Interview with Kinuyo Yamashita (February 2010)
Kinuyo Yamashita is a long-term game composer known for composing hit classic titles such as Castlevania, Esper Dream, Power Blade, and Mega Man X3. She continues to be highly active as a composer, with works spanning from fighting franchises to lifestyle games, from arranged album contributions to J-Pop experiments. In the last few months, she has also made a switch from living in Japan to the United States.
In her most comprehensive interview to date, Kinuyo Yamashita discusses her life and works indepth. She gives fans a tour of her experiences as a Konami sound creator, freelancer composer, and independent artist, while noting her most significant projects over the years. She also discusses some of her latest works, including the DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou Arrange Album, Walk It Out, and Gunhound, as well as her appearances at recent video game concerts.
Interview Subject: Kinuyo Yamashita
Chris: Hello Kinuyo Yamashita. We really appreciate you talking to us today. For those who aren't familiar with you, could you tell us about your background and musical preferences?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Thank you for interviewing me. I haven't done many interviews before. I guess I'm old school and maybe a lot of video game music fans today don't even know who I am.
Well, my name is Kinuyo Yamashita and I'm a video game music composer from Japan. I have worked on countless soundtracks for video games, but I'm probably most well known for my first composition, the original Castlevania.
As far as my musical preferences, I enjoy all different kinds of music. I like Jazz and Classical music artists like Nat King Cole, Chopin and Beethoven. Primarily I make video game music, but I've also composed a few popular music tracks for an Independent label. I also was part of a duo that performed various live shows in Japan.
Chris: It seems obvious to start with your first and most well-known game project, the original Castlevania released in 1986. What did you aim to achieve on the project and why did you take a rock-based approach? Why do you think the music has become so timeless with fans?
Kinuyo Yamashita: After I had joined Konami, Castlevania (aka Akumajo Dracula) was actually the first work. I aimed to create music suitable for the image of the game, particularly noting the dynamism with which the player moves and the gothic images of the background.
In terms of the rock approach, it came naturally from me. I didn't compose the soundtrack with an initial plan, but gradually composed what seemed natural and fitting. I think the music has become so loved because it was a complementary aspect of the game. The scenario, gameplay, characters, and everything else were so good and the score fitted in nicely. Because the game was so perfectly made, the music for it also became more memorable.
Chris: You once wrote that you were joined by one other person while composing Castlevania. Is this true or was this only the case for the MSX adaptation? How did the music compare between the Famicom Disk System, NES, and MSX versions of the game?
Kinuyo Yamashita: I'm certain that other people were involved with the composition of the original version of Castlevania, but they composed very little of the music. As far as I know, the music for Castlevania is the same on the Famicom Disk System and the MSX. I'm not sure about the NES version, but I assume that was also based on the Famicom Disk System version and released overseas.
However, the sounds that are heard might be different because there are different limitations with each system. For the FDS and MSX titles, I actually made the sound data and served an engineering role, whereas many subsequent titles differentiated between specialised composers and sound engineers.
Chris: Other games in the Castlevania series were not composed by you, but rather others such as Michiru Yamane. How have you felt about the musical direction of the series since? Does it conform to your original vision or would you have handled things differently?
Kinuyo Yamashita: I was at Konami while Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (aka Akumajo Dracula 2) was being made. However, I was taking charge of other games at the time in composition, sound programming, and sound effects. I wanted to take charge of Castlevania continuously, but regrettably my superior removed me from the role of Castlevania II.
When I began to work in Konami, there were a range of people working in the sound team. Some focused entirely on programming, others focused entirely on composing, and others like me could do all things sound-related. Kenichi Matsubara, a person who exclusively composed music, took charge of the score for the sequel.
After I had left Konami, the Castlevania series continued to be produced. I think later scores in the series were considerably different from the original scores that I composed. There were numerous composers in later instalments and they each offered their own individuality into the music. For example, Michiru Yamane composed most recently Castlevania games. The atmosphere of my compositions and her compositions are quite different. I scored the world of the first Castlevania. I think that Yamane-san composed the world of her own Castlevania.
Chris: After working on so many action games from Castlevania onwards, it must have been quite a change to lead the score for the fantasy RPG Esper Dream. Were you proud that this project received an album release?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Yes, this project was a very significant one for me. I actually composed it without asking the genre of the game at that time, so the fact the game was an RPG wasn't really significant. For this project and Arumana no Kiseki, I actually handled the entire sound production process alone from composition to sound effects to programming. It was very hard work.
After I had left Konami, I learned that an album dedicated to Esper Dream had been released. I was not actually told by Konami, but rather a friend. I had complex feelings about the release and it was strange to learn that someone produced an album dedicated to the music I composed. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise to learn such an album existed and so I went out to buy it. I'm very honoured that there are still fans out there that still love the music of Esper Dream.
Chris: After completing work on King's Valley II, you left Konami. Wy did you only spend two years at the company? How did life as a freelancer compare with being in such a big corporation?
Kinuyo Yamashita: I worked very hard at Konami, and I eventually became really sick. I was also not satisfied with certain things, for example that the company did not recognise distinguished works of its employees. That is why I decided to leave after such a short period.
After leaving Konami, I became involved with some independent works for people that I knew. However, those did not pay well and weren't guaranteed to succeed either. It was difficult to support myself, yet I fortunately managed to continue composing game music. I think I was able to do so because I lived with my parents at the time.
Chris: After leaving Konami, you were solely responsible for handling the soundtracks to Taito's Power Blade series. From the light rock tone, it is safe to assume the music was partly inspired by your Knightmare and Castlevania works? Did you regret these games didn't receive soundtrack releases?
Kinuyo Yamashita: When I composed the music for Power Blade, I didn't think of either Knightmare or Castlevania for inspiration. However, I think a person's individuality appears in their music, and this is probably the case here too. Someone once said to me "I just know which ones you compose just by listening to them without even knowing you were the composer. Your music is very unique, and your melody is always there." I suppose my "sound" radiates through different soundtracks.
I didn't actually realize the music from Power Blade was popular until now. I would have been glad if it received a soundtrack release, but that was the manufacturer's decision, so I'm not sad. To hear that the music is popular makes me happy though!
Chris: Another of your popular freelance projects is Mega Man X3. What was your role in this game large or supplementary? Were you part of the Minakuchi Engineering Staff listed in the album credits?
Kinuyo Yamashita: I composed all of the music and made the data for the original SNES release of Mega Man X3. Scoring the game was really fun. I could compose at home whenever I wanted and convert the music to the data. Also I liked Mega Man, and so I felt that I was so lucky to get the offer.
I was never part of the Minakuchi Engineering Staff. That was actually the name of the company that requested the work from me and I suppose they were credited in the album. No other composers were involved in the SNES release, though a team from Capcom were responsible for rearranging my music for the PlayStation and Saturn versions.
Chris: A large proportion of your subsequent works have been composed alongside Iku Mizutani, Hiroyuki Iwatsuki, and Tetsuari Watanabe. Could you tell us a bit about your relationships with these people? In your experience, what are the advantages of collaborating compared with creating works alone?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Since I am exclusively a freelance composer, I did not work directly with those people. They are all employees of Natsume, who outsourced me as a composer. On their behalf, I worked on games such as the Zen Nihon Pro Wrestling series, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, and Kiki Kaikai. For these titles, Iku Mizutani generally the requested the music that I composed, Hiroyuki Iwatsuki often composed other music, and Tetsuari Watanabe probably converted my music. They could technically modify the music freely that I had submitted, but I think they just used what I had sent. However, I don't know the inner workings of the company, so I can't be sure.
Chris On behalf of Natsume, you've also created the soundtracks for a giant series of fighting games, Medabots / Medarot. What sort of music do you create for this series and how have you managed to kept things fresh with each instalment? Do you regret that these games and their albums haven't received more attention in the West?
Kinuyo Yamashita: This series is different, since I composed the music for the Medabots series by myself. I was in charge of many Medabots games, which I am a fan of, and composed hundreds of pieces. I think I was able to keep the sound fresh because of the pressure I put on myself. I put a lot of effort into the battle music, because I knew it was popular with the fans; I wanted to please and surprise them, so I kept trying new things.
That said, I didn't know that this game wasn't popular in the West. One thing I regret is that I have no idea if the games that I worked on get released with a different name or with the same name outside of Japan. Some companies let me know about international releases but some don't, and there is no way for me to know unless they inform me. The only way is to browse on the Internet but I think it is kind of strange. I get to know these things through an interview like this.
I know there are some fans who are hoping for a soundtrack release to be made, but I am not in the position to do so. This is something the game company and record label decides. However, I wish I could do it and meet fans' expectations.
Chris: The sheer majority of your projects have been composed for technologically limiting media such as the NES, MSX, SNES, GB, GBA, and DS. Why did you choose to mainly specialise in these sorts of projects? How do you manage to create rich music while still accommodating these limitations?
Kinuyo Yamashita: It wasn't really that I chose to compose music for low technology systems. I just composed music for whatever game was requested. It just so happens that a lot of these games were for the portable consoles. Ideally, though, I would like to compose music that is very rich in sound ideally grand orchestral music perhaps on more liberating consoles.
That said, the more limitations a console has, the more craftsmanship is required to make the desired sounds. For the DS or Game Boy Advance, I kept the polyphonic limitations of the consoles in my head while composing music. In addition, I became like a craftsman when converting into data. To make the sound better, I sampled the waveforms of the sounds that I inputted, and then did some tweaking to give a wider reach. I do this whenever I work on the consoles with technical limitations.
Chris: Regardless, you still composed several games for more liberating media, such as Digital Figure Iina, Snow Speeders, and the Kindaichi Case Files. Did these games offer new opportunities to you or did you compose music in a similar way to earlier projects? How did it compare working with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 compared to the aforementioned consoles?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Yes, I had more freedom because there were less limitations with the consoles. However, I am not sure if the game companies modified the data that I sent them for Digital Figure Lina and Snow Speeder. Kindaichi Shonen no Jikenbo, on the other hand, directly played back the audio files, so I was really particular about the sound quality; I remember the client listeneed to the files over and over again for this project. For those consoles that are capable of audio playback, the quality of one's equipment plays a big roll in the quality of the overall sound.
Chris: You have also engaged in some independent projects. Could you tell us more about your work in the duo Honey Honey in the 90s?
Kinuyo Yamashita: In the duo Honey, Honey, my friend sang the vocals, while I played the piano and the saxophone. I also made the background music that we performed and occasionally sung in the chorus for some songs. We performed live in small venues, such as restaurants, throughout Japan. We focused on performing covers of Jazz and Pop music.
Chris: Between your game projects, is it true that you're currently creating J-Pop and R&B songs?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Yes, I made J-Pop for the first time with some help from my friend, Thomas Howard Lichtenstein (THL). THL is a singer-songwriter who contributes music to Dance Dance Revolution and many others.
The title of our first song together is called "Our Time Will Come". In this collaboration, I wrote the melody and he did the arranging, wrote the lyrics, and sung. He really liked my melody. It is kind of funny because the sound is J-Pop, but it's in English! We actually have a Japanese version of it too, though.
Since it was the first time for me to write J-Pop, the whole process of discussing how we were going to arrange and all that was really fun. It introduced elements that I did not originally have in mind to the song. I had been wanting to try writing some J-Pop for some time, and I would like to release an album when I have enough songs. You can hear a sample of this song on my MySpace page. For R&B, I am thinking about trying to compose in the genre right now.
Chris: On a much darker personal note, you went through a massive near-death experience in 1998 when you experienced two brain hemorrhages. Could you tell us more about your horrific experiences? How did going through these experiences affect your life, music, and philosophy more generally?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Yes, this was a very difficult time in my life. I actually suffered two hemorrhages. I was playing tennis with my friend and I collapsed. Because the ambulance arrived quickly I was able to be revived. One surgery was performed and was successful, but about a week later another hemorrhage occurred. I woke up in the hospital with no memory or recollection of what happened. I had a headache and my hair was shaved. Wow, scary!
It affected my music because I wasn't able to compose for a few years, but I was able to go back to freelance composing eventually. It didn't hinder the quality of my music in the long run, though. I think it had more of an impact on my philosophy than anything because it truly made me realize that tomorrow is not guaranteed. The most important time in life is now. I want to tell everyone to do what's important to them now, because you never know when life will be taken from you.
Chris: Ten years later, apparently you were shocked that your work from Castlevania has been played around the world in concerts like Video Games Live and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony. What was it like to experience your music being performed at Video Games Live's Japan shows?
Kinuyo Yamashita: I learned between 2008 and 2009 that my music was being performed all over the world. It was absolutely a surprise to learn about Video Games Live and the live performance of my music. The producers did not know about me personally. I actually got invited to the VGL concerts in Japan as a guest probably because of MySpace. I made my MySpace page and wrote about myself a while ago, and I think that really helped people to get to know more about me.
Listening to a live performance of my music was so emotional. That was their first performance in Japan, but I am so moved thinking about them performing my music in the world. Not only Video Games Live, though. I got to learn there are more groups like the VGO and some bands performing my music too. I would love to go and listen to their concerts sometime.
Chris: In the last few years, you have also composed for a range of DS lifestyle games, the Wii's Walk It Out, and the iPhone's Mr. Balloon's Wonderful Trip. How does creating music for these sorts of alternative titles compare with composing more conventional games? What sort of music did you feel was appropriate for them?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Before I begin composing, I first imagine the world of the games, the target age group, the purpose of the game, and whatnot. I keep these things in my head and compose. As a result, the genre of music varies quite a bit from a game to game, but the way I write does not change at all.
I contributed two pieces for Walk It Out. I put a lot of input into one of them, which one of the producers liked, but then another producer who had the ultimate say declined it. As a result, I had to rewrite the same piece many times. For Mr. Balloon's Wonderful Trip, I mainly worked on sound effects. I am also doing the voice acting for the first time on this game.
I express my opinions not only as a composer, but also as a sound producer. Sometimes I spend much more time on the production side than the whole composition process. I think a game's quality would be impacted if the music for a whole game does not show any consistency. That is why I say my opinions from a producer's perspective.
Chris: In August, you also featured on the DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou Arrange Album. Could you tell us more about your intrpretation of "Mixed Melody"? Would you consider collaborating with GE-ON-DAN artists on more projects like this in future?
Kinuyo Yamashita: This was my first appearance as an arranger. The original piece was already accomplished, and my role was to keep the goodness of it, but also input my own individuality. It was the first time for me to arrange anything, so I had some concerns, such as how much of the original to keep, how much change to make, and whatnot. The final track is the product of me spending a long time considering and playing with it. I personally think that the piece became an unique and distinctive one that sounds like my work, but still maintains the atmosphere of the original.
GE-ON-DAN is a group of real professional composers, and I definitely would love to collaborate with them again.
Chris: It was recently revealed that you composed for the PC game Gunhound. Could you please discuss the inspiration and overall direction of the soundtrack?
Kinuyo Yamashita: When I got the offer for Gunhound, the company already had a clear image of what music they would like. I asked them to elaborate on that image and followed it while composing. Later on, their image started changing and I asked them if I could just produce the sound on my own and be in charge of the overall musical image. After that, I rewrote some of the pieces and then the game was completed. The direction of the music was, of course, the main battle.
The game developer and I are both hoping the soundtrack to be released. It may get released if the fans have a strong wish for it to. I really do hope that will come true.
Chris: You've recently moved to New Jersey. What was the reasoning behind this move and what are your future plans when it comes to the music industry? Do you still plan to write music for Japanese video games, and if so, do you think the distance will be make the process more challenging?
Kinuyo Yamashita: I visited New Jersey for the first time back in the beginning of 2008 and I fell in love with the environment. There is so much nature here, but I have an easy access to shopping places too and it is a great environment for composing. That is why I decided to move there.
I definitely will keep composing for games just like I have been. I would like to compose music for both Japanese companies and companies from other countries. Physically I am away from Japan, but it is not that different since I lived in Kansai (West Japan) and was getting works from companies in Tokyo all the communication was through the Internet anyway. I am not so sure what the Japanese companies think, though. Maybe I am too optimistic!
Anyway I would like to be more actively involved in arranged CDs and contribute music for films and TV shows. I won't go away from game music, though.
Chris: Many thanks for your time with us today. Is there anything else you would like to say to your fans around the world? What should we expect from Kinuyo Yamashita in the future?
Kinuyo Yamashita: Thank you so much, too. I am so honored to have an interview like this.
It has been only about a year since I started communicating people in the world. I knew I had some fans in Japan, but it was only very recently that learned know there are so many fans of my music worldwide. They like all kinds of the pieces I have composed. I could keep composing because of all these fans.
My motto is to always aim to keep on composing something better than previous works. This gives a huge pressure, but I think that is something that people would like to hear. I don't want to disappoint the players and of course do not want to lower the quality of the games. I am sure I will keep fighting the pressure and compose music.
From now on, I will announce about my works as much as I can on my Website, MySpace, and Facebook, as well as media outlets such as SEMO. I will continue growing as a composer, so please check these sites often. There will always be something new for you to see.
I deeply appreciate the fans who support me, my friends, those who I get to know through internet, and my family. Thank you so much to all of you.
Many thanks to Shota Nakama for coordinating this interview and offering exhaustive translations. In addition, many thanks to Don for contacting Kinuyo Yamashita and organising the interview.