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Obituary: Ryu Umemoto (1974 - 2011)

Ryu Umemoto is a deceased video game composer known for his work on a range of visual novels and shooters. Born on February 18, 1974 in Yokohama, Umemoto never had any proper schooling in music and taught himself everything he knew. Having long-held a fascination for music, he enjoyed playing around with synthesizers and programming music tracks on them when he was young. While growing up, he also developed a long-time fascination with Monet's paintings at art school, between enjoying science-fiction films and arcade video games. In later years, he developed an appreciation for Zen Buddhism and went on to apply its philosophy to all aspects of his life. One of these was music composition, and he noted that his music always mathematically adds up to a lucky number in Zen in some way or another. One of his main reasons for creating music was to express his culture and spirit across the world, and in turn he hoped others would do the same and create their own music.

During high school, Umemoto started working on doujin games created for home computers. Finding this role rewarding, he sent his demos to several companies after graduating and was recruited to developer Familysoft during 1992. During his time at the company, he scored anime-to-game adaptations based on the Gundam, Macross, and Gatchaman universes, and relished the opportunity to convey the sounds of some of his favourite animes using both the streaming technology of the FM-Towns and the YM2203 sound chip of the PC-9801. However, he found scoring novel intellectual properties more creatively fulfilling, given they enabled him to express his personality more. In particular, he demonstrated his capacity to create compelling action pieces on the military shooters Square Resort and Azure, between creating a richer accompaniment to RPG Wartorn Versnag. Being a resident employee, Umemoto did not own the rights for these still unreleased scores; however, they were essential for establishing his versatility and competence as a composer.

Desiring more choice in his assignments, Umemoto decided to become a freelance composer in 1994. In initial roles, he explored his personality while creating the light-hearted pop-flavoured scores for Princess Maker 2, Dengeki Division, and Mahou Shoujo Fancy Coco. Soon enough, he landed a contract to create a trilogy of eroge visual novels for C's Ware, Xenon, Desire, and EVE Burst Error. It was on these projects that Umemoto became widely recognised for his artistic use of YM2608 and FM sound modulation; inspired by artists such as Yuzo Koshiro and Hiroshi Kawaguchi, he overcame the limitations of the sound modules to offer enticing and emotional compositions. The deadlines for such titles were often extremely tight — under two months while working on simultaneous projects — but he was given a free reign to compose as he wanted. He felt a particularly strong personal connection with his latter projects, given their scenery was often inspired by Yokohama locations. In his own words, "Ryu Umemoto was born as a musician" on these projects.

After finishing his contract with C's Ware, Umemoto was approached by the more prominent bishoujo developer Elf. He created the majority of the score to their most famous title, YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of This World. Given the title's narrative emphasis and static visuals, the music played a central role in communicating the story to gamers; Umemoto brought particular warmth to the game's characters and settings with his simple yet elegant approach. Like his earlier visual novels, the game was eventually adapted from personal computers to consoles; however, the artist was disappointed that he was not asked to return to adapt them and felt the sound quality of these ports was inferior to their originals. Also during 1996, he was asked to create the music for Exit's Grounseed alongside his former collaborator at C's Ware, Ryu Takami; while his contributions were few, his melodies for the title and ending screens endeared many that played the game. For reasons unknown, Umemoto seemingly took an extended break from the rapidly shifting industry thereafter.

Ryu Umemoto with SEMO's Don Kotowski

On his return in 2003, Umemoto created several memorable visual novel scores. With Clockup's Eclipse, he explored the new generation of sound production to produce a compelling and imaginative score; his spacey soundscapes and techno rhythms enhanced the science-fiction feel of the game throughout. In contrast, he focused on offering uplifting vocal themes and sentimental acoustic sounds while accompanying Ano Machi no Koi no Uta back down on earth. Still embracing the opportunity to collaborate, he worked alongside Ryu Takami and Daisuke Sawada throughout this project; the trio went on to form the unit RisqueFellow together and worked together on several other projects, including an album series dedicated to the flash comic series Guillian Rader. Also developing a partnership with Hideki Higuchi, Umemoto scored diverse bishoujo titles including Popotan, Beyond the Ultramarine Sky, Inahonomirai, and, most memorably, R.U.R.U.R. In each case, he carefully considered the game's scenarios while expressing his own musicality and philosophy.

At request of Harushisa Tanaka (aka hally), Umemoto became a producer of the video game music download service EGG Music during 2006. In this role, he meticulously mastered numerous classic game soundtracks — for consoles spanning the PC-8801, PC-9801, MSX, X68000, SNES, and PC — which were usually not released previously. In many cases, he was required to reverse engineer the consoles and extract the music through binary. Through this label, he also released his historical works — Eclipse, Desire, Xenon, and EVE Burst Error — on a series of now out-of-print albums. Through hally, Umemoto started networking with more musicians than ever before and became known as a consistently helpful associate. As a result, he produced remarkable guest contributions to Psyvariar The Mix and the original albums Silver Crescent Moon, Spirit of Stone, and Pichnologic. Also active as a doujin musician, he embraced the Touhou scene relatively early with remixes for several circles. As part of the unit Spin Out, the busy artist went on to hybridise vocal performances with DS-10 synthesizers on the Toystrumental series.

During the final years of his life, Umemoto developed a strong relationship with shooter developer Cave. He first impressed the company with an arrangement for 2009's DeathSmiles arranged album on behalf of Manabu Namiki. As a founding member of the sound creator's alliance GE-ON-DAN, the artist's diverse tributes were featured in several other sell-out arranged albums. He was also entrusted to create the entire remixed score for ESPGaluda II Black Label in an anthemic trance style. Now a personal favourite with producer Makoto Asada, Umemoto was given the opportunity to score two brand new intellectual properties for the company: the frenzied shooter Akai Katana and the ninja platformer Nin2-Jump. In both cases, he blended contemporary sounds with traditional Japanese instruments to fit the scenery and enhance the action. Nevertheless, no project was too small for him and he continued to participate in other projects — spanning Touhou tributes like Godmother to the hobby game Contrasta — alongside various developers and musicians he had met over the years.

After many years under the radar, Umemoto had finally achieved considerable popularity and was enjoying more international recognition than ever. The composer went on to work on three projects to be released during 2011: a guitar-laced revitalisation for the port Akai Katana Shin, some remixes for the Mushihimesama Cave Festival Ver. 1.5, and a brand new soundtrack for the adventure game Instant Brain. While seemingly at the height of his career, Umemoto fell ill with a mysterious disease just as these titles started to be announced. After spending several months struggling in hospital, his life was tragically cut short on August 17, 2011. Umemoto's death has left behind a devastated wife, while shocking many of his fans and colleagues across the world. Indeed, the loss of such a talented and cooperative individual will leave a major hole in the Japan's game music circle. Having always expressed his spirit through his creations, part of Ryu Umemoto will nevertheless continue to live on through his music.