Japanese jazz man shoots for US stardom. He wrote music for and appeared in `The Last Emperor'
New York — Ryuichi Sakamoto is about to become a major pop star in America - if his success in Japan is any indication. That would be no mean feat for a Japanese-born pianist/composer who doesn't see himself as a pop star at all, or even a pop musician, for that matter. If the name doesn't ring a bell, the film title ``The Last Emperor'' probably will. Sakamoto, together with David Byrne and Chinese composer Cong Su, wrote the score. An actor as well, Sakamoto appeared both in ``The Last Emperor'' and ``Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'' (for which he also wrote the sound track). In fact, he's a major movie star in Japan.
But Sakamoto sees himself in quite a different light. Although his career began in Japan with a techno-pop band called the Yellow Magic Orchestra, for many years he delved into cross-cultural musical mixtures, working on numerous music and video projects, and putting out several solo albums.
His latest album, ``Neo Geo,'' combines traditional Japanese music, art rock, and classical music.
At his recent appearance here in support of that album and as part of the International Festival of the Arts, Sakamoto transformed the stage at the Beacon Theater into a gigantic painting, with colored lights playing across an enormous draping curtain and a series of bamboo fences.
The music reflected the cultural mix of his band, which included an Indian tabla player, a Chinese koto player, three Okinawan singers in colorful traditional dress, a black American soul singer, and an English drummer.
For most of the concert, Sakamoto and his band re-created the riveting mix of rock rhythms with traditional Japanese vocals and the lovely Debussy-esque piano/koto duo pieces from ``Neo Geo.'' Visually and aurally, with the exception of some overlong rhythm-and-blues sections toward the end, it was a remarkable evening.
In an interview a few days before his concert, Sakamoto talked about his career and his aspirations as an artist. Despite his film stardom in Japan, he claims that people don't really buy his records there, and that he hasn't even done many live performances. This, of course, is the opposite of what happens in America, where you can't become a pop-music star without selling records and touring.
But Sakamoto explains that he's been in a lot of TV advertising: ``Japan media has really strong power - media works to make a name bigger.'' But he quickly adds, ``I wouldn't say I am a pop star, like Springsteen, like Michael Jackson, and I do not want to be that type of rock star.''
So what does he want to be? ``Just an artist - just a musician.''
Ryuichi Sakamoto trained as a classical pianist and was involved in contemporary classical music, electronic music, and avant-garde jazz. But eventually he was lured to the pop music world: ``I thought the world of contemporary music was too small,'' he says. ``I needed more audience - big audience.''
Although Sakamoto used to play free jazz, his music is now highly structured. Unlike many other musicians who believe that improvisation is the most creative element in music, Sakamoto disagrees:
``I think improvisation is not so creative. Improvisation is based on particular training, I think. So improviser can play only what he trained. So it's not creative; it's just movement.''
The more creative approach, according to Sakamoto, is to mix the music of different cultures to produce something new - a world music that is, at the same time, very individual. And yet, he still finds it hard to believe that American audiences, for instance, would take such an interest in his album or in the movie ``The Last Emperor.''
``I feel it's strange, because the subject of the film is very unfamiliar to the American audience,'' he says. ``The same thing happened to my music, because Asian melody, Asian structure, is not familiar to the American audience, but ... they like it. I don't know why....''
Meanwhile, as Sakamoto ponders this puzzle, he's preparing for a major world tour.