In Memoriam BUCK-TICK’s Sakurai Atsushi
An unparalleled vocalist who pushed through with his one-of-a-kind performances, and a gentle heart
26 October 2023
Text = Imai Tomoko
My mind has been in a whirl since learning of the sudden passing of BUCK-TICK’s vocalist, Sakurai Atsushi. I was supposed to go watch BUCK-TICK’s performance on the 20th, one day after he fell. The cancellation of the concerts and the announcement of his passing were so sudden that even now, I cannot accept it. Just as shaken up are their fans who are enduring this grief as their thoughts and feelings continue flooding social media.
With a voice and looks both lustrous and beautiful, his tall slender frame was perfect for the stage. He was an unparalleled vocalist who wrote lyrics that were both aesthetic yet aggressive, and put on performances which were both theatrical and dramatic while he sang.
I have always thought that the overpowering presence he exuded on stage was almost deific, unapproachable. I believe that there are many who feel the same way, but I was reminded of this feeling when I watched the final concert of the BUCK-TICK TOUR 2023 異空-IZORA- at Ariake Garden Theatre on 23 July.
Songs overflowing with exquisite expressions in every nook and cranny in a large 8000-capacity hall; the limber movements with which he performs the songs using his whole body holds his audience rapt. As the singing performer, it would seem that Sakurai had broken new ground and with the great strides he was making with his songs, it felt as if his fellow band members had also scaled up their playing.
As they celebrated their 35th debut anniversary, what BUCK-TICK had been cultivating through the years felt like it was just about to ripen and it was plain to see from all the elaborate CGI and lighting which decorated the stage, all for Sakurai’s songs. I shared these thoughts with Sakurai after the show and he was really happy about it.
About two months after that, I got to watch the additional performances (BUCK-TICK TOUR 2023 異空-IZORA- FINALO) which were to be held at Gunma Music Center, in their hometown of Gunma. In a uniquely designed hall, the band appeared to have enjoyed performing there given the fact that they had played here countless times ever since they first debuted. The way Sakurai danced, flapping his arms like wings as he sang made me wonder whether he was referencing the Jomo Karuta card “Gunma Prefecture, shaped like a crane in flight” (つる舞う形の群馬県 / tsuru mau katachi no gunma-ken). I wanted to ask him about it the next time we met, but that chance was never to be.
Sakurai’s live performances were special. Singing with a clear voice, he conveys the worlds of his songs using a variety of props. An ostrich feather stole or a sheer shawl, or an elegant hat and walking stick, or masks that look like they’re for a Venetian party or an artsy candelabrum; these are just some of the things he uses depending on the song. For example, a single stole can be draped over the shoulders or worn over the head, creating a completely different scene with a little ingenuity.
He further captures the imaginations of the audience with a little inventiveness in his outfits which brings different characters to life. One moment, you wonder whether he just showed us a glimpse of his legs in kneehigh stockings and the next moment, he’s dancing gracefully in a black crested kimono. His physical expressions which even involve the slightest movements of his fingertips more effectively enhanced their songs than any stage set could.
The one who influenced Sakurai to no small extent with such performances was Der Zibet’s ISSAY (vocalist) who suddenly passed away in August. Not only were they fellow vocalists, the two of them had similar tastes in music and art, and had been long-time friends and mutual inspirations to each other. Their relations led to Der Zibet and BUCK-TICK participating in each other’s albums, and even guest appearances at their respective concerts.
On the topic of performing together, ISSAY said, “When it comes to Atsushi-kun, he’s a person who has a unique energy when he’s on stage so that clash between both our energies feels wonderful, truly.” While Sakurai had this to say: “I had to respond to his serious challenges in each moment so I really enjoyed it.” (※1)
BUCK-TICK/Kemono-tachi no Yoru YOW-ROW ver.(TOUR2020 ABRACADABRA ON SCREEN)
Once Sakurai leaves the stage, he becomes an unassuming person of few words, but he’s always gentle, treating everyone kindly and as equals, with the natural disposition to pay attention to detail.
Many musicians and close friends would always gather for BUCK-TICK’s annual year-end performance the Nippon Budokan, and then join the afterparty which goes on until morning. He had said before that he actually likes to drink alone but he would share a toast with each and every person there.
Of course, it was not only Sakurai but every member of BUCK-TICK who cherished their connections with people, and maintained good relations with many. I believe the outpouring of grief for Sakurai on social media is a clear indicator of the strong interpersonal relationships BUCK-TICK has forged. It also goes without saying that his sincerity, kindness, and generosity have been conveyed to and charmed countless fans through his songs and live performances.
BUCK-TICK started out with Sakurai, and fellow schoolmates Imai Hisashi (guitarist), Hoshino Hidehiko (guitarist), Higuchi Yutaka (bassist). At first, Sakurai was the drummer but switched to being the vocalist when he proposed, “I want to sing.” Higuchi’s older brother, Yagami Toll (drummer) then joined them and the band started taking their activities more seriously. After that, the band released their first single, TO-SEARCH in 1986 under indie record label Taiyo Records (太陽レコード).
The next year, they released their first indies album HURRY UP MODE and soon after made their major label debut with Victor Entertainment with a concert video, BUCK-TICK Phenomenon at LIVE INN (バクチク現象 at LIVE INN). At the time, it was unusual to start a music career with a film release, and when asked about the reason behind this decision, even now I can still remember Yagami’s reply, “Because we focus on visuals (ビジュアル重視 / bijuaru juushi).” These words come before the term “visual-kei” was coined.
Back then, you would typically see “member recruitment” flyers pasted on the walls of livehouses where those who stuck them up would detail their music preferences and list their favourite bands. At some point, the term “ビジュアル重視” became a common sight on these flyers. This is because in the dawn of the band boom, people came to believe that looks are also an important deciding factor for whether you’ll be featured on TV or in magazines.
I believe BUCK-TICK at the time focused on punkish sprayed-up hair and new-wave styled outfits instead of Sakurai’s attractive facial features, but Sakurai’s presence was more than enough to draw attention. I heard that MAGUMI (vocalist/trumpeter) from LÄ-PPISCH, another band who also debuted through Victor Invitation (Invitation) said, “Acchan’s (Sakurai) beauty is near divine.” There’s no denying that hearing this changed the way I saw BUCK-TICK.
BUCK-TICK / 「JUST ONE MORE KISS」Music Video
The band has done countless interviews since their debut, but their earliest interviews were an uphill battle for this reticent group. As their popularity grew, magazines also began to dedicate more and more pages to them. They started conducting solo interviews where the members of the band gradually opened up; Sakurai started giving his insights on lyrics that were being read into, while Imai began to talk about his intent behind the sound constructs.
With Sakurai, I also got to talk to him about his favourite artists and songs, as well as books and films and many more topics, all of which could be inferred from his music. Like how he often listened to popular songs from the Showa Era as a result of his mother’s influence, his love of Alain Delon and Sawada Kenji, his being influenced by Miwa Akihiro and Edith Piaf. The topics were endless.
BUCK-TICK / Aku no Hana Music Video
In the early days of BUCK-TICK, Imai also wrote the song lyrics but later on, Sakurai began composing them. Ever since the beginning, the lyrics which Sakurai wrote were never simple love songs; they were love songs which were also aesthetically lonesome.
He said before that he wanted to depict “post-sex depression”, but I believe that was gradually channelled towards digging deep into exploring the human psyche. Immersing oneself in an aesthetic of decadence is a result of coming into contact with the dark side of humanity where pain, loneliness and cruelty which lurks in that darkness comes to the fore of human nature.
Woven into the songs in his own words were his explorations into the complexities of gender, differing religious views, and the changing values of society through history. Recorded in the album entitled Six/Nine which they released in 1995 was the song, Rakuen (Inori Negai) [楽園 (祈り 希い)]」and in it was a line which goes “Garden of Love where the children of god kill each other”. It still hits me straight in the heart even now, and leaves me in admiration of his keen insight.
Speaking of “aesthetically pleasing yet decadent”, Sakurai may give the impression that he sings about things that are detached from reality, but he was in fact an artist who kept a close eye on reality. This was one side of him that really showed in the band’s latest release, 異空 -IZORA- (2023). Recording commenced before the Ukraine invasion which began in February 2022, but there are a few songs in the album which seemed to predict it.
From the start with SCARECROW’s first line, “Can’t run away There’s nowhere for me anymore”, to Sayonara Shelter which seemed to depict a post-nuclear war world, to Campanella Hanataba wo Kimi ni where he gently sings, ‘Mr. Soldier Machine gun Missile “Flower bouquet” ／ Children Father Mother “Flower Bouquet”. As he sings this song, Sakurai mimed holding a baby before turning small and cowering on stage in the end.
Also, Hizumi, which he begins in concert with a monologue that starts with “My name is Hizumi,” is a song that expresses the bitterness of a person who struggles with gender issues. Na mo Naki Watashi (名も無きわたし) follows right after that and it comes across as a song about everyone existing as equals regardless of name or nationality or gender.
I believe that Sakurai could be so daring to pick difficult themes like these only because of Imai and Hoshino’s incredible pop-sensibilites and aggressive arrangements. But is there any other artist who could take such heavy themes and sing them in such a beautiful and easily understood manner? I cannot think of any.
BUCK-TICK「Campanella Hanataba wo Kimi ni」
Looking back, there’s an endless amount of things to talk but most of all, Sakurai Atsushi was an outstanding vocalist, a virtuoso of weaving words together to bring across a song. In addition to that, no amount of words can describe how brilliant he was at expressing himself on stage. When I think about how he probably still wanted to go on singing, I cannot imagine how vexed he was to have fallen on stage.
It’s not difficult to foresee how much more accomplished a singer he could’ve become if he continued to sing, and there’s no doubt that he would also add another layer of depth to his lyrics.
On his personal Instragram, Imai wrote, “I wanted to play guitar by Acchan’s side forever. But, well. We’ll keep going, alright?” (※2) The four members of BUCK-TICK are probably the saddest of us all at the loss of Sakurai, but I hope that they will continue for us as per Imai’s words.There is no end to my grief, but I believe that Sakurai would want us to continue listening to the songs he has left behind for us.
May Sakurai Atsushi’s soul rest in peace.
BUCK-TICK / JUPITER Music Video
※1: From the November 2010 edition of PHY (Ongaku to Hito)
Source: Real Sound