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Koichi Sugiyama :: Biography

Overview Biography Discography Game Projects Interviews

Note: This biography was written exclusively for Square Enix Music Online by Chris. The act of using it without advance written permission is regarded as a copyright infringement. Compiling all the available information regarding Dragon Quest music required endless amounts of work from Chris and his translator Lierre, so please respect this by providing credit where it is due and not committing plagiarism. It was last updated on June 20, 2007.

Born on April 11, 1931 in Tokyo, Japan, Koichi Sugiyama is a classically-trained musician who is the most popular game music composer in Japan due to the success of the music for the Dragon Quest series. Having expressed a love from music at an early age in his musically rich home, Sugiyama's first compositions were a collection of small musical works that he wrote in high school. He attended the highly notable University of Tokyo to read Classical Music Theory in the early 1950's and graduated with all honors. Initially employed in the fields of reporting and cultural broadcasting, he was a director at Fuji Telecasting Co. between 1958 and 1965 and also made some commercial composing works on behalf of the company. Becoming a freelance director for three years, he quit in 1968 to focus on his principle love: composition. Sugiyama composed for a variety of animes, television shows, commercials, musicals, pop artists, and, as a professional jungle writer, even horse-racing venues. Having first composed for the media in 1968 for the films Hanayahanaru shôtai and Za taigazu: Sekai wa bokura o matteiru, his first works that gave him significant public recognition were the animated movie Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman and the manga-based TV series Cyborg 009, both released in 1979. Other major early television and film works included Space Runaway Ideon, Patlabor, Sea Prince and the Fire Child, and Densetsu-kyoshin ideon: Sesshoku-hen, all released in the early 1980s. Sugiyama is best known in the film industry for his score to 1989's Godzilla vs. Biollante, which received soundtrack releases in both 1989 and 1991. Here, he produced a collection of original music, including a critically acclaimed main theme, while carefully interweaving familiar themes from Akira Ifukube's earlier soundtracks to the series, drawing influence, in particular, from Ostinato, a collection of updated film themes.

Throughout these projects, Sugiyama developed and refined an easily recognisable classically-oriented style. The majority of Sugiyama works are modified hybrids of Baroque and early-middle Classical styles made unique for a variety of reasons, especially the use of a focal point on memorable, richly shaped, and periodically phrased melodies often of cinematic inclination. It has been Sugiyama's sophisticated use of melodies that has principally driven, shaped, and characterised the majority of his compositions, and they have also been the principle key to appealing to and communicating with his target audience in the games and anime sector. Little is more endearing than a naturally shaped melody that gains a person's attention, evokes emotion from them, and remains in their memory; Sugiyama knows this and regularly utilises his ability to create wonderful melodies to reflect this. Sugiyama's music is also technically competent, noteworthy for rigorous and traditional use of form, careful exposition and elaboration of features, elegant treatment of phrases periodically and sequentially, and seamless transitions when conveying varying moods or presenting different musical styles. Sugiyama's works tend to offer a wholesome sound while often disguising simplicity. Largely homophonic in texture, his compositions are rarely profound on a harmonic level, generally functional, diatonic, and unremarkable in terms of chord progressions utilised. Rarely is this characterised by outward superficiality, however, since his harmonies pleasingly complement the melodious nature of his compositions and he rejects the transparent methods of composing characterised by the Rococo period. However, Sugiyama is also surprisingly eclectic, capable of composing in modernist, jazz, and romantic styles and, in his earliest soundtracks, much more.

Sugiyama's first works for video games came were made on behalf of the Enix Corporation in the mid-80's. After sending a letter that commented on some of Enix's software, he was offered to compose for some of their games by a company official and graciously accepted. His earliest known works, 1985's Door Door MKII, World Golf, Wingman, and Earth Fighter Rayieza for the PC-8801 and Zasu for the MSX, were motivated by the biggest challenge that faced Sugiyama throughout his early game music career: creating appealing music that sustained repeated use effectively while overcoming massive technological limitations. Their scores, well-documented in one of the first ever game albums, Enix Game Music, mostly deviated from his aforementioned style (World Golf and Wingman, both initial instalments into three part series, were exceptions); drawing influences more from other old-school game music compositions and the melodic approaches of certain pop artists, these scores were generally very thin texturally with a light and whimsical feel throughout, appropriate given the nature of the games concerned. Around the time that Dragon Quest was released, Sugiyama had created numerous stylistically individualistic works, including the detective spoof Animal Land Murder Case, the dark and minimalistic Angelus, the impressively diverse Gandhara, and the Atari's Star Command, a serious effort that received a fleshed-out arranged section for its album release, Star Command ~ Space Invader. His most musically landmarked non-Dragon Quest effort is probably the score to the amusingly named Music from Jesus - The Fearful Bio-Monster; one of a few examples of his surprising eclecticity, it featured prominent use of overdriven guitars, synthesizers, and traditional instruments to create a mixture of rock-influenced power ballads, sentimental love themes, energetic action tracks, and even some examples of synthpop. Its score headlines four different albums, which is a reflection of its modest popularity.

Sugiyama's breakthrough work was 1986's Dragon Quest for the Nintendo and MSX. The immensely popular RPG, released as Dragon Warrior three years later in America, featured around ten minutes of classically-styled music that, while enormously technologically limited with just three superficial sounding synthesizer channels available, was still filled with charm thanks to its diversity, melodic emphasis, and meticulous musicality. In response to the game's success, Sugiyama did something completely unprecedented at that time by creating a 25 minute symphonic suite from the entire score that stayed true to the original's melodies and was principally performed by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble. Introduced by the series' grandiose "Overture," a sign of tradition in that it has featured in almost every other Dragon Quest album since, it featured a serene representation of the overworld, a Baroque-oriented castle theme, a modulation-obsessed dungeon theme, wildly dissonant battle tracks, and an unforgettable ending theme, providing something of a template for later releases. Together with designer Yuji Horii and artist Akira Toriyama, Sugiyama has worked on every Dragon Quest game since. Till 1990, he released suites on a yearly basis to accompany each new game. The scores quickly increased in length, maturity, exuberance, and accessibility and, due to an increased budget, Sugiyama was able to utilise the NHK Symphony Orchestra for Dragon Quest III's suite. Arguably the pinnacle of Dragon Quest's orchestral achievement came with Dragon Quest IV's Symphonic Suite, the first instalment to Dragon Quest's Tenku trilogy and the first to receive treatment by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991. Koichi Sugiyama's early success also led him to compose for Dragon Quest's and the series' three animes, Abel Yuusha, Dai no Daibouken, and Emblem of Roto, as well as the first in a line of Dragon Quest spinoffs, ChunSoft's Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon, the initial instalment to the famous Mysterious Dungeon series based on Dragon Quest IV's weapon trader.

The discography for the Dragon Quest series is larger than any other game series. Despite the original scores for games usually featured between 15 and 30 tracks, the vast popularity of the series' music has allowed for a wide range of albums to be financially sustainable. In addition to symphonic suites, Sugiyama has produced numerous albums and sheet music books dedicated to arrangements for electone and solo piano, most of which were simplistic adaptations of the original scores not arranged by Sugiyama himself. In addition, Dragon Quest music has been interpreted by Asian instruments, a string quartet, a brass quintet, and the duo of vocalists Loula on occasions in instances of more inspired use of ensembles. Also produced were 12 CD Theater drama albums arranged by Sugiyama's prolific pupil Hayato Matsuo, numerous albums for brass ensemble arranged by Kosuke Onozaki, several 'best of' selections dedicated to the Symphonic Suites, and even a seven disc box set. With the exception of Dragon Quest III's SNES Original Sound Version and Dragon Quest VIII's recent release, the original scores for all the Dragon Quest albums were released with their suites; some suites feature each piece of in-game music separately, in addition to a music effects collection, though the early albums featured 'Original Sound Story' medleys instead — lengthy compilations of in-game music arranged by Koichi Nakamura so that sound effects are integrated. Three compilations of limited edition three CD sets dedicated to in-game music and ringtones were also released in 2001. The sheer enormity of the series' discography, though nightmarish for completists and regularly criticised for its redundancy, inconsistency, and commercialistic leanings, is an incredible symbol of the immense popularity of Dragon Quest in Japan musically and otherwise.

As a consequence of the success of the Dragon Quest series, Sugiyama has brought the series to live venues. The first ever video game music concert, Dragon Quest in Concert Family Classic Concert, was held on August 20, 1987 at Suntory Hall, Tokyo; it bridged game music with classical performances through combining performances of the first two Symphonic Suites with a famous Saint-Saëns suite. Though a Nintendo production largely independent of Sugiyama's involvement, its influence as an event and album release was immense. Sugiyama went on to endorse the Family Classic Concert series through conducting the performances on a yearly basis and, as of August 9, 2007, 21 such concerts have been held. Dragon Quest concerts are performed every few months in Japan. Crowd-winning tours of Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite Best Selections occur annually across Japan, each new Symphonic Suite release is celebrated by a concert tour, and many innovations, such as the recent string quartet and brass quintet albums, were preceded by concert experiences. Sugiyama also introduced and conducted the Orchestral Game Concert series, an unprecedented five concert series that occurred between 1991 and 1995; it saw the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra perform symphonic music from a variety of series, including Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and Nobunaga's Ambition and included Yoko Kanno, the late Kentaro Haneda, Kohei Tanaka, and Kosuke Onozaki as other major contributors. As well, Sugiyama's music has reached the highbrow audiences as a result of the lavish Dragon Quest Ballet by the Star Dancers Ballet, which utilised music from the first five game's Symphonic Suites for its 1995 debut. Its annual performances, one of which was released on DVD, have attracted over 20,000 people and have received glowing reviews.

The golden age of Koichi Sugiyama's non-Dragon Quest music was between 1991 and 1995 as the long-awaited Dragon Quest V was being developed. His scores included the puzzle games Monopoly and Tetris 2 + BomBliss, the Enix and King Records' collaborations Akagawa Jiro no Yuurei Ressha and Jesus II, and the twice-released action game through time EVO Search for Eden, arranged into a synthesizer suite by Motoaki Takenouchi. He has collaborated with Square on two occasions. He was employed as a guest composer for the Super Nintendo sequel Hanjuku Hero, resulting in the most humorous album in Sugiyama's discography, and was due to compose for Square and Enix's 1995 collaboration Chrono Trigger, but was famously replaced by his admirer Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda, the sound programmer who Sugiyama, interestingly enough, extensively guided in his first project, Hanjuku Hero. This period also strengthened his relationship with Hayato Matsuo. He was responsible for directing Matsuo's scores to 1991's Master of Monsters and 1992's Super Nintendo remake of Taito's Syvalion, and oversaw Matsuo's arrangements and operation of his own music for Chunsoft's best-selling Mysterious Dungeon 2: Fuurai no Shiren. In the field of anime, he also directed, arranged, and conducted Matsuo's scores for Magic Knight Rayearth and released Symphonic Suites for his early projects Gatchaman and Cyberorg 009. Another innovative project Sugiyama inspired was the album Super Mario World, which featured jazz arrangements, original music, and sound effects from the Super Mario Bros. series and the Super Nintendo's very first game. Sugiyama's intention was to oversee the creation of the best Mario available; with the help of Sadao Watanabe and Soichi Noriki's expertise in the arranged section and Koji Kondo's world-famous original themes, he succeeded.

1995 represented the end of Koichi Sugiyama's career as a general musician. Bowing out with the final Orchestral Game Concert in October 1995 and his last two games for the Super Nintendo, Mysterious Dungeon 2 Fuurai no Shiren and Dragon Quest VI, he decided to partially retire, but was to remain the Dragon Quest series' sole composer nonetheless. As well as focusing on his various hobbies — photography, building model ships, collecting old cameras, and reading — he continued to oversee the various concert and ballet performances of his work. He also took numerous flights to London in order to conduct their interpretations of his Symphonic Suites and, by 1996, all suites except Dragon Quest V's had been re-recorded and re-released. Controversially, all were reprinted in 2000 immediately prior to the long-awaited release of Dragon Quest VII; this created a complete and definitive set of recordings, but the reprints did not differ except for a degree of remastering and the removal of any original score sections. Nonetheless, Sugiyama continued to occasionally create new scores, notably creating, in 2000, both Dragon Quest VII's critically acclaimed soundtrack and suite as well as Dragon Quest Torneko's Adventure 2 Symphonic Suite to commemorate the second Torneko game. The Dragon Quest series also spawned two other spinoff series: the Dragon Quest Monsters series, whose initial Game Boy Color entries received synthesizer suite releases, and the 'play as a Slime' Slime Morimori games, whose 2003 first entry received no album release; the same applied to the third Monsters and Torneko games released the same year. Arguably Sugiyama's most valuable recent innovation was the utilisation of the NHK Symphony Orchestra's recording as in-game music for Dragon Quest V's PlayStation 2 remake in 2004, which was one of the first fully streamed orchestral console scores.

Dragon Quest V's remake and Dragon Quest VIII's subsequent release resulted in a new wave of activity from Sugiyama. Technological advancements allowed 2005's Dragon Quest VIII Symphonic Suite from the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra to be used as the game's original score overseas, though synthesized game music was used in the initial Japanese release. The game's much-anticipated release led to further concert series, a 'Mysterious Dungeon' spinoff title dedicated to the character Yangus, and the series being determined as commercial viable overseas. The scores were released on Sugiyama's Sony Records-dependent record label, SUGIlabel, and the label's establishment encouraged Sugiyama to engage in various new innovations. This included releasing the first ever String Quartet and Brass Quintet Dragon Quest albums. The Symphonic Suite album releases for Dragon Quest V and Dragon Quest VIII were the first in a line of Tokyo Metropolitan performances of the series' suites. The orchestra has now interpreted all the series' scores, resulting in a new batch of so-called definitive Dragon Quest suite releases and the first re-recordings of most of the series' scores since the mid-90's; notable for crystal clear recording quality, the virtuosity of their concertmaster Tomoshige Yamamoto, and the finesse of the brass section, they reflect the gradual evolution of the series' scores as a result of endless technical refinements made to maximise musicality and playability in the series' Symphonic Suite live concerts. He was also responsible for the Dragon Quest arrangements in the Monopoly-based 'Dragon Quest & Final Fantasy Itadaki Street' games released in 2004 and 2006, where he was reunited by Hayato Matsuo. Also on behalf of the series, Sugiyama has composed for the 2005's Slime Morimori Dragon Quest 2: Daisensha to Shippo Dan and 2006's Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker for the DS.

Descriptions of Koichi Sugiyama as the 'Father of Game Music' are apt. Incredibly prolific as a composer, symphonist, and conductor, with over 100 album releases to his name and a career spanning four decades, his influence is enormous. He single-handedly conceived the first game music orchestral albums, concert performances, and ballets, inspired a number of major composers including Nobuo Uematsu, and created the first substantial RPG score with 1986's Dragon Quest, which revolutionised the sound of gaming. Regardless of major technical restraints in his early works, his music continued to shine for its accessible melodies, musical refinement, and diversity. Immensely popular across Japan, Sugiyama continues to conduct highly successful concerts on a regular basis across Japan and still produces best-selling Symphonic Suite reprints despite some of the suites having been reprinted five times previously. His legacy promises to go on with next-generation consoles. Despite taking a backseat for the first time on the Wii's Dragon Quest Swords, scored by Manami Matsumae, he's already known to be composing the DS' Dragon Quest IX: Defenders of the Sky. He promises to stay true to his roots to preserve Dragon Quest's dearly loved and fundamental traditions and maximise the human appeal of his music. As Sugiyama said himself, 'despite the constant advances in sound and computer technology, people's tastes don't change'. Despite attaining a more cinematic sound recently, his trademark style remains as distinct and classically-oriented as ever and themes like the instantly recognisable "Overture" and "Intermezzo" continue to be a prominent part of Dragon Quest's games and albums. His legacy continues to grow with each and every one of his releases and, even at the age of 76, Sugiyama does not intend to stop. Koichi Sugiyama's music is an ongoing legend. He is the most popular and influential game music composer in Japan.