Ryuichi Sakamoto crossed numerous musical and cultural boundaries throughout his groundbreaking, highly accomplished career. As one-third of Yellow Magic Orchestra, he helped build the foundation for synth pop, electro, and techno during the 1970s and early ’80s. He won several major awards for his scores to the films Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and The Last Emperor (1987), both of which he had starring roles in. On albums like Neo Geo (1987) and Beauty (1989), he fused pop, classical, electronic music, and global textures and rhythms, working with an extensive guest list ranging from Brian Wilson to Youssou N'Dour. He turned toward classical with releases like 1996 and BTTB (1999), and remained productive composing music for films, television series, video games, and art installations. During the 21st century, Sakamoto worked extensively with experimental ambient and glitch artists Fennesz, Alva Noto (including 2015′s The Revenant score), Christopher Willits, and Taylor Deupree. He continued receiving acclaim for later experimental works such as 2017′s async and 2023′s 12.
Born January 17, 1952, in Tokyo, Sakamoto took up piano at the age of three, and regularly performed in jazz bands while in high school. Exposed to everyone from the Beatles to Beethoven and John Cage, he was also heavily influenced by avant-garde filmmaking. He went on to study electronic music at Tokyo’s University of Art, and after graduating formed Yellow Magic Orchestra with Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono. Informed by the robotic iconography of Kraftwerk, YMO became massive stars in their native Japan, where they regularly topped the Oricon charts. Their 1980 single “Computer Game” reached the Top 20 in the U.K. and inspired old-school rap legends including Afrika Bambaataa.
While in YMO, Sakamoto also issued his first proper solo effort, 1978′s art pop album Thousand Knives Of. Two years later, he returned with B-2 Unit, featuring the pioneering electro-funk single “Riot in Lagos,” and the vast differences between the two discs gave a clear indication of the mercurial eclecticism that would define the remainder of his work. After YMO’s 1983 breakup, Sakamoto pursued solo and collaborative work full-time, achieving his artistic and commercial breakthrough that same year with his acclaimed score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a film in which he also acted alongside David Bowie. The soundtrack marked one of several collaborations with David Sylvian, just one of Sakamoto’s many intriguing musical unions. His work on 1987′s The Last Emperor (also including music by David Byrne and Cong Su) won an Oscar, Grammy, and BAFTA Award for Best Original Score. Other performers with whom he worked during the decade included Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Williams. Most unexpected was a collaboration with Robert Wyatt and Brian Wilson, as heard on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “We Love You” recorded for 1989′s Beauty.
Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Sakamoto’s soundtrack discography continued to increase in size and significance. As he released eclectic and ambitious solo projects such as Heartbeat, Sweet Revenge, and the multimedia opera LIFE, he produced a large amount of material for films, including Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, and Nagisa Oshima’s Gohatto. Additionally, keeping up with Sakamoto’s collaborative releases developed into a bit of a chore, albeit a rewarding and adventurous one. On Morelenbaum 2/Sakamoto: Casa, he reworked Antonio Carlos Jobim’s music with cellist/arranger Jacques Morelenbaum and his wife, singer Paula Morelenbaum. Sakamoto’s collaborative work with musicians such as Alva Noto, Taylor Deupree, Fennesz, and Christopher Willits — all partnerships that resulted in multiple full-length releases — were well regarded in the fields of ambient and experimental electronic music.
In 2009, Sakamoto was particularly productive. He released the solo acoustic album Playing the Piano and the more experimental effort Out of Noise, and scored Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari’s Silver Lion-winning Women Without Men. That year, he was named as an Officier du Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (“Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters”) at the French Embassy in Tokyo. A denuclearization advocate, Sakamoto organized the NO NUKES 2012 festival, which included a reunited Yellow Magic Orchestra among the performers. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, he responded well to treatment and continued to make music. Among his most notable recordings released after the diagnosis were the soundtracks for The Revenant and Nagasaki: Memories of My Son.
In April 2017, Sakamoto issued async, his first solo studio album of unheard material in eight years. A remix album, async: Remodels, arrived that December and featured reworkings by Fennesz, Arca, Cornelius, and others. In February 2018, Sakamoto and Alva Noto released Glass, a live improvisation recorded at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut. A documentary film about Sakamoto titled Coda was released that June. The following year, he scored the Black Mirror episode “Smithereens” and released two concert albums, Live in London and Two: Live at the Sydney Opera House. In 2020, he composed the music for the French astronaut drama Proxima.
Sakamoto revealed that although his throat cancer went into remission, he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer. While unable to perform on-stage, he presented live streams edited together from short takes into virtual concerts. Playing the Piano 12122020, an audio recording of a streamed concert, was released in late 2021, preceded by Garden of Shadows and Light, a full-length with David Toop. A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto: To the Moon and Back appeared in 2022, including interpretations by Thundercat, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Devonté Hynes, and others. In early 2023, Sakamoto released 12, an album of atmospheric, minimalist pieces, some of which incorporated the sound of his strained, unsteady breathing as a reflection on his own mortality. Just months later, on March 28, Ryuichi Sakamoto died at the age of 71. Travesía, a career-spanning compilation curated by film director Alejandro González Iñárritu, was released in May along with Sakamoto’s soundtrack for the film Kaibutsu (Monster). ~ Jason Ankeny & Paul Simpson