Japanese Innovator Ryuichi Sakamoto Passes Away [1952-2023]

The Japanese musician and sonic innovator Ryuichi Sakamoto sadly passed away this weekend after a long spell with cancer: but what a music legacy he leaves behind.

4 min
Ryuichi Sakamoto Beatport 1536x715
Apr 3, 2023
Ralph Moore

Some very, very sad music news, particularly for lifelong electronic and classical fans this past weekend: the revered pianist, producer and legendary musician Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away after a long spell with cancer. The news was announced on April 2nd, by Sakamoto’s office in Japan. He had stage-four colon cancer, which had spread to his lungs: he was 72. Among his countless plaudits, Sakamoto is perhaps best known for writing the score and theme song to the 1983 film ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’.

The single “Forbidden Colours” was released in the UK in 1983 on Virgin Records and featured vocals from David Sylvian, where the release reached number 16. He also acted in the World War 2 movie, which was co-written and directed by Nagisa Oshima, co-written with Paul Mayersberg and produced by Jeremy Thomas. Beyond his acclaimed Hollywood moment, Sakamoto was also a member and co-founder of the acclaimed electronic outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra, whose albums included “Solid State Survivor” and “Technodon.” YMO were the first ever musicians to use the 808 drum machine and their songs covered by everyone from Todd Terje to Pinch. Following online tributes from across the electronic spectrum, we found DJ and broadcaster Maryanne Hobbs tribute particularly fitting: “R.I.P. Ryuichi Sakamoto you taught me perhaps the greatest of all lessons: “every mistake is a gift.”

But this death hits particularly hard, since Sakamoto had the highest musical profile of the entire Orchestra. It’s something you can say is in part due to a breath-taking, tirelessly prolific body of work built over several decades and well into his sixties and early seventies. And yet despite the life-changing throat cancer diagnosis back in 2014, Sakamoto never stopped creating and making music. His 12th – and sadly now last – solo album, “12” was fittingly released on his 71st birthday in January of this year. Sakamoto was born on January 17, 1952 in the post-war era of Japan and as a child he was as much a fan of Claude Debussy as he was The Beatles, Yellow Magic Orchestra were formed in 1977 and their self-titled 1978 album instantly made them household names, not just in Japan but equally overseas, where they continued to find new fans with every generation since.

In a decade that’s included the passing of Prince, David Bowie and also his fellow YMO member Yukihiro Takahashi, the drummer who died back in January of aspiration pneumonia on January 4th, this is another reminder that however immortal the music, no-one in electronic music gets to live forever. This means that from the core YMO trio, only producer and vocalist Haruomi Hosono, sometimes credited as Harry Hosono, still remains standing at the age of 75. If, like us, you’re sad about his passing, we recommend his latest album “12”, the single “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence” (available on Beatport via Milan) and slowly but surely work backwards through his catalogue. R.I.P. Mr Sakamoto.

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