The composer Sakamoto, Oscar winner for The Last Emperor, has died

The Japanese composer was 71 years old

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto died at the age of 71 on March 28, his management announced. Sakamoto won the Oscar in 1987 for the original score of the film The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. In June last year, Sakamoto announced that he was suffering from cancer.

Revered for his experiments with electronic music, Sakamoto has won international awards – as well as an Oscar, a Grammy and a Bafta – for his work as a solo artist and as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. His first important cinematographic work, “Furyo” by Oshima Nagisa, dates back to 1983: a bet won not only on a musical level, thanks above all to the song “Forbidden colours” (composed with David Sylvian, former singer of Japan): in this film Sakamoto made his debut as an actor, revealing uncommon qualities while, enclosed in an icy and morbid mask, he opposes David Bowie (co-star of the film) on the big screen.

Born in Nakano (Tokyo) on January 17, 1952, a classically trained musician, but devoted to popular music, Sakamoto began composing for the cinema after establishing himself on the Japanese pop scene with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. His ability to accommodate the most disparate solicitations, combining Western influences and Eastern traditions, has been put to good use in the cinema by directors such as Ōshima Nagisa, Brian De Palma, Volker Schlöndorff, Pedro Almodóvar as well as Bertolucci, thanks to whom he has become the first Japanese to win an Oscar for the soundtrack, and for which he also wrote the music for “Tea in the desert” and “Little Buddha”.

Sakamoto began studying piano at the age of three and after his first experiences in small jazz ensembles he devoted himself to electronic music. A graduate of the Tokyo University of Music and Fine Arts in composition, in 1978 he formed the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a group inspired by the electronic pop of Kraftwerk and which enjoyed considerable success in Japan.

After “Furyo”, his second, significant cinematic encounter with Bertolucci dates back to the end of the 1980s. The collaboration began with “The Last Emperor”, in whose soundtrack – created together with the Englishman David Byrne and the Chinese Cong Su – Sakamoto curiously reserved for himself the more ‘Western’ moments (orchestra with a huge mass of strings, wide melodic arcs, reiteration of a few great main themes), while the Englishman Byrne preferred to try his hand at oriental, almost ethnic motifs. This was followed by the music for “Tea in the desert” (1990), again directed by Bertolucci, this time written in collaboration with Richard Horowitz, responsible for the ‘African’ motifs. The third collaboration with Bertolucci was for “Little Buddha” (1993).

Meanwhile Sakamoto has established other collaborations with important directors such as Volker Schlöndorff (“The Handmaid’s Tale”, 1990), Pedro Almodóvar (“High Heels”, 1991), Brian De Palma (“Murder Live”, 1998), Murakami Ryu (“Tokyo decadence”, 1991). After the sounds of ambient music in John Maybury’s “Love is the devil” (1998), he wrote the music for “Tabù – Gohatto” (1999) for Oshima. He returned to collaborate with De Palma for “Femme fatale” (2002). He is also the author of the soundtracks of “Seta” (2007) by François Girard, “Revenant – Redivivo” (2015) by Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Minamata case” (2020) by Andrew Levitas and “Beckett” (2021) by Ferdinando I quote Filomarino.

In Sakamoto’s non-film production, which has grown at an intense pace over the years, including reunions of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, personal projects and new collaborations, a separate mention belongs to the remarkable works for piano.

(by Paolo Martini)