On Jan. 16, 2014, the musician and producer Masahide Sakuma died after losing his battle with cancer. He was 61.
I only had the pleasure of meeting Sakuma on a couple of occasions, but I was lucky enough on one of them to see him work. He was a kind, generous man and a consummate professional whose career charts many of Japanese pop music’s ups and downs over the past few decades.
Emerging into the music scene of the late 1970s, Sakuma was part of a generation of artists who looked abroad for inspiration even as they reshaped and redefined Japanese music. He came to prominence as a member of the Plastics, one of the defining acts of the Japanese new wave movement that sprung up alongside punk rock and one of the pioneers of electronic pop.
Smart, silly, satirical, irreverent and innovative, the Plastics remain one of the best-loved bands of their era and a symbol of the vibrancy and garish outrageousness of early ’80s Japanese art and pop culture. They were part of a generation that included people such as Rei Kawakubo of fashion label Comme des Garçons, who knowingly or not challenged postwar notions of the nature of value in Japanese consumer society that remain relevant today. Taking cues from the British punk scene, as well as American new wave bands such as Devo, The B-52’s and Talking Heads, they created their own sense of style using secondhand clothes, something that would have shamed the postwar generation that their parents were part of. They promoted the idea of value as something contained in an idea, not just in a physical product; they pioneered the idea of music and fashion as mutually reinforcing expressions of a particular personal philosophy. They only completed two original albums, but their legacy is clear in the new wave revivalism of bands like Polysics, the punkish pop silliness of a lot of idol music, and in the attitude and philosophy of the 1990s Shibuya-kei movement.
As the artists of the new wave and punk generation began to grow up and seek greater maturity as musicians and professionals, they formed the vanguard of the phase shift in Japanese pop that would eventually become known as J-pop.
Sakuma made the transition with aplomb. He had his first experience as a producer working with one of the Plastics’ new wave/technopop contemporaries, P-Model, on its classic debut “In a Model Room” and, entering the ’90s, Sakuma established himself as a producer working with ’80s punk legends The Blue Hearts, post-visual-kei rockers L’Arc-en-Ciel, J-pop megastars Glay and the mighty Judy And Mary, with whom he worked throughout their career. As J-pop flourished and boomed in the 1990s, Sakuma was at the heart of it.
Throughout this time, Sakuma maintained a friendship with his British contemporary Mick Karn, bassist of the new wave band Japan. The two worked together with Kate Pierson of The B-52’s and Yuki Kuramochi from Judy And Mary in the band NiNa, and with the model/singer Vivian Hsu and Masami Tsuchiya of Japanese new wave/new romantic act Ippu-Do in the band The d.e.p. When Karn was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, Sakuma joined up once more with Hsu and Tsuchiya to record a song for their bandmate.
He remained involved with contemporary music, working with Kyoto indie rock band Quruli in its early days. He was also fascinated by new developments in music technology, in particular the Vocaloid voice synthesizer software, but the increasingly bleak times for musicians in Japan that the 2000s represented took their toll on Sakuma. With profits dropping and labels’ cost-cutting measures falling disproportionately heavily on studio and production budgets, he felt that quality was being neglected and producers sidelined. It was in frustration at this state of affairs that in a much publicized 2012 blog post he announced his retirement from the music industry.
His death, only a few days after the anniversary of Karn’s passing, had long been expected. Sakuma announced details of his condition in summer last year and kept in contact with his fans throughout his treatment via his blog.
Speaking personally, his work with the Plastics, P-Model and Judy And Mary in particular provided an important impetus to my own discovery, interest and involvement in Japanese music. More than that, however, he leaves behind him a musical legacy that has left an indelible mark on Japanese pop cultural history and provided inspiration to millions.