Ryuichi Sakamoto on November 1 2017 in Tokyo Japan.nbsp
Ryuichi Sakamoto on November 1, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. By Jun Sato/Getty Images
In Memoriam

Ryuichi Sakamoto, Oscar-Winning Composer and Musical Innovator, Dies at Age 71

The electronic music pioneer and multi-instrumentalist wrote the film scores for The Revenant, The Last Emperor, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in addition to recording numerous genre-resistant albums. 

Genre-defying music giant Ryuichi Sakamoto has died, as reported by the Japanese news outlet Yomiuri Shimbun and Reuters on Sunday. The composer’s official social media outlet tweeted that the Tokyo-born artist passed last Tuesday. The cause of death was believed to be cancer, as he had been public about his battle with the disease in recent years. In December 2022, Sakamoto performed a streamed solo concert, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Playing the Piano 2022, which now serves as a farewell concert. “I no longer have the energy to do live concerts…This might be the last time that you will see me perform in this manner,” he said at the time. Throughout the course of his career, he won an Oscar, Grammy, BAFTA, two Golden Globes, and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. He turned 71 this January.

Sakamoto’s career was marvelously varied. He studied both electronic music and ethnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which works as an early expression of his omnivorous tastes. After years as a session keyboardist, he co-founded the Yellow Magic Orchestra with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi in 1978. Their first album, simply called Yellow Magic Orchestra, was something of a surprise worldwide hit. It mixed cutting-edge synthesizers, electronic percussion, and, often, typical Japanese melodies. It also included early examples of sampling (greatly foreshadowing Sakamoto’s influence on hip-hop artists in years to come), specifically of sound effects from early video games. Two tracks from the album were released as a combined single, “Firecracker,” and they even appeared on Soul Train. 

The group’s second album, Solid State Survivor, had a richer sound, more influenced by disco and Afropop, and featured Sakamoto singing through a vocoder on the track “Behind the Mask,” one of the earliest applications of the device throughout an entire song. The tune was later covered by Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and others.

In 1978, Sakamoto released his first solo album, Thousand Knives, which continued to push the envelope of electronic music and new technologies, but also incorporated more of a jazz fusion element. 1980 saw the release of B-2 Unit, which featured even more “world beats” with Sakamoto singing in English. This led to collaborations with the British artist David Sylvian (of the band Japan) and American guitar hero Adrian Belew, who worked with the bands King Crimson, Talking Heads, and also David Bowie. Keep those last two in mind, and they will soon become relevant. 

In 1983, Sakamoto’s career took a sharp and unexpected turn. He ended up as one of the leads in Nagisa Ōshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The film starred David Bowie, Tom Conti, Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano, based on a true story set at a prisoner of war camp during World War II. Sakamoto also composed the score, which blended Japanese melodies, electronic elements, and traditional orchestral instrumentation. The movie was an international hit, as was the soundtrack album. (The work won a BAFTA for Best Film Music.) It also serves as something of a high water mark for a certain kind of sleek, New Wave 1980s movie score.

Sakamoto released several more albums in the 1980s, and continued to collaborate with an array of distinguished artists. Names included fellow tech-New Wave musician Thomas Dolby, downtown jazz/noise guitarist Arto Lindsay, James Brown alumni Maceo Parker, Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson (yes, really), and Robbie Robertson

It was in 1987, however, when Sakamoto teamed up with Talking Heads’s David Byrne and Chinese composer Cong Su to create the score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor. The score won an Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe (and the film, a masterpiece, won Best Picture, as well.) Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey gave the trio their Oscar trophy. 

Other film scores followed, including High Heels for Pedro Almodóvar, Little Buddha and The Sheltering Sky for Bertolucci, Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale for Brian De Palma, Wild Palms for Oliver Stone, and, more recently, The Revenant for Alejandro González Iñárritu. In 1993, he appeared in the Mark Romanek-directed video of the Madonna ballad “Rain.” He also composed music for anime projects and video games, even working as a scenario writer for one game, called L.O.L.: Lack of Love

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sakamoto was a mainstay of major cultural institutions everywhere, leaping between the pop music, classical, and modern art worlds. For a few years, you couldn’t have public radio on for more than an hour without hearing his name, and from that, we all benefitted. In 1999, he released the album BTTB: Back to the Basics, which somewhat pulled the rug out from all his innovation—it was just Sakamoto, his compositions, and his piano. It wasn’t a giant hit or anything, but I’m mentioning it because it was something I played quite a lot back in the day. 

In 2017, director Stephen Nomura Schible released the documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda to critical praise. The movie highlights the artist’s unusual approach to instrumentation, finding ways to fuse natural and technological sounds, and his work as a peace activist. In a recent interview, Sakamoto talked about his embrace of new technology. “We consider Beethoven very classical, a dated musician, but at [his] time, the pianoforte was a new technology; he wrote 32 sonatas for this new kind of instrument. I believe if Beethoven was alive now he would be keen to use the internet or VR.” 

Among the many who responded to his passing on social media were fellow genre-defying musicians Jean-Michel Jarre and Oneohtrix Point Never.

Twitter content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

Twitter content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.