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Ryuichi Sakamoto, a godfather of electronic pop, has died

Ryuichi Sakamoto posing for a portrait in 1996.
Thomas Coex
AFP via Getty Images
Ryuichi Sakamoto posing for a portrait in 1996.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, a trailblazing composer and producer who was one of the first musicians to incorporate electronic production into popular songcraft, has died at the age of 71.

Sakamoto died on March 28 after a multi-year battle with cancer, according to a statement published on his website Sunday. "We would like to share one of Sakamoto's favorite quotes," the statement read. "'Ars longa, vita brevis.' Art is long, life is short."

The Japanese composer had an exceptionally wide-ranging career: he was by turns a synth-pop idol, the composer of both sweeping film scores and quiet, gentle sound environments, and a collaborator of such artists as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Bernardo Bertolucci.

As a member of Japan's hugely influential band Yellow Magic Orchestra and as a solo artist, he was a grandfather of electronic pop music, making songs that influenced early hip-hop and techno.

Born on January 17, 1952, Sakamoto enjoyed a culturally rich childhood; his father was the editor for such postwar Japanese novelists as Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima. He began taking piano lessons when he was 6 years old, and later started writing his own music. As a teenager, he became enamored of the work of Claude Debussy — a composer who himself had been inspired by Asian musical aesthetics, including that of Japan.

As Sakamoto told Weekend Edition in 1988, "I think my music is based on a very Western system, because there's a beat, there's a melody, there's harmony. So this is Western music. But you know, some feeling, some atmosphere, or sense of sound is a little bit Asian, maybe 25, 30 percent."

By the time Sakamoto reached university to study composition, his musical life was already following multiple paths simultaneously. At school, he was absorbing heady works by the giants of post-war European modernism, like Stockhausen, Ligeti, Xenakis and Boulez. But he was also playing Okinawan folk music and free jazz in his spare time, as well as combing record stores for Kraftwerk.

In 1978, he joined multi-instrumentalist Haruomi Hosono and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi to form the band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Sakamoto played keyboards, and all three members sang.

YMO proved to be an enormous cultural force not just in Japan, but internationally. With its playful, heavily layered and sophisticated use of electronics, the band — and its members' solo projects, including Sakamoto's track "Riot in Lagos" — became a guiding light for the burgeoning hip-hop and techno communities.

YMO did a turn on Soul Train, performing their song "Computer Games." Afrika Bambaataa sampled their "Firecracker" for his "Death Mix (Part 2)." In 1993, a group of leading ambient, house and techno musicians paid tribute to YMO's influence with an album called Hi-Tech/No Crime, featuring YMO remixes from producers including The Orb, 808 State and Orbital.

In 1983, he acted alongside David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Sakamoto also wrote the movie's score, his first. At his initial meeting with Oshima, Sakamoto told The Guardian in 2000, he asked to write the movie's music — marking the start of a long and notable career as a film composer.

Sakamoto went on to score such films as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987) — for which he won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy, along with co-composers David Byrne and Chinese composer Cong Su — as well as Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky in 1990, for which he also won a Golden Globe. He also wrote the scores for Pedro Almodovar's High Heels in 1991, and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel in 2006 and The Revenant in 2015, among others.

As Sakamoto's career matured, his interest in aesthetic and intellectual exploration grew. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, he collaborated with a wide array of international musicians, including Thomas Dolby, Youssou N'Dour, Iggy Pop, Jaques Morelenbaum, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and an especially frequent partner, singer-songwriter and experimental composer David Sylvian. Sakamoto also partnered with visual artists, including Nam June Paik and Shiro Takatani, collaborating with the latter for the 1999 multimedia opera, LIFE.

In 2017 — three years into a publicly acknowledged fight with throat cancer — Sakamoto released a lush ambient album called async; he continued to make music until the very end.

In his later years, Sakamoto became an important voice in protesting nuclear power, particularly in the wake of the 2011 Daiichi nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture. His public activism is a fundamental part of the 2017 documentary film, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, as is his battle against cancer.

"I honestly don't know how many years I have left," he said in one Coda scene. It could be 20 years, 10 years, or a relapse reduces it to just one. I'm not taking anything for granted. But I know that I want to make more music. Music that I won't be ashamed to leave behind — meaningful work."

Sakamoto publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer in January 2021. In a message posted on his website, he wrote: "From now on, I will be living alongside cancer. But, I am hoping to make music for a little while longer."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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