Ryuichi Sakamoto, the prolific Japanese composer who won an Oscar for scoring The Last Emperor, died on March 28 of cancer. He was 71.
"We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of artist and musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto," Sakamoto's record label, Commmons, said in a statement. Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014 and colorectal cancer in 2020. "While undergoing treatment for cancer discovered in June 2020, Sakamoto continued to create works in his home studio whenever his health would allow. He lived with music until the very end."
Born in Tokyo, Japan, on Jan. 17, 1952, Sakamoto began playing piano at the age of 6. He studied music composition and ethnomusicology at the Tokyo University of the Arts, while also working as a session musician. In 1978, he founded techno-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra with Haruomi "Harry" Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, becoming trailblazers of the electronic music genre. Sakamoto was a pioneer of synths and drum machines.
As YMO achieved global recognition, director Nagisa Ôshima asked Sakamoto, who had never acted before, to star in his 1983 war film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. He plays prison camp commander Captain Yonoi opposite David Bowie's Major Jack Celliers. Sakamoto also composed the score for the film.
"I started off very lucky because Mr. Ôshima trusted me completely. He gave me total creative freedom — and that was my first score," Sakamoto told Criterion in a 2017 interview. "I was an amateur in acting and in film scoring. No one told me how to write film music at that time, so I didn't know how to start. I wanted to have some kind of compass, so I asked the producer, Jeremy Thomas, to give me one example to refer to for film music, and he said Citizen Kane. I like the work of Bernard Herrmann a lot and respect him, but that music wasn't so impressive to me. So, I had to create my own method."
Ôshima introduced Sakamoto to filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, who cast him as Japanese Imperial Army officer Masahiko Amakasu in The Last Emperor (1987). After filming, Sakamoto was asked to write music for the film too. "I said, 'Well, how long do I have?' And he said one week. One week for this giant, epic film!" he recalled to Criterion. "But one time Bertolucci had said, 'Well, Ennio Morricone did it,' so I had to do it. I wrote forty-five music cues in one week."
The Last Emperor was nominated for and won nine Oscars at the 60th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Score, which Sakamoto shared with David Byrne and Cong Su. "I want to thank maestro Bertolucci; Jeremy Thomas, the producer," Sakamoto said onstage. "All my friends, my staff, assistants — thank you very much."
The composer would collaborate with Bertolucci on two more films, 1990's The Sheltering Sky and 1993's Little Buddha. Sakamoto composed scores for dozens of shorts and over 40 feature films, including Pedro Almodóvar's Tacones lejanos (1991), the Brian De Palma films Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant (2015).
He composed "El Mar Mediterrani," the piece of music used for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The following year, he starred in the music video for Madonna's "Rain," directed by Mark Romanek.
Sakamoto, in addition to being a composer, record producer, songwriter, singer, and actor, was an activist in Japan's anti-nuclear movement. He was an advocate for peace and for environmental issues.
Sakamoto's return to music following his first cancer diagnosis and a year-long hiatus was documented in the 2017 film, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. "I honestly don't know how many years I have left," the musician says at one point in Coda. "It could be 20 years, 10 years, or a relapse reduces it to just one. I'm not taking anything for granted. But I know that I want to make more music. Music that I won't be ashamed to leave behind — meaningful work."
His final solo album, 12, was released earlier this year on his 71st birthday.
The statement from Sakamoto's record label concluded by sharing one of his favorite quotes: "'Ars longa, vita brevis.' Art is long, life is short."
Sakamoto is survived by his daughter, Miu Sakamoto, a musician.
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