Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) was a seminal Japanese electronic band formed in the late 1970s by Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. While the band lasted less than a decade, all members went on to have prolific solo careers, and their lasting impact survives through modern movies, video games and numerous musicians.
The band began when Hosono hired Sakamoto and Takahashi to record what was supposed to be a one-time project, their self-titled album “Yellow Magic Orchestra.” All three were accomplished musicians at the time: Hosono played bass for a band called Happy End, Takahashi was a drummer for Sadistic Mika Band and Sakamoto was a recent graduate from the Tokyo University of the Arts with a degree in composition, electronic music and ethnic music.
The ethos of YMO was born out of Hosono’s long-held interest in the concept of “exotica,” a musical genre that incorporates elements from many cultures, but usually from a white Westerner’s perspective.
“When I was at elementary school I saw the movie ‘Around the World in 80 Days,’” Hosono said in an interview with Mac Demarco. “There’s a part where it depicts Japan, but it was a Japan that I didn’t recognize … I kept thinking about how that was how Japan was seen by the outside world.”
Hosono, who was born and raised in Tokyo and is the grandson of the only Japanese survivor of the Titanic, according to Encyclopedia Titanica, wanted to reclaim the exotica genre from a Japanese perspective.
YMO’s debut album featured a cover of “Firecracker,” which was originally a song written by American artist Martin Denny. Denny, a founder of exotica, had become famous for his albums that made a spectacle of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander cultural music for a mostly white, Western audience in the 1950s.
The sound of Yellow Magic Orchestra draws from many genres, fusing cutting-edge techno with pop and traditional Japanese orchestra. The members have also listed 20th-century composers John Cage and Claude Debussy among their inspirations.
“I have been obsessed about Claude Achille Debussy,” Sakamoto said in an interview with Last.fm. “I used to believe I was a reincarnation of him when I was 14 years old.”
YMO released eight studio albums throughout their six-year career and later released live albums and compilations after their 1984 breakup. Uniquely innovative with their instrumentation, YMO was the first group to use an instrument called the Roland Vocoder VP-330. Their fourth album, “BGM,” was one of the first recordings using the novel drum machine the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer.
“Using a synthesizer with a computer, this group has created a sound that was not possible until now,” Billboard said in reference to YMO in 1979.
These futuristic sounds combined with traditional influences allowed YMO to emulate the unique culture and time period from which they came yet remain relevant to a modern audience.
While the band had their largest following in Japan, they were able to permeate the international music charts as well, selling over 400 thousand copies of their single “Computer Games” in the United States in the 1980s, according to a 1980 edition of the Sarasota Journal. Hosono cites the band’s mostly instrumental discography as the reason they were able to transcend the language barrier and get a foothold in the U.S., according to YMO historian Yuji Tanaka.
After their breakup in 1984, each member remained high-profile in the arts and music scene. Takahashi released 23 solo albums under his own name, and composed soundtracks for a few Nintendo games and anime shows, according to Dazed Digital. He also dabbled in acting, playing the romantic lead in the film “Poisson d’Avril” by director Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Sakamoto gained even more recognition for his extensive work on film soundtracks. Notable soundtracks composed by Sakamoto include “The Revenant,” “The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)” and an episode of “Black Mirror.” His work in the film industry earned him an Academy Award, a Grammy and two Golden Globes, according to IMDb. Sakamoto also composed the theme for the 1992 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Barcelona.
Perhaps most successful of all was Hosono, who has been named one of the “most influential” Japanese artists of all time. He has released 21 solo albums in a dazzling array of genres from country to video game music. Like Sakamoto, Hosono has composed film scores and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018.
Countless modern musicians have named Hosono as an inspiration. Mac DeMarco refers to Hosono as his idol and his favorite music artist. Hosono’s influence is clear through DeMarco’s sampling of Japanese orchestral music, heard in “Chamber of Reflection.” DeMarco even invited Hosono onstage with him in 2019 to perform Hosono’s song “Honey Moon.” Additionally, Harry Styles’ most recent album, “Harry’s House,” is a nod to Hosono’s debut album “Hosono House,” as Hosono’s nickname is Harry.
In light of Takahashi and Sakamoto’s recent deaths, the many artists, video game designers, filmmakers and musicians that were touched by YMO paid tribute to this highly influential band.
Explore the sound of Yellow Magic Orchestra with this playlist.