Ryuichi Sakamoto, a world-renowned Japanese musician and actor who composed for Hollywood hits such as “The Last Emperor” and “The Revenant,” has died. He was 71.
Japan’s recording company Avex said in a statement Sunday that Sakamoto died on March 28 while undergoing treatment for cancer. He was first diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. In 2022, he revealed that he had terminal cancer, a year after he disclosed suffering from rectal cancer.
Sakamoto was a pioneer of the electronics music of the late 1970s and founded the Yellow Magic Orchestra, also known as YMO, with Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi. Takahashi died in January.
Despite his battle with cancer, Sakamoto released a full-length album “12” on his 71st birthday in January, stating that composing had a “small healing effect on my damaged body and soul,” according to the official statement released with the latest album.
He was a world-class musician, winning an Oscar and Grammy for the 1987 movie “The Last Emperor.” Sakamoto was also an actor, starring in the BAFTA-winning 1983 film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” He was mostly based in New York in recent years, though he regularly visited Japan.
Born in Tokyo in 1952, Sakamoto started studying music at the age of 10 and was influenced by Debussy and the Beatles.
The statement from Avex said that despite his sickness, when he was feeling relatively well, he kept working on his music in his home studio. “To his final days, he lived with music,” it said.
The statement expressed gratitude to the doctors who had treated him in the U.S. and Japan, as well as to all his fans around the world. It referenced the words Sakamoto loved: “Ars longa, vita brevis,” which refers to the longevity of art, no matter how short human life might be.
Sakamoto also left his mark as a pacifist and environmental activist. He spoke out against nuclear power following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns caused by an earthquake and tsunami.
He took part in rallies and made speeches in Tokyo, and was among a group of respected Japanese artists, like the Nobel-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who were not afraid to take an unpopular stand on political issues.
In a July 2012 rally, he got up on stage and read from notes on an iPhone, warning Japan not to risk people’s lives for electricity.
“Life is more important than money,” he said in Japanese, then added in English, “Keeping silent after Fukushima is barbaric.” He also appeared in advertising for Nissan electric cars, although he acknowledged he got a bashing for being so commercial. At his home in New York, he gets electricity from a company that relies on renewables, he said.
“How we make electricity is going to diversify, with fossil fuel and nuclear power declining,” Sakamoto told The Associated Press in an interview in 2012. “People should be able to choose the kind of electricity they want to use.”
Funeral services have been held with family and close friends, the Avex statement said.
Sakamoto is survived by his daughter Miu Sakamoto, a musician. She posted on her Instagram the years her father had lived — from Jan. 17, 1952, to March 28, 2023 — and a photo of a worn out, half-broken piano. He was separated from his former wife, singer and composer Akiko Yano.