Ryuichi Sakamoto: East and West hand in hand

Sakamoto piano
News 05 Apr 2023
The recently deceased Ryuichi Sakamoto at age 71 was in 2016 the first Eastern composer who received the World Soundtrack Lifetime Achievement Award here in Ghent. He was born in Tokyo and learned to play the piano from since he was three years old. Not only was he a fan of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and Claude Debussy, but he also loved British rock music. Sakamoto just wasn't entirely sure if The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were British or American. Debussy's nationality was much clearer to him. He recognised Asian influences in the Frenchman's oeuvre, which influenced Sakamoto's own music.

And so it came full circle. East and West, with Sakamoto they went hand in hand in a fascinating manner. Add in influences from genres such as electro, dance, ambient and ethnic music and a highly remarkable musical cocktail arises. That was served by the Yellow Magic Orchestra, of which he was one of the three members. And so he became a pop icon.


The celebrated Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto became famous overnight as a film music composer in 1983 with his score for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence from Nagisa Oshima. Furthermore he performed as an actor in that film alongside David Bowie. With his Oscar winning music for The Last Emperor an intense collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci started, for who Sakamoto also composed music for The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha. Furthermore he made scores for among others Femme Fatale by Brian De Palma, High Heels by Pedro Almodóvar and The Revenant by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

Sakamoto piano 2© Jean-Pierre Fack


Just as impressive as his musical work was Sakamoto's commitment to help the environment and fight war violence. He also took the lead during the protests against the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Northern Japan and engaged himself for the victims of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. In between all that he also released his own albums.

His creative life was harmed in 2014 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. At first he beat the disease, but it returned in 2020. Sakamoto was very aware of the finiteness of his life, which reflected in his compositions, where the piano slowly disappeared and was replaced by the violin and organ because of their sense of eternity.


Possibly even more important than the classical instruments in Sakamoto's music were the sounds of everyday life. He noticed that a siren in Japan sounds different than one in New York or Paris, everywhere he went he recorded these kinds of sounds with his smartphone. With thanks to Steve Jobs, he joked. All those different recordings were processed by him in an unpublished and inimitable way in his music, which itself is difficult to put into words. He saw himself as "a fisherman who fishes for sounds, if you're lucky you catch something, if you're unlucky you don't".

Film Fest Gent remembers Ryuichi Sakamoto as an extraordinarily kind man, a unique artist, a passionate and engaged humanist, but also someone who wasn't too serious to have some fun with maestro Dirk Brossé.

Sakamoto en brosse© Jeroen Willems
Ryuichi Sakamoto and Dirk Brossé at the WSA Ceremony in 2016

More Sakamoto

During the World Soundtrack Awards in 2016 Sakamoto performed his music for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence live. Revisit it below:

The 'Music for Film' CD by Ryuichi Sakamoto performed by Brussels Philharmonic led by Dirk Brossé, is still available to order in the web store of Film Fest Gent.

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Raf Butstraen

With decades of film history behind him, former film critic Raf Butstraen is the ideal man to bring the latest film news for Film Fest Ghent.