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Ryuichi Sakamoto: 12—A  Transcendent Goodbye


Written by Thomas Giblin (he/him) | @thegreengiblin | Entertainment Editor

Illustration by Tashi Donnelly (she/her) | @tashi_rd | Feature Editor

It's not hyperbolic to say that the career of Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto was remarkable. 12, his final solo studio album, was released months before the artist died of cancer in 2023. Sakamoto knew that this work would be his last. The album is an audio diary produced while he was convalescing from surgery, but even while recovering, Sakamoto knew that for the rest of his life, he would be living alongside cancer - a cruel, malignant presence.

Unlike Blackstar by David Bowie or Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, 12 doesn't reckon with mortality head-on. There are no lush, dramatic flourishes but rather a hauntingly sparse and stark soundscape. Sakamoto's laboured breathing is heard over long, minimal, intimate etudes of piano and synthesiser notes. A meditation on finality, each track is titled and sequenced in order of when they were recorded. We start with "20210310", a track featuring a sobering low synth that falls and rises like a tree fluttering in the wind.

"20220202", the fifth track, is heart-achingly icy. Sakamoto's soul is fraught with anguish as he comes to terms with the existentialism and uncertainty of death. The composition is simple but deliberate - its clarity showers the listener with a foreboding ambient soundscape of droning synths. Somewhere in the distance, a bell clangs. As Sakamoto toils with human impermanence, he does not attempt to reflect on his legacy or to have a final conversation with loved ones. 12's diaristic aural texture is not a knowing swan song but a tracing of how a grieving artist confronts the inescapable: death. 

By the second half of 12, Sakamoto had seemingly made peace with the permanence of his soon-to-come transition. Gone are the six-minute-plus ambient tracks; he replaces them with piano tracks inspired by his heroes: Chopin, Bach and Debussy. In the classical style, simple piano lines are repeated with eerie grace on the ivory. His laboured breathing remains in the background, a reminder that even in accepting his fate, the pain of the cancer remains. It's distressing to imagine Sakamoto hunched over a keyboard, striking a key for the last time. 

The album isn't all doom and gloom. These piano tracks, while remarkably heavy, should also be appreciated as an outlet where Sakamoto could ease the pain he was going through. "20220302" is bittersweet. "20220404" features a flowery piano melody. There is light, despite all the darkness. 

We go on a metaphysical journey through space and time with Sakamoto until "20220304", a sudden last breath. With this track, there is no clear resolution to the album. A lone wind chime briefly dangles in the wind. Life is ephemeral. It could end at any time. 12 by Ryuichi Sakamoto, a star never meant for the spotlight, is a parting gift. The album may not be the finest in his oeuvre, but it’s a devastating glimpse into the final years of a master musician who transformed sound.


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