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Pioneering composer and eco-warrior Ryuichi Sakamoto passes away at 71

By Etienne BALMER / AFP Published Apr 03, 2023 9:17 am

Pioneering composer and green activist Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose score for The Last Emperor scooped an Oscar and a Grammy, has died aged 71 after his second cancer diagnosis.

Having shot to fame in the 1970s with the influential Japanese group Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto's electronic innovations helped lay the foundations for synth-pop, house music, and hip-hop.

But he was perhaps best known for his film soundtracks, including for the World War II drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which he also acted opposite his friend David Bowie as a prisoner-of-war camp commandant.

The hauntingly catchy track Forbidden Colours from the 1983 film, with vocals by David Sylvian, became a global hit for Sakamoto, who also collaborated with Thomas Dolby and punk legend Iggy Pop in the 80s.

Sakamoto went on to win an Academy Award with his score for the 1987 period epic The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, which tells the story of China's last emperor Puyi.

He lived in New York for decades, but his prolific career made him a huge star in his home country, where he was renowned for his strident anti-nuclear campaigning.

Despite his recent ill health—he survived throat cancer in 2014—Sakamoto continued to win acclaim for his work, including the score for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2015 film The Revenant.

In early 2021, the musician said he was undergoing treatment for rectal cancer.

His management team announced Sunday, April 2 that he died on March 28th, and a funeral was held for close family only, at his request.

"We would like to share one of Sakamoto's favorite quotes: 'Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is long, life is short," the team said in a statement.

'The Professor'

Born in Tokyo in 1952, Sakamoto grew up immersed in the arts, as his father was a literary editor for some of Japan's greatest novelists, including Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe.

He discovered the piano at a young age, and has said Bach, Haydn, and Debussy fascinated him as a teenager as much as the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

He studied composition and ethnomusicology at university -- earning him the affectionate nickname "The Professor" in Japan—and began performing in Tokyo's burgeoning 1970s electronic scene.

"I was working with the computer at university and playing jazz in the daytime, buying West Coast psychedelic and early Kraftwerk records in the afternoon, and playing folk at night," he told The Guardian in 2018.

"I was quite busy!"

In 1978, he co-founded Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, who died in January.

Their high-energy techno-pop had an enormous influence on electronic music worldwide, and inspired the synthesized melodies of early Japanese video games.

Groundbreaking US hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa sampled YMO in the 80s, and some of the Japanese group's songs became international hits—including Behind the Mask, which inspired cover versions by Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton.

'Citizen of the World'

After YMO disbanded in 1983, Sakamoto dedicated himself to solo projects, exploring multiple musical styles from prog rock and ambient to rap, bossa nova, and contemporary classical.

He racked up collaborations with avant-garde artists, but also with stars from around the world like Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora, Brazil's Caetano Veloso, and Senegalese sensation Youssou N'Dour.

"I want to be a citizen of the world," Sakamoto, who moved to New York in the 1990s, once said.

"It sounds very hippie but I like that."

Numerous musicians paid tribute Sunday including indie pop outfit Japanese Breakfast, American musician and producer Questlove, and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who on Twitter hailed Sakamoto as "an elegant and timeless artist."

French electronic and ambient music icon Jean-Michel Jarre tweeted: "RIP my dear Ryuichi, your art will remain forever."

Sakamoto was also a dedicated environmental campaigner, who became a prominent figure in Japan's anti-nuclear movement after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.

He staged and attended many rallies, and in 2012 organized a mega-concert against nuclear power near Tokyo, featuring his friends Kraftwerk, whose name means "power station" in German.

He also founded a conservation organization in 2007 called More Trees, which works to promote sustainable forestry in Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Sakamoto, who married and divorced twice, is the father of J-pop singer Miu Sakamoto, born in 1980 to the Japanese pianist and singer Akiko Yano. (AFP)