TOKYO—Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Oscar-winning Japanese composer famed for his scores for “The Last Emperor,” “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and other epic films, has died aged 71.
Sakamoto was also known for his acting, and for his work with the pioneering electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) which he co-founded.
“He lived with music until the very end,” Avex, the recording company he worked with, said on its website. He had been suffering from cancer, but kept working in his home studio whenever his health allowed, the statement added.
He died on March 28, Avex said.
Introduced to the piano as a toddler, Sakamoto lived for music. As a high schooler, he rode on Tokyo commuter carriages so packed nobody could move, amusing himself by counting all the different sounds the train made along the way.
Sakamoto, who described French composer Claude Debussy as his hero, studied ethnomusicology at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, with particular interest in the traditional music of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture as well as Indian and African musical traditions.
“Asian music heavily influenced Debussy, and Debussy heavily influenced me. So the music goes around the world and comes full circle,” he told WNYC public radio in 2010.
Embracing electronic music, he and fellow studio musicians Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi formed YMO in 1978. The band’s groundbreaking use of a vast array of electronic instruments brought both domestic and global success.
Sakamoto’s first score was for the 1983 film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” in which he also played the commandant of a prisoner of war camp, starring alongside David Bowie. The score went on to win a BAFTA.
His most celebrated work was 1987’s “The Last Emperor”—a film in which he also acted. The score won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe.
Fans posted tributes on social media.
“Rest in peace Maestro. Your music enriched our lives and changed our view of the world around us and within us,” read one message on the Twitter account @elhichri0.
Sakamoto took a break from work in 2014 for about a year to be treated for throat cancer. Though cured of that after years of treatment, he announced on his website in January 2021 that he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer.
In December 2022, Sakamoto gave what was clearly meant to be a farewell concert for his fans, broadcast online.
“My strength has really fallen, so a normal concert of about an hour to ninety minutes would be very difficult,” he said in an online message several days before.
“As a result, I’ve recorded it song by song and edited it together so it can be presented as a regular concert—which I believe can be pleasurable in the normal way. Please, enjoy.”