He is a colorful enigma. A man detached from the world yet bound at the base of a grand piano. To be an introverted icon of an introverted nation is to also serve as an interesting case in superstar personality. Ryuichi Sakamoto appears as these things to those unfamiliar with his work and himself in the 1984 documentary Tokyo Melody. His band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, in which he served as the keyboardist and occasional vocalist, is widely known to have popularized electronic music internationally. In their native country of Japan, they are a godly lot. To music heads, Yellow Magic Orchestra are classified as founding fathers, pioneers and “they did it first”-types of electronic music and the subgenres of electronic as well. But, to those who sit through the curious presentation of Tokyo Melody, Ryuichi Sakamoto is man of thought.
A classical hero to many, the documentary opens up with the composer’s recitation of a Claude Debussy quote, “I’m working on things that will only be understood by the grand-children of the 20th century.” Heavy words from a lightly-spoken fellow, these words of Debussy serve as a non-aggressive, about face to who unfamiliar viewers are being introduced to. Sakamoto studied at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1970 earning his B.A. and then his Masters in musical composition with a focus in electronic and world music. Intending on being a researcher in ethnomusicology, Sakamoto then studied classical music while tinkering with early synthesizers and electronic equipment. Fast forward to 1977, where Sakamoto worked as a session musician with future Yellow Magic Orchestra members, Haruomi Hasono and Yukihiro Takahashi, and we have the origins of what would be a tale of musical superstardom that lives up to the aforementioned words of Claude Debussy.
Tokyo Melody is not so predictable in its approach to documenting this rise to success. Unlike nonfictional productions that tend to chronicle their subject’s stories in a birth-to-now sequence of events, the account of Ryuichi Sakamoto gets a unique treatment that feels original to the man placed before the lens. Essentially, Tokyo Melody is a documentary that expresses itself in a way its subject expresses himself throughout the documentary. The relationship here between documenter and the documented feels casually personal, intimate yet wandering, and artistically professional all while maintaining a sense of loose narrative.
For instance, Sakamoto has a fascination with time. “Generally speaking, people compose their music from the first ‘til the last note following a chronological order. But now we can, for instance, start at the middle, memorize it, continue another part and memorize that. We can put each memorized part anywhere,” he tells the camera. The creators behind this documentary take this notion to heart in reference to editing as does Sakamoto does with composing his music. The idea is that time is no longer linear and that it does not develop in one way. In response to Sakamoto, the documentary plays out in a manner that references earlier interview points where they tend to become more realized later on.
Perhaps the most telling moments of Tokyo Melody are of Sakamoto in what many could assume to be his most natural element. Looking into the camera, he speaks as if he is in perpetual deep thought, looking through the viewer. This inadvertently imposes a sense of emotional disconnection. However, it is when the documentary contrasts clips of Yellow Magic Orchestra stage performances to Sakamoto at a lone piano that the emotional distance between the viewer and the composer closes in. In an arena setting, he is an inscrutable musical general who’s technical and melodic prowesses are consciously dialed in through his synthesizers. At a wooden piano in solitude, his compositions and demeanor take a very touching turn. We see a man whose space age ideas make way for his own earthbound sensibilities. These moments alone, in which the film crew does an excellent job capturing, make Sakamoto out to be what can only be musically classified as “the real deal”.
Tokyo Melody is a documentary aware of its subject. While it depicts Ryuichi Sakamoto as a one-of-a-kind talent, it does so without tasteless embellishment. Alternatively, we hear Sakamoto’s philosophical affirmations and they profoundly settle in. The documentarians take careful notice to the kind of man Sakamoto is and represent him accordingly. Rather than placing him on the worldwide platform for which he is known, letting an audience’s assumption of a superstar make an ego boost out of an artist, it is nice to see a more inventive portrayal of an imaginative man, instead of a commercial one.