The music world was in mourning last week when it learned that legendary Japanese Ryuichi Sakamoto had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Sakamoto’s career spanned several decades, and he has been hailed as a true visionary and master of his craft.
Messages and memories have poured in since the Japanese maestro passed away. For those unfamiliar with Sakamoto and his work, now is a better time than ever to explore the incredible legacy he has left behind. Read on to find out more.
Who was He?
Ryuichi Sakamoto was born in Tokyo in 1952. He graduated with a degree in Music Composition from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1970.
Sakamoto was a classically trained musician and worked as a session musician after leaving education. In 1977, Sakamoto and two other session musicians he had worked with, Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono, got together and formed a band, the Yellow Magic Orchestra.
It was as part of this trio that Sakamoto would go on to see international commercial and critical success. The band was experimental and used a variety of new and emerging electronic instruments to produce new and exciting sounds.
Yellow Magic Orchestra released a string of hits, including 1000 Knives, You’ve Got To Help Yourself, Lotus Love, and Firecracker. Their 1979 track Behind The Mask was even covered by superstars like Eric Clapton and Michael Jackson.
Sakamoto saw a lot of success with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Despite their often left-field and experimental approach to music, they had and still do have a huge global following. Their biggest commercial success was their 1978 album Computer Game, which sold around 400,00 copies in America and entered the UK’s Top 20 chart.
However, it was to be in 1983 that Sakamoto would see his biggest solo success. He both starred in and scored the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, where he acted alongside none other than David Bowie.
While the film itself performed reasonably well, it was the soundtrack that garnered the most attention. The main theme, which shared the film’s title, was released as a single and broke into the top 20 UK singles chart. The track has become a classic Christmas song around the world and still gets regular playtime.
Sakamoto’s influence can be felt everywhere, from modern hip-hop to royalty free music.
His career was nothing short of exceptional. Few other figures in the music industry have been involved in so many different projects and have been at the forefront of so many different scenes and movements.
From his early days as a session musician and band member, Sakamoto quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the most respected and revered figures in the music industry. His foray into film began in the 1980s and continued for the rest of his life. His soundtrack work saw him collect a slew of awards, including a Hong Kong Film Award, a Grammy, two Golden Globes, a Grand Bell, a Bafta, and an Oscar, which he won for the original score composed for the 1987 film The Last Emperor.
Despite his affiliation with Hollywood and flirtations with the stars, Sakamoto never forgot his experimental roots. His latest album, 12, was released in January 2023. This deep, introspective work uses minimalist electronic sounds to paint sonic canvasses that are simultaneously dense and spacious. The album was met with critical acclaim, regarded as one of Sakamoto’s finest, and produced expertly despite his failing health.
Sakamoto was a prolific composer and record producer. Over the course of his career, he released 24 solo albums, 11 live albums, and 27 collaboration albums. This was in addition to his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra and his soundtrack work, which saw him score over 50 films, games, and TV shows.
This quantity never came at the expense of quality. He is lauded for his fusion of traditional Japanese sounds and motifs with modern instrumentation and recording techniques. He used everything from pianos and stringed instruments to synthesizers and obscure electronic equipment to craft sounds and melodies that were as delicate as they were impactful and thought-provoking.
His music has been integral in the development and evolution of various different genres and styles, including techno, ambient, and electronic pop.
Beyond music, Sakamoto was an outspoken and ardent activist, championing civil rights and environmental causes. While this is common among celebrities and public figures in the West, it’s rarer in Japan, where expressing controversial views could see artists censored.
While not unexpected, Sakamoto’s death has rocked the music and wider arts industries. Few figures have remained so influential for so long, and the reverence held for this Japanese maestro has only increased over the years. Sakamoto may be gone, but he has left an incredible body of work behind him.