Ryuichi Sakamoto Passes Away: Japanese Electronic Music Composer and Pianist

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Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto, the renowned Japanese composer and producer, has passed away at the age of 71. He was well-known for his electronic music experimentation and was awarded an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Bafta for his solo work and his contributions to the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Sakamoto had been diagnosed with cancer for a second time in 2021 and died on Tuesday.

He made his mark in the film industry with his score for The Last Emperor in 1987, winning him an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe. He also acted in the movie, an epic about the life of Puyi, the last emperor of China. His other notable film credits include Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence with David Bowie in 1983.

Sakamoto began studying composition at the age of 10 and was inspired by the Beatles and Debussy. He set up YMO with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi in 1978, playing keyboards, and their synthesizer innovations influenced techno-pop and hip-hop. He said in 2010, “Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So the music goes around the world and comes full circle.”

In a 2018 interview, he described his striving to challenge the conventions of Western musical composition. He said, “When I write scores my thinking is limited in the forms of Western composition which I learned when I was a teen. But I always wanted to break it, break the wall, or limits I am trapped inside. Sometimes using electronics or blending with electronic sound can help to break this wall.” He also enjoyed exploring various musical styles.

Sakamoto was also famous as an environmental campaigner in Japan, especially after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. He was born in 1952 and his father was a literary editor for Japanese writers including Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. As a student he was classically trained but later specialised in ethnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He was fascinated by world music, including that of Okinawa island in Japan. His later collaborations included work with Brian Eno, Alva Noto and cellist Jaques Morelenbaum. His daughter Miu Sakamoto is a J-pop singer.

The world has lost a great musician and composer in Ryuichi Sakamoto. Prof Brian Cox, physicist and former keyboard player with the bands Dare and D:Ream, praised him in a tweet: “He was a big part of my ’80s musical experience – initially for me through his work with David Sylvian and Japan – but of course he leaves a magnificent catalogue of music behind”. His work will continue to inspire future generations of musicians for years to come.