Ryuichi Sakamoto Dead at 71

    Ryuichi Sakamoto has died at the age of 71. The pioneering Japanese musician and composer passed away on March 28, according to a statement from his management team.

    Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, which went into remission after successful treatment, but in 2021 he revealed that he was battling colon cancer. Last year, he shared he now had a stage four diagnosis.

    “While undergoing treatment for cancer discovered in June 2020, Sakamoto continued to create works in his home studio whenever his health would allow,” a statement on Sakamoto’s website reads. “He lived with music until the very end. We would like to express our deepest gratitude to his fans and all those who have supported his activities, as well as the medical professionals in Japan and the U.S. who did everything in their power to cure him. In accordance with Sakamoto’s strong wishes, the funeral service was held among his close family members.”

    Born on January 17, 1952 in Tokyo, Japan, Sakamoto took up piano when he was three years old. He studied at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he graduated with a master’s degree in music composition. It was during this time that he started experimenting with the synthesizer equipment available at the university and began his career as a session musician, producer, and arranger. He soon joined Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi to form the hugely influential synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, which released its self-titled debut in 1978.

    ‘Behind the Mask’, one of Sakamoto’s compositions, went on to be covered by artists including Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton, and his first solo album, Thousand Knives of Ryūichi Sakamoto, arrived just months later. A version of the title song appeared on Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1981 album BGM, which featured one of the earliest uses of the Roland TR-808 drum machine on a recording.

    Service, the final studio album from YMO’s original incarnation, came out in 1983. That same year, Sakamoto scored the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which he also acted alongside David Bowie. His work on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), along with David Byrne and Cong Su, won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy. He went on to score films including 1990’s The Sheltering Sky, 1991’s High Heels, 1993’s Little Buddha, and 2015’s The Revenant. Over the course of his career, he collaborated with international musicians such as Thomas Dolby, Youssou N’Dour, Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, and Jaques Morelenbaum.

    In 2017, Sakamoto issued an ambient album called async. His final album, 12, was released earlier this year. In December 2022, Sakamoto livestreamed a career-spanning piano concert previously recorded at Tokyo’s 509 Studio. “I no longer have the energy to do live concerts…” he told actor Masafumi Suzuki ahead of the performance. “This might be the last time that you will see me perform in this manner.”

    Konstantinos Pappis
    Konstantinos Pappis
    Konstantinos Pappis is a writer, journalist, and music editor at Our Culture. His work has also appeared in Pitchfork, GIGsoup, and other publications. He currently lives in Athens, Greece.

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