning I carefully listened back to each track of the new album. His vocals sound not like a cancer patient — because I know that. I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, so I know what it is. It doesn’t sound right.
I watched Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence this afternoon. That was the first film you scored. What was that experience like, acting and composing?
Sakamoto: I never pursued an acting career, it’s not my intention, but it’s a fact that I acted in a film for the very first time with David Bowie, who was amazing. And it was my very first film music. So two very new things came to be at the same time. Working with David Bowie, I was with him for a month, every day, on a very small island in the South Pacific Ocean. For a month! [laughs]
Noto: My god!
Sakamoto: It was an amazing experience. He was very nice guy. Very straightforward.
Noto: Did you hang out in evenings?
Sakamoto: Every night. There was nothing else to do except hanging out. There was a swimming pool and restaurant lounge, but that’s it.
Did you talk to him about the music you were doing for the film?
Sakamoto: No, no. I hadn’t started working on it yet, I was totally concentrated on the acting. I also sort of hesitated to ask David to work with me on the music at the time, because he seemed very concentrated on acting.
Not the right time to ask?
Sakamoto: I totally hesitated.
Noto: But it’s weird. Two musicians as actors.
Sakamoto: Weird, right?
Read this next: FACT’s essential guide to Sakamoto’s band Yellow Magic Orchestra