Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away this week. He was 71 years old. He died after a valiant fight against throat cancer. There has been an outpouring of sadness from around the globe at the news that we have lost one of the world’s great keyboardists and film scorers. Ryuichi Sakamoto was never an artist who sought the spotlight. Fame and fortune were not factors that motivated him to pursue excellence in his music or in his art, yet the impactful nature of his life’s work helped change the way we view music today. Here is a brief overview of his life and his accomplishments.
Ryuichi Sakamoto first came to the attention of the music world in the 1970s as a member of the important Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra. Yellow Magic Orchestra was a trio made up of Ryuichi Sakamoto (on keyboards), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums) and Haruomi Hosono (guitar and lead singer). Yellow Magic Orchestra is a prime example of the notion that music is a universal language. In the 1970s they were part of a global musical movement that introduced synthesizers into mainstream use. At the same time as prog rock bands such as Genesis and Yes were creating their twenty-minute epic masterpieces and Alternative bands such as Depeche Mode, The Cure and Yazoo were using synthesizers to create music that was lighter and bouncier, Yellow Magic Orchestra was doing the exact same thing in Japan. (You can listen to the song called “Rydeen” here).To say that Ryuichi Sakamoto was the Japanese Vince Clarke of his time would be an appropriate comparison to make. But to characterize Sakamoto as simply being a keyboardist in a Pop band would be wrong. He was so much more than that.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s interest in music extended beyond the production of hit songs. It went much deeper to the actual way that individual sounds could be manipulated. Sakamoto was on the leading edge of those artists around the world who recognized the potential that digitizing music had in terms of its ability to allow composers to manipulate sounds in ways that would be more difficult if attempted while playing live. As a result, Yellow Magic Orchestra became one of the first bands in the world to employ digital technology, along with their synthesizers. If you listened to the sample track of theirs from the link above, you will have heard how familiar it sounded to music you are used to hearing from North America and Europe during the early 80s.. The fact is that digital technology had an impact on the world of music that was global in nature. One of the leading voices behind this global movement was Ryuichi Sakamoto from Japan.
In the 1980s, Ryuichi Sakamoto left Yellow Magic Orchestra and began releasing solo albums, as well as collaborations with musicians from all over the world. In addition to that, he decided that the poetry of the cinema spoke to him so he began creating musical scores for big budget movies. The first film that he scored was the 1983 movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. (You can watch the trailer here). That movie starred Tom Conti and David Bowie as British POWs in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. Ryuichi Sakamoto also acted in the film. His musical score won the award for Best Score at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts ceremony that year. A few years later, he provided much of the musical score for the Academy Award winning movie The Last Emperor. (You can watch the trailer here). That movie swept the Academy Awards the year it was nominated. As part of the awards sweep, Ryuichi Sakamoto won the Academy Award for Best Score, making him the first composer from an Asian country to be so honoured.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. Despite the ravages of the disease and the treatments to combat it, Mr. Sakamoto continued creating and performing right up until the final months of his life. In the video link here, you can watch Ryuichi Sakamoto giving the final piano recital of his life. In the video he plays the theme to the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The music is lovely. It is all the more so when you watch him play and realize that he is in pain and only months away from death. He was a very special man, indeed. The world was made richer because of his musical contributions to it. We are the poorer for him being gone. Peace be with you, Ryuichi Sakamoto. Thank you for a life lived in pursuit of Art and beauty and sound. You have earned your rest.
In 2018, a documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto was released. It was called Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. You can watch the trailer here. It looks amazing.
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