The topic of my first Japan Times column of 2014 was dictated by the death of Masahide Sakuma. I interviewed him in 2010 when he was working on a fundraising single for Mick Karn’s cancer appeal, and I was able to see him at work in the studio. He was relaxed, friendly, but utterly professional and his own death from the same disease just a few years later was cruel.Plastics: Top Secret Man
Obviously given my obsession with 70s/80s new wave, it was his work with the Plastics and his production work with P-Model that remains closest to me, but in a way that’s merely a footnote to a career that saw him working with some of the biggest names in pop and leaving his mark on nearly every big movement in Japanese music between 1980 and 2000. Less of an obvious superstar producer than the likes of Tetsuya Komuro TM Network, Globe, Tomomi Kahala, TRF, early Namie Amuro) and Takeshi Kobayashi (My Little Lover, Mr. Children), as producer of Glay and Judy And Mary, he was right up there with them as one of the top producers of the J-Pop era.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that his star clearly waned after the 90s came to a close, and he pretty much said as much himself when in 2012 he retired from music. The blog post I mention in the original column is well worth reading, even if you just run it through Google Translate, because it echoes what many people in the music industry are saying and he expresses it very well. Put simply, record companies just aren’t willing to pay what it costs for producers to do their job. Sakuma makes clear that he understands that people might just say that the 90s was a bubble and that that level of spending was unsustainable, but in any case, to achieve the level of quality he felt necessary, it took money and that money wasn’t being spent on producers anymore (marketing departments appear to have been less seriously affected).Judy And Mary: Motto
Now I’m not sure I completely agree with him on that point because the Plastics records were made for a pittance and they’re some of the best music that’s ever been made in Japanese music history, but then I’m a DIY music nerd who can quite happily flip out over a song made on an MP3 recorder in a rehearsal studio, and that’s not really what Sakuma was talking about. He was talking about his work, his craft, and the frustration he felt at not being able to fully use those skills to do justice to the music he was working with. This decline in the role of the producer has been one of the defining features of the past decade and a bit. Sakuma’s big 90s contemporaries have also declined in influence, with Komuro having suffered the most spectacular fall from grace, but Kobayashi increasingly sharing production duties with the band on Mr. Children records, and My Little Lover having split up and re-emerge as a bland Akko solo project. One of the few superstar producers of recent years Yasutaka Nakata once remarked to me that people in Japan just aren’t interested in producers. That’s certainly the professional environment Nakata has grown up with, but they used to be.
One thing I was unable to find a good way to work into the article was that Sakuma’s final “public” appearance relates to another big movement in Japanese music, with him appearing on the coupled DVD with idol group Nogizaka46’s 2013 single Barrette, performing a song with group member Erika Ikuta, to whom he is related through a cousin. Opinions of the state of idol music in Japan today aside, we can remark at least that as with so many other things, he was there. I should also add that despite his official retirement, he didn’t stop working on stuff that interested him, and 2014 is set to see one or two posthumous releases.
I was DJing at a show last night where new wave and technopop fans proliferated, and a few of the musicians, some of whom had known and played alongside him, joined together at the end to perform Aurora Tour, a song Sakuma made with Yuki (Judy And Mary) and Kate Pierson (The B-52’s) for the supergroup NiNa which also featured Mick Karn. It was a better tribute than anything I could write, and a fitting reminder of his influence across a range of genres and several musical generations.NiNa: Aurora Tour