Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder, ardent sonic adventurer, soundtrack maestro… following his recent passing at the age of 71, we reflect on the remarkable 45-year career of revered Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto

Watching the livestream of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s solo recital of ‘Playing The Piano 2022’ in December last year – compiled from a series of stark performance shorts filmed at Tokyo’s renowned 509 NHK Studio, and devoid of an audience – a definite aura of finality hung heavy in the air. Before the broadcast, Sakamoto had stated that due to grave ill health, it would probably be his final show, and so it proved. After a lengthy battle with colon cancer, the esteemed Japanese composer and musician sadly passed away in Tokyo on 28 March, aged 71.

Sakamoto’s extensive career, spanning 45 glorious and colourful years, has been well documented. Having made an indelible mark with his unique and innovative output, he leaves behind a vast body of incredible work. Weaving between electronica, art-pop, experimental, ambient and classical forms, whether working alone or with others, Sakamoto’s oeuvre has had an extraordinary reach, trickling down and permeating contemporary music in all its splintered and variegated genres.

Born in Tokyo in 1952, Sakamoto studied at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in the early 1970s, focusing primarily on electronic and ethnic music, and it was here that he began to tinker around with Buchla and Moog modular synths. Following various projects as a distinguished session musician, he began his music career in earnest in 1978 as co-founder of the highly influential Japanese outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra, alongside Yukihiro Takahashi (who died in January) and Haruomi Hosono. They shared not only a special bond but a sense of humour. Sakamoto was jokingly dubbed “kyōju” (“professor”) by his YMO bandmates, but the nickname stuck. An intellectual with an extensive music knowledge and an air of quiet authority, it suited him.

A huge influence on hip hop, dance music and techno, YMO’s idiosyncratic sound – swirling with electronics, exotica, new wave and even disco – was essential listening for the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and a young Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, way before the roots of Detroit techno had even formed in the collective mind of the Belleville Three.

Inspired by the work of Isao Tomita, Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, and anchored in their own “Orientalism”, YMO were hugely innovative trailblazers who embraced cutting-edge samplers, sequencers and new technology with a passion. They were one of the first bands to use the Roland TR-808 drum machine, initially during a live performance of Sakamoto’s own ‘Thousand Knives’ track – with its squiggly synths and “clap syncopation” – at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1980. And they were also early adopters of the game-changing Roland MC-8, acknowledged as the inaugural microprocessor-based sequencer. With such ardent dedication to machine music and its requisite accompanying kit, it’s little wonder that YMO were often lazily described as the “Japanese Kraftwerk”.

YMO also embraced Japan’s burgeoning gaming culture in the late 1970s and early 80s. They sampled classic arcade games such as Space Invaders and Circus (a version of Atari’s Breakout) on ‘Computer Game “Theme From The Circus”’, the joyously frolicsome opening track on their landmark self-titled debut album, released in 1978. While other artists saw video game music as something of a novelty to temporarily dabble with, YMO continued to explore and reflect its playfulness with real conviction, often forging new songs around those nascent sounds.

The huge boom in gaming at the time worked in their favour, helping propel them to superstar status in their native Japan – and eventually, to a similar status in Europe and the US. Released in 1979, YMO’s ‘Solid State Survivor’ album, with its synthpop and cyberpunk aesthetic, was a key turning point and helped to pull in Western audiences. Winning Best Album plaudits in Japan, and with English lyrics by British poet Chris Mosdell, it eventually sold a mighty two million copies worldwide.

Although YMO had “paused” operations by 1984, the trio would reconvene and work together again at various points, both on each other’s projects and as YMO (their last album under that moniker was 1993’s ‘Technodon’). Having released his first solo effort, ‘The Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto’, in 1978 – just before YMO’s debut – the foundations of Sakamoto’s future path were set in stone. As the years progressed, he would build on the impish, poppy and avant-garde textures of ‘The Thousand Knives’ in his own inimitable fashion, and continue to thrive.

A prolific and inventive solo artist, there are far too many highlights to mention in full here, but the early Sakamoto albums are real standouts, ranging in style and tone – 1980’s thrillingly expansive ‘B-2 Unit’, featuring the wonky, Afrobeat-inspired electro of ‘Riot In Lagos’; the propulsive thunk and clatter of ‘The Garden Of Poppies’ from 1981’s wonderful ‘Hidari Ude No Yume’ (‘Left-Handed Dream’), a glorious exercise in synthy new wave experimentalism; the glitchy ambient splendour of 1985’s ‘Exhibition’, the B-side of his ‘Field Work’ single with Thomas Dolby. All pure gold.

Sakamoto worked extensively with a host of acclaimed artists throughout his long career, including David Sylvian, David Byrne, Alva Noto, Christian Fennesz, Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, Robert Wyatt and Arto Lindsay, exploring multifaceted sonic textures ranging from abstract and orchestral to jazz fusion and beyond.

He garnered countless plaudits for his immersive film soundtracks too. One of his most notable was the beguiling score for Nagisa Ōshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ (1983) – based on the experiences of a prisoner of war in Japan during the Second World War – in which Sakamoto also acted (as the disciplinarian Captain Yonoi, devoted to strict order and the Bushido code) alongside David Bowie and Tom Conti. A haunting and evocative fusion of electronic, classical and traditional Japanese music, it’s become one of Sakamoto’s most venerated pieces of work, especially for the elegiac title track that fades in over the film’s desperately sad and poignant ending.

That same track, of course, also lent itself to a vocal version, 1983’s ‘Forbidden Colours’, with David Sylvian’s voice adding emotional heft to the sparse piano melody and atmospheric synths. Sakamoto and Sylvian had worked together on the latter’s debut solo single, ‘Bamboo Houses’ / ‘Bamboo Music’, in 1982. After Japan’s split that same year, Sylvian was unsure of his direction for a while, but ‘Forbidden Colours’ was the creative spark that galvanised him back into action.

“Ryuichi gave me ‘Forbidden Colours’ to work on and it opened the doors for me a little bit,” said Sylvian in a 2012 interview with The Quietus. “Suddenly, the flow of writing began to really open up and new material began arriving. I thought it was beautiful. Sonically, it was incredible. I loved all the samples that he was using. Sound design was a big part of it for us, and what Ryuichi did as producer was extraordinary with that particular piece of music. The melody itself was outstanding.”

In total, Sakamoto composed music for over 30 films, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic ‘The Last Emperor’ (with David Byrne, for which they won an Academy Award in 1987 for Best Original Score), 1993’s ‘Little Buddha’ and 2015’s ‘The Revenant’, with Alva Noto.

Even his late-career work produced exquisitely wrought gems. Determined to craft one final masterpiece (“I hope to record the perfect album before I die – that is my dearest wish,” he said in 2016), 2021’s transcendent ‘Async’ is a shimmering and abstract meditation, while his last studio long-player, ‘12’, showcases an intimate diary of sketches that are “showered in sound”. Both are undeniably majestic.

Aside from music, Sakamoto was known for his humanitarian work and for his activism. He was involved in various environmental and anti-nuclear causes, and was a vocal advocate for peace and human rights, as shown in Stephen Nomura Schible’s celebrated 2017 documentary, ‘Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda’, which follows the musician’s creative process as he works on ‘Async’ while recovering from his initial cancer diagnosis. In the film, Sakamoto talks about Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s “profound love and reverence for the sound of things”, but he could just as easily have been referring to himself.

The outpouring of sadness and grief for Sakamoto has been ameliorated by many warm tributes and a huge appreciation of the great man’s work. One of the most affectionate was from Thomas Dolby:

“He was incredible, gentle, intelligent… a brilliant musician, with fantastic technique on the keyboard, an amazing student of classical composition and film score writer. Obviously, ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ is his classic, but he won an Oscar for ‘The Last Emperor’. I now teach film music at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and we very often talk about that score. I will miss him.”

American sound artist Taylor Deupree, who Sakamoto worked with on numerous occasions, remembers a focused and contemplative man.

“One of my biggest, lasting impressions of Ryuichi was his quietness, at least around me,” says Deupree. “Besides briefly discussing a game plan for a performance, we were often quite quiet backstage. I tried to respect his space, physically and mentally. What we shared mostly was sound and a connection through the performances with a lot of listening to each other. The times we got most talkative, or even silly, were usually outside of music – at a restaurant, for example, where we could leave the music behind.”

And there was a particularly touching farewell message from his friend Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, who Sakamoto collaborated extensively with, both on record (2002’s ‘Vrioon’ is widely considered to be their most definitive work) and in concert. The pair’s two live albums, ‘Glass’ (2018) and ‘Two’ (2019), are a testament not only to their fearlessness via minimal electronics and neoclassical improv, but also their unique connection.

“We will miss you on this side of life,” said Nicolai via Twitter. “A void is left that I cannot fully grasp at the moment. Our deepest condolences to those who were closest to him.”

In addition to the vast array of tributes, Sakamoto’s legacy is also being celebrated in recorded form. Following on from 2022’s beautifully complex ‘To The Moon And Back’, which featured Sakamoto tracks “remodelled” by contemporary artists, friends and collaborators – Alva Noto’s sombre and minimal take on ‘The Sheltering Sky’ is particularly heartrending – a new album, ‘Travesía’, collects 20 further solo works and scores, some lesser-known, curated by ‘The Revenant’ director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Wallowingly gauzy and evocative, they’re a fitting epitaph to a true maestro.

With everything Sakamoto achieved, it’s difficult to picture life without him. In 2019, speaking as part of Barcelona’s Sónar festival at an international congress exploring the impact of creativity and imagining new futures, he relayed his thoughts on music technology, and how Beethoven – one of his adolescent heroes alongside the likes of Debussy, Liszt, The Beatles and John Cage – might have perceived it.

“I have been thinking about what music is for a long time,” he said. “I’m still asking myself what music is. Of course, nobody has an answer. Musicians and composers are very keen on new technology. We consider Beethoven as very classical, a dated composer, but at that time, the pianoforte was a new technology, and he wrote 32 sonatas for this new kind of instrument. I believe if Beethoven would be alive now, he would be very keen to use new technology – the internet or VR, maybe. Can you imagine?”

Beethoven’s pioneering spirit was more than a little evident in Sakamoto too, and the world will be just that bit poorer and less vibrant without the gifted Japanese composer’s sound palette to enrich it. Listening to ‘Async’ now, its peerless, contemplative spirituality feels doubly resonant. When David Sylvian recites “Cities and seas, iridescent, intensified / A mother in tears takes a child on her lap” on ‘Life, Life’, it’s almost too much to bear.

The final word falls to Jean-Michel Jarre. Cutting through the deluge of love and praise for Sakamoto, he tweeted his own deliciously succinct but noble goodbye, which feels more than apt here.

“RIP my dear Ryuichi, your art will remain forever.”

Amen to that.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: 17 January 1952 – 28 March 2023

You May Also Like
Read More

Brian Griffin: Trip The Light Fantastic

You will know the iconic work of photographer Brian Griffin from a raft of classic 1980s album sleeves, including the cover of Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’, the inspiration for which lay in the pages of business magazines 
Read More

4,120 Words about Underworld

We visit the group’s remote rural HQ to talk about their exciting new World Of Underworld project and find out how they’re using sounds and words and pictures to carve out a unique role as 21st century storytellers
Read More

Emma Anderson: Out Of Her Shell

It’s 35 years since Emma Anderson formed shoegaze behemoths Lush, but her new album ‘Pearlies’ is her first solo record proper.  As both a paean to independence and a work of darkly beautiful psychedelic pop, it’s a triumph. What’s on her mind these days? 
Read More

The Best of Bergen (Via Tromsø)

The Norwegian press came up with the name Bergen Wave to describe the large number of bands and producers – of all shapes and genres – that developed in the west coast city of Bergen in the late 1990s. We’ve picked out 10 of the best electronic albums associated with the movement, although we’re starting the story in another place at another time…