The legendary composer, producer and recording artist passed away last week at the age of 71
As one would ultimately expect, Ryuichi Sakamoto “lived with music until the very end”. That’s what a statement announcing his death on March 28 read, along with his favourite quote, “art is long, life is short”. The sentiment is fitting and runs deep: although his passing is bittersweet, the long shadow of his legacy and influence will always remain.
Born in Tokyo on January 17, 1952, Sakamoto had already learnt to play the piano by the tender age of three, and was composing his own music by the age of ten. After a stint at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he graduated with a master’s in music in 1976. Before his death at the age of 71, the acclaimed composer was instantly recognisable by his floppy grey hair and tortoiseshell glasses, but before this was a fresh-faced founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), pioneers in the electronic music scene.
To mark his passing, we journey through Sakamoto’s extraordinary life and career, from composing Hollywood scores to changing the face of electronic music forever – all in his own words.
“Hollywood is a double feeling. Love and hate. With a talented film director, I cannot resist. They are such charming and intelligent people. But each time, it is very difficult to deal with other people.”
As an internationally acclaimed composer, Sakamoto’s film scores were the toast of Hollywood for much of the 1980s and early 90s. He began working in the industry with the 1983 war film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which he also starred alongside David Bowie. The score for the film won Sakamoto that year’s BAFTA for Best Film Music, and from there the goldrush continued. Four years later he went on to compose the soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, earning both a Golden Globe and Oscar win for Best Original Score.
Sakamoto also contributed scores to other high-profile films such as Pedro Almodóvar’s High Heels and Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, but despite this apparent success, had a complicated relationship with Hollywood. In 2017, during an interview with the French edition of L’Officiel Hommes, Sakamoto revealed his “double feeling” about his previous dealings in Hollywood, declaring that when working “I have to satisfy other people, the director or the producer, not me”, before adding, “I have to satisfy myself”.
Despite being diagnosed with cancer in 2014, Sakamoto was enticed back to Hollywood a year later by Alejandro G. Iñárritu to score The Revenant, earning the composer Grammy, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations in the process.
“This global view to different cultures is just part of my nature. I want to break down the walls between genres, categories, or cultures.”
Although Sakamoto’s name and legacy are indelibly tied to Japanese culture, he was known for his kaleidoscopic approach to artistic expression, pulling from many different styles across different genres. “I was born in Japan, but I don’t think I’m Japanese,” he would say in 1988, “I don’t like nationalities and borders.” While early solo albums like Thousand Knives leaned heavily on the electro-progressive stylings of YMO, 1989’s Beauty took inspiration from rock and techno, while 1995’s Smoochy was heavily influenced by Latin sounds.
This eclectic approach is evident in the countless artists whose work has been influenced by Sakamoto. The J-pop megastar Hikaru Utada covered the titular track from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence in 2009, while R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck has credited the song with inspiring the mandolin section in “Losing My Religion”. In addition to this, Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton recorded their own renditions of the YMO track “Behind The Mask”.
“Conceptually, I am open to mistakes – errors, actually. I do play lots of wrong notes while I am making some music, and a mistake or a wrong note is like a gift for me”
Through his life’s work, Sakamoto explored the unending possibilities of sound, redefining what it meant to be a musician. During an interview with The Fader in 2017, when Sakamoto was promoting his record async, he expressed that errors were actually beneficial to experimentation. “Oh, wow”, he went on in mock amazement, “an unknown sound or an unknown harmony. I didn’t know about this. It’s just a simple wrong note but it completely changes the music[’s] colour”. In this way, Sakamoto’s extensive experimentation helped to push culture forward in everlasting ways: the 1980 track “Riot in Lagos” from the album B-2 Unit was directly influential on the sound of Hip Hop as a genre.
“In the 1980s, Joseph Beuys planted the seed that activism could be considered as art”
As a teenager, Sakamoto was obsessed with the underground New York art scene of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and the Fluxus collective, and the experimental music that they produced. But it wasn’t until an interview with The Japan Times in 2014 that Sakamoto stated it was Beuys who allowed him to see that activism was also art.
As well as a composer, producer, actor and pop star, Sakamoto was also a committed campaigner, offering vocal support for many important causes. Following the September 11 attacks, Sakamoto and a group of writers released the essay compilation Hisen (meaning “no war”) in response to the heightened rhetoric from the US government post-disaster. After this, following the March 2011 Earthquake in Japan that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Sakamoto vowed to end the country’s reliance on nuclear power, organising ‘The No Nukes 2012 Concert’ a year later. And what was to be one last act of selflessness before his death, Sakamoto wrote a letter to the governor of Tokyo in early March 2023 condemning the environmental impact of a new redevelopment. “We should not sacrifice the precious trees of Jingu that our ancestors spent 100 years protecting and nurturing, just for quick economic gain”, he said in the letter, “and as a citizen, I could not remain silent.”