What’s Past is Epilogue: The Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto

Jordan Ryan Pedersen nicks himself on Ryuichi Sakamoto's Thousand Knives, newly reissued by Wewantsounds.
By    November 21, 2019

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Jordan Ryan Pedersen has ten or fifteen knives at most.

When Ryuichi Sakamoto started recording his solo debut Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto in April of 1978, China was only two years removed from the end of the three-decade reign of Mao Zedong. The album opens with the vocoder-rippled voice of the 26-year-old Sakamoto reading a poem from 1928 by Mao himself. The poem describes Mao’s experience in the Jinggang Mountains, where Mao first experimented with his theory of guerrilla warfare:

Below the hills fly flags and banners,
Above the hilltops sounds bugles and drums.
The foe encircles us thousands strong,
Steadfastly we stand our ground.
Already our defence is iron-clad,
Now our will unite like a fortress.
From Huangyanggai roars the thunder of cannon,
Word comes the enemy has run away in the night.

Sakamoto came of age in the 1960s, during the post-war westernization of Japan. While he was at university discovering the Beatles and Claude Debussy, across the sea the Cultural Revolution was raging. Mao closed schools, sent urban youth to work in the countryside, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people—maybe more—whom he accused of being “rightists.”

The album is, in part, Sakamoto’s attempt to make sense of his neighbors to the west. Wewantsounds has reissued Thousand Knives for the first time in decades outside of Japan. It’s the sound of dueling impulses: China’s return to the pastoral on the one hand, and Japan’s hurtling progress on the other. Nature sits uncomfortably alongside civilization.

Sakamoto chooses to bookend Thousand Knives with its catchiest songs, and poke and prod his listeners in between. The second track—“Island of Woods”—claims to capture the sound of well, an island of woods, but Sakamoto uses almost entirely electronic instruments to do so. (While he was contemplating Mao’s barbarism, Sakamoto was also becoming enamored of the new synth technology being pioneered by Moog, Buchla, and ARP.) “Grasshoppers” strands a piano figure equal parts classical Japanese folk and Bach amidst “don’t look now” synthesizers before transitioning to a downright bluesy lick accompanied by an oddly compliant electronic bass line.

The opening title track and the final song—“The End of Asia”—are both reggae-inflected synth-pop odysseys. Both feature Prince-worthy shredding guitar parts. In these moments Sakamoto tips his hand somewhat: though Sakomoto has continued throughout his career to juxtapose classical instrumentation with radical ideas—2017’s async is a disorienting smash of the past, present, and future—it’s hard to argue that, gun to his head, he wouldn’t pick looking forward over looking back. His later work with Yellow Magic Orchestra would become one of the founding texts of the burgeoning and inextricably futurist synth-pop movement. Earlier this year, he composed the music for “Smithereens,” an episode from the the fifth season of Netflix’s techno nightmare Black Mirror.

Then again, Sakamoto opts to end the final track on Thousand Knives—“The End of Asia”—with the melody from “The East is Red,” the de facto national anthem for China during the Cultural Revolution. Here, Mao, a back-to-nature zealot, positions himself as the only choice for China’s future:

Chairman Mao loves the people,
He is our guide
to building a new China
Hurrah, lead us forward!

The arbiters of the past often anoint themselves the keepers of the future. Such is the murky duality of Thousand Knives.

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