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Christian Eede
3 April 2023, 13:02

Ryuichi Sakamoto dies, aged 71

The pioneering musician was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2021

Ryuichi Sakamoto dies, aged 71
Credit: Zakkubalan

Ryuichi Sakamoto, the legendary Japanese musician and composer who emerged as one-third of the group Yellow Magic Orchestra, has died, aged 71.

News of Sakamoto's passing was confirmed via his social media channels, confirming his date of death as Tuesday, 28th March. He had previously revealed a diagnosis of colon cancer in January 2021, which came some years after he'd returned from a hiatus from music after being treated for throat cancer.

"While undergoing treatment for cancer discovered in June 2020, Sakamoto continued to create works in his home studio whenever his health would allow," Sakamoto's management, Commmons, wrote in a statement announcing his death. "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. In accordance with Sakamoto's strong wishes, the funeral service was held among his close family members."

Born in Tokyo in January 1952, Sakamoto took up piano as a child and began to compose his own works at the early age of 10. He went on to study at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he received a Bachelor's degree in music composition and a Master's in electronic and ethnic music.

It was during that period that Sakamoto gained early experiences with music forms that would go on to form the basis of his career, training in both classical music and experimenting with electronic music equipment that was available at the university, including synths like the Buchla and ARP.

Sakamoto started to work as a session musician from the mid-1970s, and it was through that work that he built up a partnership with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takehashi. The trio formed Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978, having initially all worked together on the recording of Hosono's solo album 'Paraiso' a year earlier.

The group released their self-titled debut album in 1978, which was hugely successful in Japan and elsewhere. The album, and much of the group's early work that followed, saw them pioneer synthpop and make heavy use of electronic music equipment that was influential to many acts after.

The trio's next album, 'Solid State Survivor', included a Sakamoto-helmed cut called 'Behind The Mask' which was later covered by Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton. The 1981 album 'BGM' was also significant as the first record to feature the Roland TR-808 drum machine on a music recording.

Yellow Magic Orchestra released seven albums in five years during their initial run together, coming to an end in 1983 with the release of 'Run'. The trio went on hiatus shortly after.

Alongside this run of releases, Sakamoto developed a solo career that launched with the release in 1978 of the album 'Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto'. The follow-up, 1980's 'B-2 Unit', was one of his most electronic offerings yet, with the track 'Riot In Lagos' now recognised as one of the earliest recordings of electro. The album saw him link up with the dub producer Dennis Bovell on a number of cuts.

Sakamoto's first major venture into film score work came on 1983's 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence', with his lead theme perhaps standing as one of his best-known works. He also appeared in the film as an actor alongside David Bowie. 

Further film work, on 'The Last Emperor', won him an Oscar award for Best Original Score. In 2015, he was also nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on 'The Revenant'

Through the 1980s, Sakamoto developed a long-standing collaboration with the Japan frontman David Sylvian, which saw them release a number of singles together. He also worked with the likes of Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew.

Sakamoto continued to release works and collaborations into the 1990s and 2000s, building up a long-standing partnership with the producer Alva Noto. The pair released several albums together via Raster-Noton.

He also linked up with Hosono and Takahashi once again to play a number of shows together as Yellow Magic Orchestra from the mid-'00s onwards.

Work in the classical music field, and a return to focusing on his early passion of piano music, fed into several solo records over the last two decades. This included 2017's 'async', which was his first solo studio album since he announced in 2014 that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer.

Having undergone treatment for that initial diagnosis, he revealed in January 2021 that he had colon cancer. "From now on, I will be living alongside cancer," he said at the time. "But, I am hoping to make music for a little while longer."

In December, he released his final solo album, '12', which he recorded across 2021 and 2022.

Several acts, who worked with and were influenced by Sakamoto, have shared tributes since news of his passing was announced. See some of them below.