[In his latest interview with Japanese game composers for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska talks to the folks behind the music for the Yakuza spin-off series for PlayStation 3 that, somewhat fascinatingly, moves Sega's mobster-based action game to 17th century Japan.]

While tremendously popular in Japan, Sega's Yakuza games have proven difficult to localize for Western audiences. When the series shifted its focus to the legendary 17th century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi for Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan!, the cultural gap for those in English-language regions only widened.

More accessible is the game's soundtrack, composed of an intense mix of rock music and antique instruments. In this interview with five of the sound designers responsible for the title's musical score and sound effects, we hear about the audio strategies underlying the Yakuza series' period piece.

Currently at work on the next installment in the series for the Playstation 3, Sega composer Hidenori Shoji joins us to discuss how his songs for the game broke new ground for the company's popular franchise. Also contributing to the discussion is Hideki Sakamoto, director of the sound studio Noisycroak. The composer previously spoke with us during a sound design interview on his involvement in the original soundtrack to Castlevania Judgement.

Three members of Sakamoto's company add their perspectives on the making of sound for Kenzan. Hiroyoshi Kato has written electronic dance music for the Dance Dance Revolution games and was responsible for the themes for the samurai story's minigames. Keisuke Itou has just recently released his first solo soundtrack, for a Sony PSP detective title called Diamond and the Sound of a Gunshot.

He composed music for the courtesan scenes in Kenzan. Tsuyoshi Yukawa has written sound effects for the Yakuza series beginning with the second installment and offers his personal experience creating audio effects to ground the drama in its historical time period.


Videogame composers Hiroyoshi Kato and Hideki Sakamoto

How did you react to the idea of the Yakuza series being transported to the 17th century? Did you think it was a good idea at the time?

Hidenori Shoji: At first I thought it was a joke. I was like, Are you kidding?

What considerations did you have in your approach to the music for this change of setting, seeing as it was to retain thematic ties to the previously existing Yakuza titles?

Shoji: Considering this was a historical drama, at first there was the question of what to do about the soundtrack. How would it feature traditional Japanese instruments, since the concept was "Miyamoto Musashi meets Kazuma Kiryuu"?

In the end, strict historical accuracy was not the number one priority. The final line is that it's entertainment. We gave ourselves license to make contemporary rock styles the basis of the soundtrack.

Shoji-san, your song "TAKUMI" appears first in Yakuza Kenzan and has since been arranged for other games in the series. How did this music track first come about?

Shoji: During the training sequences in this game series, there is a character name Komaki that appears. If you play Yakuza 1 and 2, you will notice that there is not a specific track of music dedicated to these scenes. Training took place outside of the main storyline, and since it was an extra feature, there was not a specific music track for it.

However, in Kenzan, you are compelled to do some serious training in order to proceed through the game, so we decided to pump some extra energy into these scenes by dedicating a specific music track. After Kenzan this song was carried over into Yakuza 3 and became specific to the character of Komaki, receiving a unique arrangement. It's kind of like the "theme of Komaki."

Sakamoto-san, could you tell us a little about yourself and your sound design studio Noisycroak?

Hideki Sakamoto I'm Hideki Sakamoto, director of Noisycroak. For Kenzan our company was primarily responsible for composing for the cutscenes. Previously we have written videogame music for Echochrome and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman.

When was Noisycroak first established?

The company was created in March of 2004, so it has been a little over five years since we got started. Back when I was a freelance composer, I received the impression that it was necessary to belong to a company if I wanted to find work. For the first two years I was the only employee.

Has writing videogame music been something that you have known you wanted to do professionally for some time?

Well, I began playing the piano when I was four, and later on I started transcribing music that I liked. As for games, I was playing those back in elementary school, around the time of the NES boom. Even before that there was the Epoch Cassette Vision and the Game & Watch. I loved games as a little kid.

It was rare for boys to practice piano at that age. As a result I found I received some bullying for it at school. Anyway, one day before music class I started playing some melodies from popular games on the piano. All of a sudden, those same kids were treating me like I was a superhero.

Before class began, everyone would gather around me and chant: "Play it! Play it!" Then I would sit down at the piano and play music from Zelda, Mario, and Dragon Quest. Finally someone would shout, "Teacher's coming!" and all the kids would run back to their desks.

When did you first start writing game music professionally?

I started composing music in junior high. My parents bought me a computer and I started fooling around with MML. I would sit there with a big grin on my face, listening to the FM sound source, just having fun. When I was 23, I started professionally, writing music for a PC game.

How many people currently work at Noisycroak?

Right now there are three full time workers, two part-time employees and about ten composers writing music.

Are you planning any special events

We do have an event planned where we will gather a group of composers for a discussion, sitting around this table here. We are planning on recording the proceedings, taking some photos and all of it will be up on the Noisycroak website in July. The musicians currently scheduled to attend are Shoji-san, Itou-san, Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Nobuyoshi Sano, Shinji Hosoe of Super Sweep, Masato Koda of Monster Hunter, Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger, and Takayuki Nakamura of Brainstorm Co., Ltd. We have sent out a call for questions from listeners and we will all be fielding those questions.

How did it come about that Noisycroak participated in the making of the soundtrack to Sega's Yakuza 2?

This goes back to when I wrote music for Super Monkey Ball for the Wii. I was a big fan of Yakuza for the Playstation 2. Someone heard about it and they asked me to join the staff on Yakuza 2.

When it came time for Kenzan, what kind of musical ideas were you interested in introducing to the game?

We had all sorts of ideas at first. We were thinking about rap and hip-hop. However, when it came time to actually write the soundtrack, Noisycroak was placed in charge of the cutscenes. Most of our songs took place during the cinematics, so our thought was that game players would be thrown unless Japanese-style orchestral appeared during those scenes.

There you can hear shamisen and tsuzumi. There were several sequences where within the scene characters are playing musical instruments in the background. Because the music had to match what was being portrayed onscreen, those were the toughest spots to score. You hear taiko drums and shakuhachi, instruments that are recognizable elements of traditional Japanese music.

Kato-san, how would you describe the minigames found in Kenzan?

Hiroyoshi Kato: The three or four minigames that I wrote music for are traditional Japanese pastimes, including a form of bowling.

What sort of music did you feel was appropriate for these scenes?

All said, the modern installments of the Yakuza series cover a lot of musical ground, which changes dramatically depending on the requirements of the particular scene.

There are serious moments and there are jokes. To that effect the minigames are a bit comical in their anachronistic use of ancient instruments.

Have you been interested in games since way back?

In elementary school, I played games often. My story is similar to Sakamoto-san's. I began collecting soundtracks and joined a band in high school, while on the side I was writing electronic music.

At first I kind of blocked out videogame music as a creative influence. I was following the record companies, writing popular styles of dance music. Gradually, lyrics found their way into videogame music and much of the gap between pop and VGM closed. That was around the time that I began work at Noisycroak.

What did you find particularly interesting about working on the Kenzan project?

In terms of the soundtrack to Kenzan, I did not want to become preoccupied by the historical setting. At some point previously contemporary and traditional instruments were in opposition, and hearing them together was felt to be a mismatch. However, today if you listen to a lot of international dance music it's not all that uncommon to hear the Japanese instruments and influences incorporated.


Keisuke Itou and Hidenori Shoji

Itou-san, could you tell us a little about yourself and your work for Noisycroak?

I am Noisycroak composer Keisuke Itou. Previously in my work as a videogame composer, I have written music for Yakuza Kenzan, Yakuza 3, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon and a game called Shinobido: Way of the Ninja.

In terms of my participation in the soundtrack to Kenzan, I wrote the themes for the Yumejiya and Azumiya tea house locations.

Just what is the purpose of these establishments? Historically, there once was a place called "Gion" located in Kyoto in which this manner of business thrived. To put it simply, this was a place where patrons were entertained by women.

My songs appear during the courtesan scenes. Of course if you look at the contemporary Yakuza series, much of it takes place at hostess clubs. Historically these two locations have served a similar purpose, as far as business establishments go.

The scenes I am describing are less about eroticism than luxury. Namely, this is the luxury of receiving the attention of desirable women. The music in Kenzan retains the atmosphere of the hostess club scenes taking place in the modern installments of the series, but with the added element of traditional music.

Do you have a particular interest in traditional Japanese music?

I would say that I do. For instance, there is traditional court music featuring instruments like the hichiriki [a double reed Japanese flute] and shō [a free reed musical instrument]. "Mai" is an ancient form of musical performance, composed of playing instruments plus ceremonial dance. This combination is the foundation of the Noh plays, an ancient cultural institution of Japan. This is a personal interest of mine.

I might add that most of the music for Kenzan's cutscenes was by us at Noisycroak. I was in charge of composing for many of them, though they are not included in the soundtrack album. The music is meant to be a natural fit for the in-game cinematics, which I hope might be enjoyable to those that play the game.

Yukawa-san, how have you gone about writing sound effects for Yakuza Kenzan, and has the process been particularly different from your work on previous installments?

In looking at the sound effects I wrote for Yakuza 2, the game takes place in modern times, so I was recording the noises of cars passing, the types of sounds you are used to hearing in everyday life. In Kenzan, the historical setting is completely different, so I had to think more about what kinds of sounds you were likely to hear in those particular circumstances.

What sorts of effects are required for these scenes?

In terms of my work on the sound effects, if you look for instance at Yakuza 2 you are hearing the sounds of conversations taking place outside of buildings in the city. For Kenzan scenes take place in the woods. I had to think about what kind of atmosphere would be needed to match that setting.

Was any particular research required?

I watched a number of historical dramas looking for clues to the sound design. Among my favorite personalities in the Yakuza series is a bumbling character named Akimoto. He appeared in the first game and has persisted throughout the series.

In Kenzan, you discover that he is routinely deceived by the courtesans. They succeed in emptying his pockets. Considering the emotional impact of those scenes, I put extra effort into the sound effects in the desire to aid in their expression.

Shoji: In terms of the seasonal variation in Kenzan, the birds you hear singing change depending on the time of year. For insance, in spring you can hear the cuckoo.

Yukawa: Yes, regarding which species of birds inhabited the woods in that particular time period in Japanese history, I did research on the web in order to find out. You know, it's not something most people who play the game are not going to pay specific attention to. This kind of attention to minute details is strictly for the purposes of my own enjoyment.


Nobuooo 7.09: Forbidden Kenzan from Jeriaska on Vimeo.

[Interview conducted by Jeriaska. Translation by Kaoru Bertrand. This article is available in Italian on Gamesource.it and in Japanese on the Noisycroak website. Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan! Original Soundtrack can be imported from Amazon.co.jp. Images courtesy of Sega, Wave Master and Noisycroak.]