Ryuichi Sakamoto has died at 71. The acclaimed Japanese musician passed away on March 28, per a statement from his management team.
Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, which went into remission after treatment, but in 2021 he revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Last year, he revealed that the cancer had spread and he now had a stage 4 diagnosis. This past December, Sakamoto performed a livestreamed solo piano concert that he said could be his last.
“While undergoing treatment for cancer discovered in June 2020, Sakamoto continued to create works in his home studio whenever his health would allow,” reads a message posted on his website. “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.”
Sakamoto was born on January 17, 1952 in Tokyo. He was enamored with music from a young age, playing piano at the age of three and performing with jazz bands in high school. He enrolled at the Tokyo University Of The Arts in 1970 and graduated with degrees in music composition and ethnomusicology. In 1978, he released his debut solo album Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and around that same time he linked up with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi — both of whom he had played with as a session musician before — and formed the band Yellow Magic Orchestra.
YMO were a foundational synth-pop band, and their 1978 debut album was a sensation in Japan. Its singles “Computer Game” and “Firecracker” were hits, both in their native country and abroad, and they also were influential in the development of hip-hop, hyped up by Afrika Bambaataa and sampled by countless others. The trio developed their sound and broke new synthesizer ground with their albums, from Solid State Survivor in 1979 through Service in 1983, after which they would break up but leave behind an undeniable impact on the world of electronic music and beyond.
While still in YMO, Sakamoto continued to put out music of his own. His 1980 album B-2 Unit spawned the influential track “Riot In Lagos.” In 1983, as YMO was in the process of breaking up, Sakamoto composed his first film score for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which he also starred in alongside David Bowie. In 1987, he had a role in The Last Emperor, and he composed a score for it with David Byrne and Cong Su — they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Sakamoto collaborated with many musicians throughout his career: David Sylvian, Adrian Belew and Robin Scott, Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson and Robert Wyatt, Robbie Robertson, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto), Christopher Willits, and Fennesz, among many others. He composed scores for directors like Pedro Almodóvar, Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Nagisa Ōshima. He made music for sporting events, including an anthem for the Japan Football Association and the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
He kept up a steady procession of solo material throughout the ’90s and ’00s, including piano and orchestral work and albums that pushed his sound forward into the avant-garde. He recorded one more album with YMO, Technodon, in 1993, and the members of the band reunited a few times in various configurations during the ’00s to perform live. (YMO’s Yukihiro Takahashi passed away this past January.)
His work continued into the 2010s and this decade, even amidst his cancer diagnosis and treatment. In 2015, he contributed to the score for The Revenant alongside Bryce Dessner and frequent collaborator Alva Noto. In 2017, Sakomoto released his first album of new material in eight years, async, and a remix album followed the next year featuring contributions from Oneohtrix Point Never, Arca, Cornelius, and Andy Stott. He scored an episode of the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror in 2019. Earlier this year, in January, he released the new album 12. And a month before that, in December 2022, he livestreamed what would turn out to be his final concert: a solo piano performance that acted as a retrospective for his long and storied career.
In the statement posted on Sakamoto’s website announcing his passing, his management team wrote:
In accordance with Sakamoto’s strong wishes, the funeral service was held among his close family members. Please understand that we are unable to accept any calls of condolences, offerings of incense or flowers, and the like.
Finally, we would like to share one of Sakamoto’s favorite quotes:
“Ars longa, vita brevis.”
Art is long, life is short.
While many will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.