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Beloved Oscar-winning composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto passes away at 71

By Mikaela Russell, Staff Writer

Ryuichi Sakamoto” by Joi is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Japan’s trailblazing composer Ryuichi Sakamoto sadly passed away on March 28th after battling rectal cancer. The unfortunate news came when a post was made on his Instagram account, with no further details besides the date of his passing. 

Back in 2021, Sakamoto publicized his diagnosis of rectal cancer and announced he was receiving treatment.

Ryuichi Sakamoto was born in Tokyo on January 17, 1952. His father, Kazuki Sakamoto, was a prominent literary editor, while his mother, Keiko (Shimomura) Sakamoto, designed headwear for women.

He began piano lessons at the age of 6 and began composing shortly thereafter. Early influences included Bach and Debussy, whom he once described as “the door to all 20th-century music,” and he encountered modern jazz as a teenager when he fell in with a group of rebellious hipsters. 

Sakamato shared his creative process and philosophy for music.

“My concept when making music is that there is no border between music and noise,” Sakamoto said in a past interview with the Guardian.

Mr. Sakamoto composed music that was melodic, evocative, and profoundly attuned to the sounds around him. He was poised in futuristic techno, orchestral works, video game music, and intimate piano solos. In addition to releasing numerous solo albums, he collaborated with a vast array of musicians from a variety of genres and won an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and two Golden Globes.

Before his greatest achievements, Mr. Sakamoto was drawn to modern art, particularly Cage’s avant-garde compositions. At Tokyo University of the Arts, he studied composition and ethnomusicology before beginning to experiment with synthesizers and perform in the local musical scene.

1978 marked the publication of Mr. Sakamoto’s debut solo album, “Thousand Knives,” a trippy amalgam that begins with the musician reciting a poem by Mao through a vocoder, followed by a reggae beat and a series of Herbie Hancock-inspired improvisations. The bassist Haruomi Hosono invited him and the drummer Yukihiro Takahashi to establish the Yellow Magic Orchestra trio that year.

Using synthesizers and sequencers to create hits like “Computer Game” while also parodying Western conceptions of Japanese music, the band’s 1978 self-titled album was a massive success and influenced a variety of electronic music genres, from synth-pop to techno. In 1984, the group disbanded in part due to Mr. Sakamoto’s desire to pursue solo activity.

Mr. Sakamoto was also gaining widespread recognition in the early 1980s when “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” director Nagisa Oshima asked him to co-star alongside David Bowie in the 1983 film about a Japanese POW camp. Mr. Sakamoto, who had no acting experience, agreed on the condition that he could also compose the film’s score. 

The synth-heavy title track of the film remained one of Mr. Sakamoto’s most well-known works. He adapted it frequently, including for “Forbidden Colors,” a vocal version featuring the singer David Sylvian, as well as piano renditions and expansive orchestral arrangements.

Then followed soundtracks for films directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, such as “The Last Emperor” (1987), “The Sheltering Sky” (1990), and “Little Buddha” (1993).

Bertolucci was demanding;  he would exclaim “More emotional, more emotional!” at the composer and compel him to rewrite music on the spot during recording sessions with a 40-piece orchestra. “The Last Emperor” earned Mr. Sakamoto an Academy Award in 1988.

Mr. Sakamoto was virtually everywhere after the Bertolucci films, appearing in a Madonna music video, modeling for Gap, and composing music for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Iggy Pop, Youssou N’Dour, and Brian Wilson were among his collaborators on the eclectic albums “Neo Geo” (1987) and “Beauty” (1989), and he toured with a world-fusion ensemble from five continents.

Mr. Sakamoto had also returned to his classical origins in the late 1990s with the album “BTTB,” or “Back to the Basics,” a collection of sentimental, delicate piano arrangements reminiscent of Claude Debussy, as well as more experimental explorations of the piano’s inner workings in the spirit of John Cage.

A few years later, after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Mr. Sakamoto became an activist in Japan’s anti-nuclear movement. In 2012, he organized a No Nukes concert featuring a reunited Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk, one of Yellow Magic’s major influences.

The day before the concert, he spoke at a demonstration in front of the residence of the prime minister of Japan. 

“I come here as a citizen,” he declared. “It is essential that we all do what we can and speak up.”

In 2014, Mr. Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer. During his treatment, he stopped working, with the exception of composing music for Alejandro G. Iárritu’s film “The Revenant.” Mr. Sakamoto collaborated with Carsten Nicolai, who performs under the name Alva Noto, to create a widely acclaimed score of luminous foreboding.

Mr. Sakamoto’s sensitivity to sound permeated every aspect of his life. In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, he recalled writing an email to the chef of the Manhattan restaurant Kajitsu saying, “I love your food, I respect you, and I love this restaurant, but I hate the music.” Then, without fanfare or compensation, he created tasteful, subtle arrangements for the restaurant.

A handful of students were aware of Sakamoto’s achievements and were also influenced by his composing style. 

One student, junior digital game design major Josiah Alvarez, shared his experiences with Sakamato’s music in video games. Specifically “Dawn of Mana”, which Sakamoto scored.

“In high school, especially during the pandemic, I played a lot of video games, specifically “Dawn of Mana”. I was able to recognize his sound, it’s a distinct memory of mine actually, his piano melodies are so calming, almost lullaby-like, it would put me in this zen headspace and would distract me from the madness of the world, it would have me forget about all my missing assignments, drama in my family life, everything. I love video games but staring at a screen for hours on end, my brain needs to be mellowed out, and his music definitely did that for me. I’m grateful for his work and his influence in the video game industry,” he said.

Another student, sophomore music technology major, Julian Pastelli also shared his past encounters with Sakamato’s music and the effect it had on his life and future career in music.

“Being in a music major, I listen to a lot of elements in sound, and there was nothing more enjoyable than decompressing a stressful day of school than listening to Sakamoto’s catalog. Learning about his passing a few weeks ago was heartbreaking. I remember watching “Call Me By Your Name” for the first time with friends and after watching and listening, I knew I could hear his work, his sound, and after the credits rolled down the screen, I saw his name and I was ecstatic. I added his tracks from the movie to my library and I swear I still listen to it. Since I was in 8th grade orchestra I would routinely listen to his music. I feel like a lot of people would be surprised to know how many songs he’s credited for in movies, he is the blueprint to modern jazz and his legacy will live on in music forever,” he shared.

After running into another sophomore, music major, Kaliegh Rhodes, she was asked her opinion on if certain individuals could listen and interpret Mr. Sakamoto’s music, she said 

Sophomore music major Kaliegh Rhodes shared her opinion on Sakamato’s music style in comparison to more popular artists.

It depends on how you interpret his sound, most people in our generation are influenced by the biggest artists like Taylor Swift, SZA, or Billie Ellish, but people who are truly interested in exploring and evolving their interest in music genres might come across his sound, some people might think his style is a little boring and drowsy, while some people like myself can point out how captivating and expressive his melodies are. It’s definitely not for everyone but for those who like to sit down and reflect on life will find him soothing. It’s not like he’s the first artist that your Spotify or Apple Music recommends or maybe he is, he’s definitely underrated and if you’re looking for something to listen to after a long day of work or class, don’t be shy to try and listen,” she shared.

Lastly, junior digital arts and design major, Angela Yen shared her thoughts on Sakamato’s impact on the rising Asian/Asian American generation who also have an ear for classical music and her personal connection to his music.

 “Not to be stereotypical, but any Asian who took orchestra or did NYSSMA in high school will tell you they’ve heard his work or played a rendition of his work. For myself, I played the piano for my solo NYSSMA performance, and played Sakamoto’s ‘20220302’ and ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ pieces. Both were pretty lengthy pieces that I rehearsed for months. I can still play them, maybe with my eyes closed even…I remember being brought to tears just by how powerful and moving they were. Though I’m not Japanese, it made me proud to be Asian. To be able to bring your sound across the world and influence so many young artists to perform your piece and be confident to do so, it’s impressive, it’s innovative. So many kids at my family’s local church love to play some of his music after service, his music and legacy will live on forever and I know so many artists in the future will surely sample his sound and incorporate it into their own,” she shared

In 2021 and 2022, following a prolonged hospitalization, he recorded his final album, “12,” in the form of a sketchbook diary

.“I just wanted to be showered in sound,” he said of the record. “I had a feeling that it’d have a small healing effect on my damaged body and soul.”

It’s evident that Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work has left an indent in the music world, as well as as an activist and environmentalist. One of the most memorable quotes he has left with this world is short but impactful.

“Art is long. Life is short,” he said.

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