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

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.

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