Hearing the Sounds of the City

Interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto

Photography by Zakkubalan Styling by Koichiro Yamamoto
Text by Yumiko Sakuma

While working as a musician and creative, Ryuichi Sakamoto has given his attention and his voice to social issues and the environment.What are his thoughts on the future, at this moment of enormous change across the globe?

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Ryuichi Sakamoto
Born in 1952 in Tokyo. Starting his musical endeavors while a student at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he had his breakthrough with the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) and went on to compose music that transcends categories like classical or modern. Based in New York in recent years, his efforts have ranged widely from solo performances and film scores to directing the Tohoku Youth Orchestra and tackling environmental issues through the conservation organization More Trees.
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In the months between scheduling and carrying out this interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto, the world changed entirely. Our conversation wound up being conducted via screen, with Sakamoto tuning in from his home in New York, which he returned to in the midst of the pandemic. To start things off, I asked him how his lifestyle had changed, and how he viewed the new global situation.

“In the past, when I wasn’t touring or away at film festivals, I spent about ninety percent of my time at home creating music, so I wouldn’t say my lifestyle has changed all that much. That said, I’ve heard that with the slowdown of the global economy and industrial activity, you can see the Himalayas from New Delhi. Even living in Manhattan, we’ve started hearing birds outside. Lots of people are hurting, unable to sustain a normal way of life, but if we go back to the kind of growth we were pursuing, I’m worried that globalization will speed up even more, leaving the worldwide ecosystem vulnerable to collapse, and increasing our chances of encountering other unforeseen pathogens.”

Actively committed to fighting social and environmental issues, Sakamoto founded the conservation organization More Trees in 2007, to speak out against climate change resulting from environmental devastation.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a result of the environmental destruction wreaked by a hyperactive economy, as well as a result of globalization, which allowed a pathogen that lives inside of animals, under particular conditions, to travel the world freely. In that sense, human beings brought this upon ourselves. The damage caused by this virus has been staggering, but if you calculate the cost of handling future devastation, the economic situation is untenable. That’s why the time has come for a complete redesign, where we change course entirely and overhaul the way we live. I hope the decision-makers of the world will bear this fact in mind.

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” Born in Tokyo, Sakamoto now resides in New York—having spent the majority of his life living in cities.

“Cities are convenient. All kinds of things and people in a tiny area, providing ready access to goods, community and culture. But the pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of cities. Cities first appeared between 5000 and 7000 years ago, around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and in China, but even then we had to grapple with the issue of pestilence, prompting many to flee urban centers. The outbreak of epidemics presents a risk wherever people congregate, and while mitigating these risks has always been a main concern of those in power, these problems remain unresolved five thousand years later. And now that globalization has caused the same goods and information to be distributed across the entire world, the entire world has turned into a city. This experience has made it clear how fragile cities are. Social distancing will necessarily lead to increased distance between people. We need to have systems in place, so that if an outbreak happens in a given area, it won’t be propagated elsewhere. When we started making music, every city emanated distinct sounds and colors, with Berlin and London sounding completely different. Today, cities are losing what makes them unique. New York still has a fair share of old things, but in Tokyo the old is rapidly disappearing, and unfortunately even architecture has become disposable. There’s no sense of love, none of the character that comes with age. But does that mean everywhere will wind up looking the same? I highly doubt it. In light of this experience, I think we’ll see the population disperse, as well as a reduction in the burden that we place on the environment and considerable attention to food systems and medicine, in a total redesign of our conception of the city.”

What role can clothing play, as we adapt to a new way of life, in the redesigned city that Sakamoto foresees?

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“Human beings are mammals, but Homo sapiens has no fur. In the animal kingdom, the only creatures who build houses, as protection from the elements, are human beings. The reason we build houses is we lost the fur that would have played the role of shelter and allowed us to endure heat and cold. The first cities consisted of walls built from piled stone, but these gradually evolved into the towering glass skyscrapers of today. And thanks to electricity, we can adjust the climate of our homes. Considering the risks and weaknesses of the city, as laid bare by this new reality, we need to overhaul our concept of the city, energy, and how and where we live, or else this sort of thing could easily happen again five years from now. If fashion can revisit concepts like the house and city and in so doing futuristically revamp the role it plays in compensating for our lack of fur, it could discover something absolutely new.
“While staying home, I’ve been availing myself of film and music subscriptions services. While the music streaming services need to do a much better job of compensating artists, I have to admit that they’re convenient. These services have greatly influenced the shape of creative work. They mark a departure from a model that lasted for about a hundred years, where people made things without any way of knowing whether they would sell. Accumulating subscribers and collecting regular fees creates a steady stream of revenue, meaning it’s no longer necessary for every work to turn a profit. This frees things up and makes it possible to cast good actors and produce high-quality content. In the world of food, some restaurants have begun using the subscription model as well. Since it minimizes waste and is good for the environment, it’s a win-win situation. Until now, the fashion industry was also burdened with a model in which goods were made and marketed on speculation, not knowing whether they would sell. I’m not sure whether the subscription model works for clothes, but a day may come when clothing can be customized through 3D modeling or according to personal preference.
“What’s interesting about the fashion industry is once you find something you like, they almost never make the thing again. This would be like if I refused to perform ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.’ The best products should be made continually, as standard offerings.”

Sakamoto is known for his monotone, minimalist wardrobe, but by his own account he is indifferent about clothing.

“To be honest, I’m not really that particular. Left to my own devices, I’d wear the same thing all year round. My go-to look tends to change every few years, but for the past four or five years I’ve been all about black jeans. A big part of my wardrobe has always been monotone, but with black jeans, it’s easy to wear black outfits all the time. I look for clothing that feels good against the skin, is unrestrictive, and is so easy to move in that you almost forget you’re wearing it. One of my fashion icons is Marcello Mastroianni, the way he looked on film, tossing on an old coat. Not slipping it on, but really tossing it. The way a European can be seen using a handbag or a notebook that’s so broken in, it’s practically falling apart.”

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