Ryuichi Sakamoto is remembered as one of the most influential musicians to come from Japan. His long and impressively diverse career saw him dabbling in pop, experimental electronic music, and Oscar-winning film music composition, as well as brushing shoulders with artists such as Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Madonna.
Music, a global resource
Sakamoto was born in Nakano, Tokyo in 1952. He began learning to play the piano at age 6 and went on to study music at Tokyo University of the Arts. At university, his eclectic musical interests ran wild and he began studying everything from Western classical music to traditional Japanese, Indian, and African music. Sakamoto viewed music as a shared global resource, stating that “Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So, the music goes around the world and comes full circle.”
Yellow Magic Orchestra
Crucially, Tokyo University of the Arts provided Sakamoto with the opportunity to begin experimenting with synthesizers and other early electronic music equipment. In 1978, he joined two other electronic music enthusiasts, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, to form the internationally successful disco-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). YMO had seven “Top 5” albums in Japan during their career and for a time, were considered the most popular band in the country. Nevertheless, Sakamoto was a reluctant celebrity, remembering in 2018, “Accidentally the three of us became very popular. Walking the streets in Tokyo, people pointed at me. I hated it.”
YMO’s innovative sound and English-language lyrics helped them to reach an audience in America where their production style had a profound influence on early hip-hop and electro music. They were one of the first bands to use the Roland TR-808 drum machine, whose instantly recognizable sound is still heard on a majority of popular music tracks to this day. Their 1978 instrumental “Computer Game” became a Top 20 hit in the UK and “Behind the Mask”, sung by Sakamoto on the vocoder, was covered by Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton.
Alongside his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto constantly kept himself busy with solo releases. In 1978, the same year as YMO’s debut, he released Thousand Knives, an album that experimented with many of the styles of music that Sakamoto would explore throughout his career. Tracks such as “The End of Asia” combine Japanese traditional music with cutting-edge electronic production and instrumentation. “Grasshoppers”, a more classically oriented piano composition, presages much of his later acclaimed film scores.
Music for film
Sakamoto’s career in film music began with a bang in 1983 when he composed the score forMerry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The film’s title theme became one of Sakamoto’s most celebrated compositions and the vocal version of the tune “Forbidden Colours” features the famous English singer David Sylvian. Sakamoto stars inMerry Christmas Mr. Lawrencealongside David Bowie as a prisoner-of-war camp commander.
More recently, Sakamoto was nominated for a Grammy and a BAFTA for his score forThe Revenant, an Oscar-winning action film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Ryuichi Sakamoto died on March 28, 2023, at the age of 71.
About the author:
Diarmuid is a writer and musician from Ireland, based in Tokyo. When not working on music in studios around the city, Diarmuid can be found in the bouldering gym, at the cinema, or enjoying a cold one in the local izakaya.