Ryuichi Sakamoto, Japanese Pop Pioneer and Oscar-Winning Composer, Dies Aged 71
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Ryuichi Sakamoto, Japanese Pop Pioneer and Oscar-Winning Composer, Dies Aged 71

Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese musician whose remarkably eclectic career straddled pop, experimentalism and Oscar-winning film composition, has died aged 71.

Sakamoto’s management company said he died on Tuesday. He had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

As a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra alongside Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, Sakamoto created joyous and progressive electronic pop in the late 1970s and early 1980s, alongside solo releases. He acted alongside David Bowie in the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and composed its celebrated theme, the first in a series of film scores including Oscar-winning work in 1987 with David Byrne and Cong Su for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

Sakamoto had twice been diagnosed with cancer. In 2014, he took a year off from music as he recovered from throat cancer, describing the illness as “the most harsh, physically painful time in my life”.

In January 2021, he announced he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer, saying: “From now on, I will be living alongside cancer. But, I am hoping to make music for a little while longer.”

He was born in Tokyo in 1952, and began taking piano lessons aged six, later attending Tokyo University of the Arts to study music. He trained on early synthesisers, and enthused by everything from Debussy to Kraftwerk, began working on various musical projects, including with Hosono and Takahashi. After Sakamoto released his 1978 solo debut, Thousand Knives – playing melodies that harked back to traditional Japanese music on electronic equipment – the trio realised their vision for a Japanese disco-pop group, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).

The group became a huge success in Japan – in 1980, two of their albums stayed at No 1 and No 2 in the charts for seven weeks, and they had seven Top 5 albums during their career. “Accidentally the three of us became very popular,” he remembered in 2018. “Walking the street in Tokyo, people pointed at me. I hated it.”

Their English-language lyrics helped them cross over into the US, where they appeared on the TV show Soul Train, and their electronic production influenced early hip-hop and electro scenes. Michael Jackson covered their song Behind the Mask and intended to include it on Thriller, but a royalties disagreement prevented it.

Their track Computer Game was also a Top 20 hit in the UK. YMO went on hiatus in 1984, though occasionally reunited for releases and reunion concerts.

Alongside YMO, Sakamoto continued releasing solo albums including 1980’s B-2 Unit, another influence on the robotically funky sound of electro that also foreshadowed other dance music styles. After focusing purely on solo work, he forged further connections in the west, collaborating with musicians including Iggy Pop, Robert Wyatt, Laurie Anderson, David Sylvian and more. Sylvian contributed Forbidden Colours, a vocal version of one of Sakamoto’s most famous works, the theme to second world war drama Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Sakamoto also starred in the film as a prisoner of war camp commander.

Following The Last Emperor (in which he also had an acting role), he collaborated with Bernardo Bertolucci again for The Last Buddha, and with Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence director Nagisa Oshima for Gohatto. He also scored two films by Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale), plus Wild Palms for Oliver Stone, High Heels for Pedro Almodóvar, the 1990 film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, and more. His 2015 score for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film The Revenant was nominated for Golden Globe, Bafta and Grammy awards. In 2019, he composed the music for an episode of dystopian TV drama series Black Mirror. He took no further acting roles, aside from appearing as a film director in Rain, a music video for Madonna.

Sakamoto released a steady schedule of solo releases throughout the 1990s and onwards, and wrote a piece for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. In 1999 he debuted the multimedia opera project Life, in collaboration with artist Shiro Takatani with contributions from Bertolucci, Pina Bausch and more. He and Takatani extended the concept into installation work from 2007 onwards.

Also in 2007, he began the ambitious Schola project, curating 17 compilations of global music ranging from composers such as Ravel and Beethoven to Japanese pop. It was released via his record label Commmons, set up in 2006, which has also released work by artists including Boredoms and OOIOO.

In 2002, he began a fruitful partnership with German musician Carsten Nicolai, who used his Alva Noto alias for four collaborative albums of minimalist electronica.

Sakamoto was also an environmental campaigner, opposing the use of nuclear power, and creating the forestry project More Trees to enable carbon offsetting.

In 1982, Sakamoto married Japanese pop musician Akiko Yano, a touring member of YMO and a successful solo artist in her own right. They split in 1992, and eventually filed for divorce in 2006. They had a daughter, pop singer Miu Sakamoto.

Since the early 1990s, Sakamoto has been in a relationship with Norika Sora. Their son Neo Sora contributed to a documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, directed by Stephen Nomura Schible in 2018.

Source : Theguardian