How does your process differ when you’re creating your own album and when you’re composing for a director?

If a film director trusts me 100 percent, which is rare, it’s almost the same process. I started off very lucky because Mr. Oshima trusted me completely. He gave me total creative freedom [on Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence]—and that was my first score. I wondered, Is he okay? I was an amateur in acting and in film scoring. No one told me how to write film music at that time, so I didn’t know how to start. I wanted to have some kind of compass, so I asked the producer, Jeremy Thomas, to give me one example to refer to for film music, and he said Citizen Kane. I like the work of Bernard Herrmann a lot and respect him, but that music wasn’t so impressive to me. So I had to create my own method.

You also star in the film. How did you go about scoring your own performance?

This was my very first experience acting in a film. When we went to see the rough cut, I hated my acting so much. I thought it was so ugly and so bad. When I started writing the music, I said to myself, okay, let’s put beautiful music on top of my bad acting scenes. I am half-joking but half-serious …

Did your experience on Merry Christmas change your approach as an artist?

I think so, yes. But the experience of being on set and looking at lots of people behind the camera also had a very big impact on me. My first memory of the movies is watching La strada on my mother’s lap. Then around high school I started watching Oshima, Godard, Fellini, and Truffaut. I liked films, but this experience of being on set really changed how I felt about them.

Sonic Memories: A Conversation with Ryuichi Sakamoto