Ryuichi Sakamoto Transcended Borders, Genres with His Music

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Ryuichi Sakamoto plays the piano at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Tokyo in 2012.

The death of Ryuichi Sakamoto on March 28, which was announced Sunday, has reverberated across the globe. He was an academically trained composer who produced a wide variety of music ranging from experimental works to film scores and hit pop songs. His music transcended borders and touched the hearts of many people.

He suffered from health problems in recent years although his passion for music never waned.

“If my life is extended for a minute or two, then there may be that much possibility for the birth of a new piece of music,” he wrote for the Bungeishunju magazine in 2022, showing his commitment to composing music.

While struggling with deteriorating health, he streamed his piano performances of his works in December 2022.

“I played some of the pieces [in the program] as piano solos for the first time, so I took ample time preparing the arrangements. I have a feeling that I’ve broken new ground here,” he said at the time.

Sakamoto took piano lessons and studied composition from a young age and developed his love for Bach and Debussy. Around the time he started studying at the Tokyo University of the Arts (then the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music), he got into ethnic music and electronic sounds. His studies in those areas bore fruit when he joined Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) at the invitation of Haruomi Hosono. YMO reached new horizons in musical expression by adapting mechanical rhythms and strange, artificial sounds that were unfamiliar to audiences at the time. The group’s 1979 album “Solid State Survivor,” which included “Technopolis” and “Behind the Mask” written by Sakamoto, became a huge hit.

Sakamoto won international fame thanks to his work with YMO and his music for the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” Even though he excelled in creating music with experimental sounds, he was also able to produce melancholic and beautiful melodies, such as in the theme music for that film. He also created the music for “The Last Emperor” directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who also worked with Sakamoto on “The Sheltering Sky” and “Little Buddha.” He provided music for a number of foreign works and won various international awards, garnering respect from many artists worldwide.

Sakamoto also composed music for domestic animated films as well as films directed by Yoji Yamada and Hirokazu Koreeda.

The composer admitted that he initially found it difficult to write dramatic music.

“By responding to the directors’ intentions, I’ve been able to develop my hidden abilities one after another,” he once told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

While a globally successful musician, he often appeared on radio and TV programs in Japan, in which he commented on new sounds from overseas as well as on music theories, activities fit for someone with the nickname “Kyoju” (Professor).

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