[In a new installment of his 'Sound Current' series for GameSetWatch, writer Jeriaska tracks down Yakuza 3 and franchise soundtrack composer Hidenori Shoji to discuss the making of the music for the Sega's signature crime drama game.]

Over the course of the Yakuza game series, protagonist Kazuma Kiryu has battled a crime boss in Osaka, started an orphanage in Okinawa, and even found himself transformed into Gion's 17th century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. In spring of 2011, the character will be returning to English-language regions for Yakuza 4.

Through much of Kazuma's travels, the centrality of Tokyo's fictional red light district "Kamurocho" has endured, the scene of intense rock tracks written by Sega in-house composer Hidenori Shoji.

Ironically, Shoji started out on the path toward becoming a rock musician only upon setting aside his dreams of joining a popular band in Tokyo. Entering Sega, he learned to channel his passion for live performance into the composition of electronic music. Today he regularly appears on stage, performing rock renditions of classic Sega game themes as part of the band "H.".

The sound of the Yakuza series' battle scenes has emerged gradually out of a personal mission to give rock the same primacy in games as other forms of music. In this in-depth interview taking place at Sega's headquarters in Japan, Shoji describes how the soundtrack to the Playstation 3 exclusive Yakuza 3 is an expression of this artistic motive.

The creations of the Sega sound team have held a prominent place in the history of videogame music, with the S.S.T. Band being an early innovator of live game-inspired performances. How do you conceive of your own game scores within the broader context of Sega's musical legacy?

Hidenori Shoji, Sega composer: I would say that Sega Sound is to a certain extent bound up in the history of the S.S.T. Band. I have great respect for those who have come before me, but at the same time I recognize that if we are too beholden to the past, then Sega Sound cannot hope to have a future. With that in mind, I aim to write music that consciously diverges from the past in all of my music for Sega.

Rather than conform, you might say I express my appreciation for the company's traditions by committing heresy against them. The hope is that blasphemy blazes new trails. In all honesty, it's not without a touch of remorse that I'm greeted by cheers and applause whenever H. performs the old music from OutRun and Fantasy Zone. (laughs) It's a gentle reminder of the long road ahead of us. The great achievements of our predecessors are an obstacle, so I wish to overcome this challenge through willful defiance.

Years before the original Yakuza, you wrote music for the soundtrack to F-Zero GX/AX. Had you previously played the racing game for the Super Nintendo?

Yes, in fact I played it all the time when I was in Junior High. The music was great and I was such a big fan. As you can imagine it was unbelievable to be given this opportunity to revisit a game soundtrack from my youth, one that I had on repeat all throughout school. If only there had been less pressure working on F-Zero GX/AX, I could have enjoyed the experience to the fullest.

Is there music from the Super Nintendo title that stands out in your memory?

My favorite music track is "Result Theme of F-Zero," which plays right after you clear the Mute City course. Hearing that calm, almost melancholy piano melody made such a strong impression on me. I ended up writing an arrangement of the theme for the end credits.

For the Yakuza sequels, you've had numerous opportunities to reinterpret your own compositions. What have you found to be the greatest gains of self-arranging?

Sometimes there are time constraints in game development, so I always enjoy the chance to take revenge on a track I didn't nail the first time around.

The Yakuza series has developed a tremendous following in Japan. Were you surprised by its success initially, having been involved in its development since the beginning?

When the concept was first described to me, I thought this would be either a huge hit or a total bomb. When it turned out to sell half a million copies, my expectations on the optimistic side were far exceeded.

Previously you've stated that the Yakuza series was your chance to introduce rock to games, which has traditionally been influenced by genres like jazz fusion and orchestral. How did you see rock music contributing to the feel of the game series?

I was told there would be a lot of emphasis on the fight scenes, so it seemed to me that rock would be a good avenue for enhancing the excitement of battles. I had to steer clear of too many electronic sounds or familiar Western motifs, because this wasn't a story happening across the ocean about gangsters or the mafia. In terms of my motivations, I've always wanted rock music to find its place in games as it has in the movies.

Music in the Yakuza series often changes depending on the setting. For instance, there is a different style to the soundtrack depending on if Kazuma is making his way through Kamurocho, the Kansai region, or ancient Gion. How have the games' locations informed your role while writing music?

Of course a major theme of the series has been the shift in musical styles depending on whether battles are taking place in Tokyo or the Kansai region. These are different cultures, so I wanted the soundtrack to reflect their unique personalities. This time I wrote a song specifically for the battles taking place in Okinawa, called “Ryu-kyu Humming." You can hear some traditional instruments from Okinawa on this track, a castanet-like sound. The song is warm in tone to match the weather.

Other contrasts within the game world can be found in the character of Kazuma himself. In Yakuza 3 he benevolently devotes his life to raising a group of orphans, while at the same time he is constantly engaged in brutal combat. How have you found players are able to relate to someone with such a contradictory nature?

These contradictions are in fact a large part of the character's allure. In Japanese there's a common way of describing someone as "a person of gentle nature and strong will." This archetype I think is a good fit for Kazuma. While facing off against his opponents, he has lines like, "Come and get me if you're so anxious to taste death." However, there has been care taken throughout the series for him never to suggest any murderous intentions. This is a little known, subtle nuance of the character, part of a decision made by [Toshihiro] Nagoshi, the executive director of the Yakuza series. The entire staff in turn carefully maintains his stipulation.

Essentially Kazuma is not a violent person, but will wield violence as a means of protecting others. In a sense he's more than just a character, but an ideal. The act of maintaining those standards is one reason why I think so many people enjoy playing as Kazuma.

Visually the Yakuza games offer intricate if often fantastical depictions of contemporary life in Japan, such as the bustling, sun drenched streets of Okinawa in Yakuza 3. Does the visual attention to detail in any way inform your choices on the musical score?

I think that reality in a sense informs the art and sound design of the Yakuza series, but it has less sway over the musical score. However, I was conscious of a certain theme of adulthood that is present in Yakuza 3. When the first game was released, it came with the tagline: "For adults who crave gaming." And yet there was a juvenile, upbeat feeling to a lot of the music. For some time I've wanted to completely reinvent the style of the background music so that it speaks more to grown-up audiences.

While both Yakuza and Yakuza 2 gained recognition for their mature themes, I think that Yakuza 3 marked a turning point with its transition onto the Playstation 3. It was the right occasion to focus more intently on an aesthetic that would appeal to older audiences, for instance incorporating bluesy guitar passages and jazzy electric keyboard phrases. The transition has been controlled, so as not to clash with what came before, but I hope the changes are noticeable.

Do the personalities of the numerous characters that Kazuma encounters in Yakuza 3 factor into audio techniques you've employed?

The personality of each individual as well as how they relate to Kazuma can inform the sound design. With the introductory Yakuza, I decided to assign particular sounds to each character. These were later incorporated into the game score to mirror the development of the narrative. For instance, a strumming harp stood in for a good-natured flower shop owner, while an acoustic guitar twang followed cool and dispassionate Daté around.

Of course, this technique would have grown tedious had it been applied to scenes featuring numerous characters, so it was used in moderation. However, I kept to this pattern in certain instances, particularly when a character was being introduced for the first time. I think it helps the player differentiate individual characters within the storyline, operating on an unconscious level.

With Yakuza 3, I again took up this method. Listen in just prior to the fight between Richardson and Majima and you'll notice that the sound of the music box is indicating a character off-screen, namely that of Miné. If a player were to go through the game a second time, paying close attention to the use of sound, there might be added enjoyment derived from insights like these.

The English-language release of Yakuza 3 features the original Japanese voice acting. Were there performances that you felt were particularly effective?

I was impressed by the acting in the scene between Kazuma and Miné in Chapter Thirteen, when the latter flies off the handle. As a Yakuza member, you can understand that this is someone with a temper, though he normally keeps his cool. In this particular scene he lets loose on Kazuma. I thought the sobriety that actor Nakamura Shidō lent the character conveyed these extremes of emotionality truthfully. I find it interesting that a single character can represent both extremes of stillness and emotionality.

"Encounter The Dragoon" is among the tracks included on the pre-order bonus CD released in Europe. Could you offer a personal take on its '70s music influences and the meaning behind the name?

In Yakuza 3 there appear scenes in the game that involve training with nunchucks. These ascetic training scenes borrow elements from the title Ryuu ga Gotoku Kenzan!, a game which never appeared outside Japan. The thinking was that there should be an original track dedicated to training, so I spent some time bouncing ideas off the battle planner. "So, if I were to mention nunchucks," I said, "would that bring to mind Asian cultural influences?" Exchanging these sorts of associations, gradually '70s music began informing the piece. If you notice any similarity to the famous film, I'll leave it to your imagination to decide what to make of it.

You have mentioned previously that for your soundtrack albums you design new endings for music tracks that loop in-game. How has this tradition figured into more recent publications?

“Clay Doll On The Cradle” from Yakuza 3 is actually among my favorites in the series. You hear it during an extended rumble preceding the final showdown. It was such a stretch from my personal style and turned out to complement the scene. The track has a three-minute loop, which means all that's required is an ending. More challenging is adapting tracks of a shorter duration. There I'm modifying the entire structure to match the progression of standard pop songs by switching things up in the second verse. I'm always thinking about how to make the album the most enjoyable listening experience as a standalone experience.

What was the inspiration behind your track "Fly," the first song on the bonus CD, and how did you adapt the track for live performance at the Tokyo Game Show?

It might come as something of a surprise, but "Fly" was the direct result of writing "Encounter The Dragoon," the track previously mentioned. Because production on the Yakuza series runs on a tight schedule in Japan, from the very get-go the sound team is required to get to work on promotional tracks for use with guest artists. Music is needed almost immediately for announcement trailers and promotional videos.

When executive director Nagoshi-san approached me for a theme during pre-production, I turned in a draft of "Encounter The Dragoon." He liked the use of power chords but said, "Can I hear a different take on it?" At first I was thinking, "What's with this guy?" However, it turned out to be enough of an inspiration to lead to "Fly." This is why you'll notice "Encounter The Dragoon" and "Fly" are in the same key and transition naturally from one to the next. Because there was this personal challenge giving rise to the track, it was especially meaningful to perform it live at the Tokyo Game Show. After the guitar solo, I had to get creative with the melody to suit the live environment. It didn't go too well. (laughs) If the opportunity arises again to perform at the Sega booth, I'll be sure to request more time to prepare.

Could you speak on the subject of involving Sega composer Chihiro Aoki on "D 2 A," and H. band member Mitsuharu Fukuyama on the track "Independence for Violence"?

"D 2 A" is an example of one of the so-called joke battle tracks, which have featured in the series since Yakuza 2. It's a category of music that I enjoy because there are few barriers restricting unbridled creativity. For instance, with this track the formula I had envisioned was a bit ridiculous: (French pop + surf rock + a mix ÷ 1.8). Aoki has experience in this area and lent her voice to the female chorus. Her vocal style is deep and resonant, so she struggled to capture the cute singing style. (laughs) If I ever perform the track live, I'll be sure to bring some helium gas with me to inhale while joining the chorus.

Another collaboration was on "Independence for Violence," the Nishikiyama Family battle theme, an arrangement of "Intelligence for Violence" from the original Yakuza. Brass instruments served a symbolic role in the earlier title, so in thinking about this opportunity for an arranged track my thoughts turned to Fukuyama's trumpet skills. When it came time to record, the trumpet accompaniment guided the use of the guitar. I think the ease with which the new arrangement can be enjoyed is a testament to the power of teamwork.

While not strictly collaborative “The Dragon God’s Gospel” is my arrangement of a track featured in the epilogue, composed by Hiroyoshi Kato of Noisycroak. With his permission, I arranged the track in order for it to appear during the title screen of each chapter. The intention was to provide a smooth transition so as not to break the momentum of the gameplay between chapters. For my part, it was refreshing to have the chance to arrange a composition written by someone from outside the company.

What insights could you provide regarding the tracks appearing on the bonus CD included in the PAL standard deluxe edition, otherwise known as the Yakuza 3 Battle Pack?

“Roar of the Dragon God” can be heard on the title screen and furthers the series' tradition of ambient "roars." Specifically, the wailing electric guitar is standing in symbolically for the roar of a dragon. With Yakuza 3 the title of the track suggests Kazuma has ascended to the rank of "Dragon God," corresponding with the strength of the guitar chords in a shift away from the prior ambient style. "Dead Run" was inspired by the new gameplay feature of chase scenes introduced in Yakuza 3. The techno style is something I had not emphasized previously, and the dissonant piano accompaniment is meant to heighten the thrill of the chase.

"Crush & Strike" is the background track for battles with young yakuza members, not to be confused with street thugs. For this track I went with a vulgar-sounding electric rock vibe that I felt added to the personification. "Skirmish" was written specifically for the Underground Arena, which has never had a dedicated track prior to Yakuza 3. While its inclusion was not planned upon the onset of production, it soon became obvious that we would need it. I wrote this one during the latter half of development and it features the use of a brand new soft synthesizer. "Underground Dazzling Star" was intended to add musical variety to the battle tracks leading up to the final encounter and features a techno style meant to contrast with "Skirmish."

Those who are familiar with the original Yakuza might recognize that "End Point" is a rendition of that title's “Turning Point.” The return of “you know who” was planned early on in production, so this arrangement was foreseen from the start. Since the original track had a strong alternative rock feel, for this rendition I decided on an orchestral approach. The emphasis on instrumentation swapped electric bass for cello, electric guitar for violin. The results were an orchestral number with a strong Asian flair to the conclusion. I hope that its contrast with the original might be a source of enjoyment for listeners.

"Pure Malice" is unique to a single battle with a Tamashiro Family member, and therefore had to be distinct from other tracks. Normally while recording an electric guitar it's common practice to capture a line input rather than use a microphone. An amp simulator (a type of effector) will be used to simulate the vibration. No amp simulator was used for this one, thereby sacrificing the natural timbre. Instead I ended up with an edgy distortion sound. The piano recordings were also manipulated to sound old and low-fi, which I like to think adds to the sense of impending danger.

"More Huge" appears during boss battles. You might notice some similarities to “Pure Malice” since both were written around the same time. What I remember most about this song was that I accidentally erased the main melody data during a computer maintenance check. (laughs) I tell myself it happened for a reason because in re-recording I ended up with a fresh new sound. "Illtreatment" is another example of a song type that returns for each new title. More specifically, this piece is an example of those long battles that extend beyond the normal duration of a fight. My image of this track was that it was meant to be performed live, so I stripped away the guitar riffs and simplified the melody in pursuit of getting the adrenaline pumping on stage. (laughs) I look forward to the chance to play this one before a crowd someday.

"FM-Sound's Storm" was planned from the beginning for use once during the first and second halves of the game. It made me realize once again how much I like the distinctive graininess of FM synthesis. "Ogre Has Returned" was written specifically for Lau Kar-long upon his return to the story and incorporates Chinese-style percussion. The concept of acrobatic kung-fu featured in a contemporary setting called to mind The Matrix, which influenced the electronic tone and use of strings on the track. (If you manage to activate your heat gauge during this battle, you can trigger a fitting slow-mo attack.)

“Lyricism without Tears” features the use of various guitars. You can hear layers of unfiltered and distorted electric guitars, as well as twelve-string acoustic and extended-range classical guitars. Since I was playing all these instruments myself to build up the layers, I kept shredding away, even cutting up the skin on my fingers. (laughs) This is an example of letting a riff carry an entire melody, a technique I've been known to favor over the years. In the game, the track exists in two styles, patterned after different environments. On the soundtrack album, I merged them together to make it easier to listen to independent of the gameplay.

In concluding this discussion on your music for Yakuza 3, would you have a message to relate to those outside of Japan who have followed the series thus far?

Yakuza 3 is a return to origins that pays homage to the original title. The track that plays during the staff roll is an arrangement of a piece from the first game and is only available outside Japan. I'm sure it will be familiar to those who have stuck with the Yakuza games from the start. For first time players, I hope you can enjoy the way that the music of Yakuza 3 has been designed to support the gameplay.

[This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current. The Yakuza 3 original soundtrack album can imported from Amazon.co.jp. Interview and photos by Jeriaska. Translation by Yoko Wyatt.]