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OBITUARY | Ryuichi Sakamoto: A Music Innovator Who Captivated the World

The great composer Ryuichi Sakamoto said, "I hope to make music until the final moment." His last concert was watched by more than 60,000 people worldwide.



Ryuichi Sakamoto performing at "Ryuichi Sakamoto: Playing the Piano 2022" (©2022 KAB Inc.)

Ryuichi Sakamoto, the first Japanese national to ever receive an Academy Award for Best Original Score, passed away on March 28 at the age of 71. 

A private funeral was held by his family. Sakamoto is survived by his daughter Miu Sakamoto, who is also a musician. His wife was singer-songwriter Akiko Yano, who he married in 1982 and divorced in 2006. 

Yellow Magic Orchestra

When it comes to popular music, no Japanese musician is more globally recognized than Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Sakamoto rose to prominence as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). He formed the band in 1978 with musicians Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi (who passed away in January 2023).  

YMO's pioneering use of synthesizers took the world by storm. In fact, electronic instruments used by the band were among the most advanced at the time. The distinct synthetic sounds of the band's techno music were a novelty, and the impact of Sakamoto's music spread globally in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The band's creations, including the famous "Technopolis" (1979), had a long-lasting influence on future musicians. Indeed, major artists like Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Michael Jackson made music influenced by Sakamoto's work.

Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto in Tokyo on November 15, 2010 (© Sankei by Seishiro Taki)

A Truly Global Artist

Even after YMO went inactive, Sakamoto went on to forge a successful solo career and also made a name as an acclaimed film-score composer.

His score for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), directed by Nagisa Oshima, won him a BAFTA. He also starred in the film

Furthermore, Sakamoto received both an Academy Award and a Grammy for his film score for Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987). This made him the first Japanese to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score and cemented his status as a truly global artist.

Then, for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Sakamoto composed and conducted the music for the opening ceremony. 

In 2009, Sakamoto was honored as Officier of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. In 2010, he received an Art Encouragement Prize from the Japanese Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Sakamoto's final solo piano concert in December 2022 was streamed in about 30 countries and regions. His final album 12 was released just three months ago in January 2023.

A Music for the People

YMO bandmate Takahashi used to call Sakamoto "Professor" because he was so well-versed in music theory. Sakamoto often spoke like a scholar — in a subdued, yet clear, voice. 

There was something intellectual about his works, too. It didn't try to appeal to the listener's sentimentality and instead relied only on the sheer beauty of the music.

On the other hand, Sakamoto once told The Sankei Shimbun, "I don't play jazz because jazz improvisation is extremely sophisticated. It's not something everyone in the audience would understand."

Although Sakamoto had a scholarly side, he was devoted to creating music that would reach a diverse audience. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto performing at "Ryuichi Sakamoto: Playing the Piano 2022" (©2022 KAB Inc.)

'Music Was Always a Part of Me'

Sakamoto underwent surgery for rectal cancer in 2021 and had been battling the illness for several years. 

He revealed that the cancer had progressed to stage 4 in his autobiography How Many More Times Will I See the Full Moon? , which was serialized from July 2022 to 2023 in the literary magazine Shincho.

The ailing musician wrote, "I hope to make music until the final moment."

Without a doubt, music was an inextricable part of Sakamoto's life. He once told a reporter, "It's not that I chose music, but rather that music has always been a part of me."


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Authors: The Sankei Shimbun and Takeshi Ishii

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