One morning I woke up to the news that Ryuichi Sakamoto had passed away.
In his last performance aired on 22nd of December, the man often referred to as Sakamoto-sensei was visibly thinner; his mannerism fragile; his facial expression tellingly sorrowful. Only his trademark pursed upper lip reminded me of the man he once was. It was only appropriate that the song he chose from his final performance was his magnum opus – Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Few people have the privilege to know when death approaches, let alone one who can play his own elegy.
I had stumbled into this song years ago by accident. Within the first listen I knew this was the song that would stay with me for life. It stirred such a strong kinship within me that it became the basis for one of my collections. On busy days, I would opt for the upbeat version with full orchestra, and on quiet times when I need to design a collection or pen my thoughts, the piano solo version. Every note has become a familiar friend by the hundredth replay.
But before there was The Last Emperor, before there was Furyo, there was Yellow Magic Orchestra. Here was a man who – with his two esteemed colleagues – pioneered a form of music that was a decade ahead of its time. In 1978, they exploded into the scene when the mainstream music industry was peddling diabetes-inducing Abba and Bee Gees (while intellectual Prog Rock was no longer the music producers’ darlings). The music of YMO was what I would call a blend of Sega soundtracks looped to melodious synthesizer, strategic guitar solos and pachinko; Kraftwerk, but make it warm and optimistic. While Berlin was finding its identity in the post-war years, Sakamoto left his political activism behind to embrace the technological advancement that Japan was spearheading.
Sakamoto’s contribution to music was very much like what Issey Miyake was to fashion. They were both classically-trained in their respective fields, but chose to create works that transcended time and space. They were soft-spoken individuals whose body of work spanned across genres and aesthetics. With that much talent in their fingertips, they could have chosen to milk as much star power as they could. Fortunately for many of us creative aspirants in need of suitable role models, neither of them were populists. They chose to walk on the edge of avant-gardism by doing one simple thing.
Both Issey Miyake and Ryuichi Sakamoto avoided the lowest common denominator in their art: the commodification of sex. They understood that there is a higher calling to art than simply exposing the human body and worshipping the desire for copulation, something that mainstream fashion designers and artists seem to have forgotten today. Their works embody their personal interpretation of the beauty of nature, the realities of urban living and centuries of human creations through their own vision. They were multi-faceted artists who dared to make new – many of them odd – creations. While I don’t love every single piece of their work, when looked at on the whole, I cannot help but feel that they had buried a piece of themselves within every garment and every song. No matter whether I’m listening to Blu, or Tong Poo, I can sense the wit and wistfulness of Sakamoto, just like how I can recognise the creased nylons, the discoloured leathers and the architectural silhouettes of Issey Miyake. To be multi-faceted is now implicitly frowned upon, for the audience will have a hard time pigeonholing and digesting the works that are being produced.
We are now facing a surfeit of homogeneity and plainness in music and fashion, thanks to the use of big data harnessing key, reproducible factors. The popular music of today is made of simpler arrangements than those of the 90s and before, done for the ease of global distribution and instant absorption, wrapped in the shiny tinfoil of marketing-speak and pseudo-organic social media push to create a façade of coolness, much like how we are seeing the proliferation of simple garments made for the sole purpose of branding exercise. Beautiful music and garments still exist, but one has to do their homework in order to find them, which leave the casual consumers drowning in basic media and fashion choices that hardly engage their creative faculties.
The passing of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Issey Miyake feels like the end of an era. Coupled with the predatory economics conditions unconducive for independent visions, skills and craftsmanship to take root, it is hard not to feel apprehensive about the future of creativity. But life is too short for a pity party, so I would like to take this time to celebrate the kind and generous giants whose shoulders we continue to stand on, until humanity ceases to exist.