17 January 1952 (age 71)
Nakano, Tokyo, Japan
Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一, Sakamoto Ryūichi, born January 17, 1952) is a Japanese composer, pianist, singer, record producer and actor who has pursued a diverse range of styles as a solo artist and as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). With his bandmates Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, Sakamoto influenced and pioneered a number of electronic music genres.
Sakamoto began his career while at university in the 1970s as a session musician, producer, and arranger. His first major success came in 1978 as co-founder of YMO. He concurrently pursued a solo career, releasing the experimental electronic fusion album Thousand Knives in 1978. Two years later, he released the album B-2 Unit. It included the track "Riot in Lagos", which was significant in the development of electro and hip hop music. He went on to produce more solo records, and collaborate with many international artists, David Sylvian, Carsten Nicolai, Youssou N'Dour, and Fennesz among them. Sakamoto composed music for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and his composition "Energy Flow" (1999) was the first instrumental number-one single in Japan's Oricon charts history.
As a film-score composer, Sakamoto has won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and 2 Golden Globe Awards. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) marked his debut as both an actor and a film-score composer; its main theme was adapted into the single "Forbidden Colours" which became an international hit. His most successful work as a film composer was The Last Emperor (1987), after which he continued earning accolades composing for films such as The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha (1993), and The Revenant (2015). On occasion, Sakamoto has also worked as a composer and a scenario writer on anime and video games. In 2009, he was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the Ministry of Culture of France for his contributions to music.
Sakamoto entered the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1970, earning a B.A. in music composition and an M.A. with special emphasis on both electronic and ethnic music. He studied ethnomusicology there with the intention of becoming a researcher in the field, due to his interest in various world music traditions, particularly the Japanese (especially Okinawan), Indian and African musical traditions. He was also trained in classical music and began experimenting with the electronic music equipment available at the university, including synthesizers such as the Buchla, Moog, and ARP. One of Sakamoto's classical influences was Claude Debussy, who he described as his "hero" and stated that "Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So, the music goes around the world and comes full circle."
Sakamoto released his first solo album Thousand Knives of Ryūichi Sakamoto in mid-1978 with the help of Hideki Matsutake—Hosono also contributed to the song "Thousand Knives". The album experimented with different styles, such as "Thousand Knives" and "The End of Asia"—in which electronic music was fused with traditional Japanese music—while "Grasshoppers" is a more minimalistic piano song. The album was recorded from April to July 1978 with a variety of electronic musical instruments, including various synthesizers, such as the KORG PS-3100, a polyphonic synthesizer; the Oberheim Eight-Voice; the Moog III-C; the Polymoog, the Minimoog; the Micromoog; the Korg VC-10, which is a vocoder; the KORG SQ-10, which is an analog sequencer; the Syn-Drums, an electronic drum kit; and the microprocessor-based Roland MC-8 Microcomposer, which is a music sequencer that was programmed by Matsutake and played by Sakamoto. A version of the song "Thousand Knives" was released on the Yellow Magic Orchestra's 1981 album BGM. This version was one of the earliest uses of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, for YMO's live performance of "1000 Knives" in 1980 and their BGM album release in 1981.
Sakamoto's production credits represent a prolific career in this role. In 1983, he produced Mari Iijima's debut album Rosé, the same year that the Yellow Magic Orchestra was disbanded. Sakamoto subsequently worked with artists such as Thomas Dolby; Aztec Camera, on the Dreamland (1993) album; and Imai Miki, co-producing her 1994 album A Place In The Sun. In 1996, Sakamoto produced "Mind Circus", the first single from actress Miki Nakatani, leading to a collaboration period spanning 9 singles and 7 albums though 2001.
Roddy Frame, who worked with Sakamoto as a member of Aztec Camera, explained in a 1993 interview preceding the release of Dreamland that he had had to wait a lengthy period of time before he was able to work with Sakamoto, who wrote two soundtracks, a solo album and the music for the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics, prior to working with Frame over four weeks in a New York studio. Frame said that he was impressed by the work of YMO and the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence soundtrack, explaining: "That's where you realise that the atmosphere around his compositions is actually in the writing - it's got nothing to do with synthesisers." Frame's decision to ask Sakamoto was finalized after he saw his performance at the Japan Festival that was held in London, United Kingdom.
Sakamoto began working in films, as a composer and actor, in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), for which he composed the score, title theme, and the duet "Forbidden Colours" with David Sylvian. Sakamoto later composed Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), which earned him the Academy Award with fellow composers David Byrne and Cong Su. In that same year, he composed the score to the cult-classic anime film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Sakamoto also went on to compose the score of the opening ceremony for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, telecast live to an audience of over a billion viewers.
Other films scored by Sakamoto include Pedro Almodóvar's Tacones lejanos (High Heels) (1991); Bertolucci's The Little Buddha (1993); Oliver Stone's Wild Palms (1993); John Maybury's Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998); Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002); Oshima's Gohatto (1999); and Jun Ichikawa's (director of the Mitsui ReHouse commercial from 1997 to 1999 starring Chizuru Ikewaki and Mao Inoue) Tony Takitani (2005).
Several tracks from Sakamoto's earlier solo albums have also appeared in film soundtracks. In particular, variations of "Chinsagu No Hana" (from Beauty) and "Bibo No Aozora" (from 1996) provide the poignant closing pieces for Sue Brooks's Japanese Story (2003) and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (2006), respectively. In 2015, Sakamoto teamed up with Iñárritu to score his film, The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.
Sakamoto has also acted in several films: perhaps his most notable performance was as the conflicted Captain Yonoi in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, alongside Takeshi Kitano and British rock singer David Bowie. He also played roles in The Last Emperor (as Masahiko Amakasu) and Madonna's "Rain" music video.
In 1994, Japan Football Association asked Sakamoto to compose the instrumental song "Japanese Soccer Anthem". This instrumental song played at the beginning of Japan Football Association-sponsored events, such as Emperor's Cup matches.
In 2006 Sakamoto, in collaboration with Japanese music company Avex Group, founded Commmons (コモンズ, Komonzu), a record label seeking to change the manner in which music is produced. Sakamoto has explained that Commmons is not his label, but is a platform for all aspiring artists to join as equal collaborators to share the benefits of the music industry. On the initiative's "About" page, the label is described as a project that "aims to find new possibilities for music, while making meaningful contribution to culture and society". The name "Commmons" is spelt with three "m"s because the third "m" stands for music.
Sakamoto's first of three marriages occurred in 1972, but ended in divorce two years later—Sakamoto has a daughter from this relationship. Sakamoto then married popular Japanese pianist and singer Akiko Yano in 1982, following several musical collaborations with her, including touring work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Sakamoto's second marriage ended in August 2006, 14 years after a mutual decision to live separately—Yano and Sakamoto raised one daughter, J-pop singer Miu Sakamoto. He has lived with his manager and wife Norika Sora since around 1990 and has two children with her.
Beginning in June 2014, Sakamoto took a year-long hiatus after he was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer. In 2015, he returned, stating: "Right now I'm good. I feel better. Much, much better. I feel energy inside, but you never know. The cancer might come back in three years, five years, maybe 10 years. Also the radiation makes your immune system really low. It means I'm very susceptible to another cancer in my body."
On June 14, 2018, a documentary about the life and work of Sakamoto, entitled Coda, was released. The film follows Sakamoto as he recovers from cancer and resumes creating music, protests nuclear power plants following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, and creates field recordings in a variety of locales. Directed by Stephen Nomura Schible, the documentary was met with critical praise.
On January 21, 2021, Sakamoto shared a link on his official pages, which contained a letter announcing that though his throat cancer went into remission, he was now diagnosed with rectal cancer, and that he's currently undergoing treatment after a successful surgery. He wrote: "From now on, I will be living alongside cancer. But, I am hoping to make music for a little while longer".
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