Born in 1952, Ryuichi Sakamoto was 26 years old when he became a distinguished name in Japanese music as a founding member of the influential Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978-1983). Pioneers in synth-pop, rave and ambient music, the band was lauded around the globe, recording 11 albums in 5 years (the second sold over 1 million copies). He began studies in musical composition at 11 years of age and later studied composition (classical and contemporary) and ethnomusicology at the university.
But to the eyes and ears of filmgoers, especially those outside Japan, Ryuichi Sakamoto seemed to arrive in one fully formed bundle. It came in the soft, languid fusion of orchestra and electronic keyboards in the central theme to his brilliant music for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence – a soundtrack that seemed everywhere at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. When the World War 2 drama directed by Nagisa Oshima screened in Competition, audiences were also enthralled to see the Japanese composer playing Captain Yonoi, commander of the prisoner-of-war camp. It was the first of many extraordinarily fruitful collaborations with English producer Jeremy Thomas.
In 1987, he teamed up with Thomas for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, once more as both composer and actor. He played the enigmatic figure of Masahiko Amakasu and contributed another outstanding musical score – earning him an Academy Award (with David Byrne and Cong Su), a Golden Globe, a Grammy and the New York, Los Angeles and British Film Critic Associations awards for best original soundtrack.
In 1990, Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky won Sakamoto his second Golden Globe. His film scores have included the Japanese version of The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986), The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), High Heels (1991), Wuthering Heights (1992), the television series Wild Palms (1993), Little Buddha (1993), Snake Eyes (1998), Gohatto (1995), Tony Takitani (2004), Women Without Men (2009) and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). The latter is his most recent work with Jeremy Thomas, a collaboration that has now endured over three decades. His composition “Bibo No Aozara” closed Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel (2006).
Ryuichi Sakamoto contributed the music for the Barcelona Olympics (“El Mar Mediterrani”) and during a career of 46 solo albums, 25 soundtracks and 41 collaborations, he has worked with magical musical figures of his time – Youssou N’Dour, Robbie Robertson, Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, David Byrne, David Sylvian, David Bowie, Thomas Dolby and writer William S Burroughs and video artist Nam June Paik. He mounted his own opera LIFE in 1999 with contributions from the Dalai Lama, Pina Bausch, Salman Rushdie, Josep Carreras, Salif Keita and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Sakamoto’s world has always been vast: “This global view to the different cultures is just part of my nature. I want to break down the walls between genres, categories, or cultures. Instead of building walls or borders, I always try to combine different things. To me, it’s challenging and exciting.”
A campaigner against carbon emissions, landmines and nuclear reactors, his website opens with a quotation from a speech he gave last year in Oxford. On Fukushima:
“Now that the worst accident in history has awoken us from our deluded slumber to ‘use nuclear energy peacefully’, the next step is to prove to the world that people and nukes cannot coexist, whether it be for weapons or electricity”.
Ryuichi Sakamoto is a man of peace, a man of music, a man of cinema and a deeply committed citizen of the world.