A Conversation with Keiji Yamagishi
Conducted by Mohammed Taher in August, 2012.
Keiji Yamagishi (a.k.a More Yamasan) is a video games composer known for his work on Tecmo's NES games, most famously Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl, and Captain Tsubasa Vol. I & II. I worked with Yamagishi-san on a new chiptune track for World 1-2. Along the way, I decided to do an interview with him; to talk about his work as a game musician, and to speak fervently about the times of our past. He was kind enough to put aside his work and go with me in a nostalgic trip; in which we dwell around the past, discuss the present, and share with you a glimpse of the foreseeable future. Please enjoy.
UPDATE: Since posting the interview, our work relationship has evolved extensively and Keiji Yamagishi joined Brave Wave as a co-planner and composer. He now plans and directs music albums with me, Mohammed, my co-director Marco Guardia, and Mega Man's Manami Matsumae. Read about his first-ever solo album here.
Mohammed Taher: Hello, Yamagishi-san. Thank you for taking some time off to chat with me.
Keiji Yamagishi: Hello. I'm quite happy since I've barely had any opportunities to do interviews such as this one.
Mohammed: I've been a fan of your music since I was 5 years old; I'm 25 right now. Do you know what would happen if my 5 years old-self knew that I'm talking with you? He'd be jealous. (laughs)
Keiji: Thanks. That's a real honor. I'm happy to meet an enthusiastic fan such as yourself. It was a good thing I ended up doing game music composition as my job!
Mohammed: Shall we begin?
Keiji: OK, let's get started.
Mohammed: How did you start making music? Was it something you wanted to do since your childhood?
Keiji: The opportunity for me to compose music comes simply from my love of being a musician. I thought it would be cool to make my own music and sing to it. Therefore, when I was in high school, I created a song while playing the chord on the guitar. However, I was too shy about my work, so I didn't end up having anyone listen to it. In college, after I bought a 4 channel multitrack set deck, I realized how interesting it was to do recordings, and was deep into making demo tapes. However, I didn't end up having friends listen to these either, nor did I enter them into contests or send them to record companies. I originally didn't have any aspirations for going pro. That's because my childhood dream was to become a pilot. If I hadn't been invited to Tecmo by President Kakihara, I'd probably have gone on to work as an ordinary company employee. It was really by chance that I became a game music composer.
Mohammed: Oh, so this is how you started working with video games.
Keiji: Yes. Originally, I hoped to do work in advertising, but I happened to attend a game company's (Tecmo) informational session, where the president at the time, Mr. Kakihara, said to me, "You were in a band? If that's the case, you want to try making game music for us?" This was the opportunity I was given to join the company. Indeed, I hadn't thought about making music that I liked as my job, so I happily joined the company. Even now, I have no idea why President Kakihara hired me without even listening to a demo tape. (laughs) In terms of the gaming industry today, it doesn't seem likely that someone without proper education in music would get hired. I think I was very fortunate.
Mohammed: What are the very first games that you worked on?
Keiji: My first task at Tecmo was the port of Star Force onto the NES. The Famicom version of Star Force was released by Hudson, but the NES version was created separately at Tecmo. I was in charge of music arrangement and sound effects, as well as creating game data. I remember the development period being very short. The first game whose musical composition I supervised was for Tsuppari Ozumo for the Famicom. I remember this game as being the first time that my own music was brought out to the world.
Mohammed: How was the experience in composing for the NES? Seeing as there was no MIDI, and you had to enter data into a PC. Surely it must have been hard.
Keiji: It was tough making audio for the NES, but I feel it was a valuable experience. At that time, we couldn't use MIDI, instead having to convert all data (tunes, audio length, bends, vibrato, etc.) into values. I also ended up having to create the program and sound driver that would go on to create said data.
The process of creating BGM data on the NES is as follows:
1. Composition, editing
2. Convert audio data to values and use editor to input into a PC (NEC PC9800)
3. Verify playback on the actual hardware (NES)
4. Return to editor and make adjustments
— 3 and 4 would have to be repeated as necessary to yield the song data
You can see that it was a very tiresome process. However, it was interesting work, being able to yield good sound even with the limited capabilities of the NES.
Mohammed: Speaking of NES: your alias was More Yamasan. What is the story behind this name? It's what your fans associate you with, as it’s the name that gets displayed in the credits of the games you worked on.
Keiji: There isn't really much depth to the name. At that time, I wasn't putting my real name in the credits, so I just end up put in my personal nickname (Yama-san) and the name of a shop from my college days (More).
Mohammed: I see. You’re also known as K. Y. Jet, right?
Keiji: Yes indeed; I only used that name during Tecmo Super Bowl. The reason was because I was a New York Jets fan.
Mohammed: So, Tsuppari Ozumo—that was in 1987. What did you do after that?
Keiji: I composed the audio for the first Captain Tsubasa. I also remember beginning work on creating the sound driver for Ninja Gaiden at about the exact same time. There was a request for drum sounds to be included in the game, so I did some sampling for kick and snare drums, which allowed me to begin experiments on getting them to play back on the Famicom.
Mohammed: Uh, Captain Tsubasa. The Famicom installments are two of my most played games in my childhood, and Captain Tsubasa 2 is an all-time favorite.
Captain Tsubasa is wildly popular and influential in both the Middle East and Europe. Many European stars stated that they loved soccer because of Captain Tsubasa. I remember going to a comedy theatre that was playing a match between Tsubasa and Hyuga, and I got my copy of Captain Tsubasa 2 from there...after some crying and begging. (laughs) You know, at that time, I think it was rare to see a Japanese-produced work get this much reach (and power to influence) outside of Japan.
Keiji: Ah, I know that Captain Tsubasa is influential not just for Japanese soccer players, but for European and the Middle Eastern ones as well. I would be happy and quite honored if there indeed were players who enjoyed the game on Famicom in those places.
I actually really enjoy soccer, and am a supporter of the Shonan Belle Mares, a Japanese soccer team.
Mohammed: I’m interested to know about who worked with you in the audio department. I know that Metal Yuki and Mayuko Okamura worked with you on Captain Tsubasa 2, but did they work with you on the first game as well?
Keiji: For Captain Tsubasa 2, there were two people who worked on the composition aside from myself: Mayuko Okamura-san and Mikio Saito-san (Metal Yuki). More than half of the Cinema Display screen songs during matches are Okamura-san's. Saito-san only wrote the Flamingo song for us. Because I had Saito-san, whose tastes differ a bit from my own, write a song for us, we were able to have some variety, which I thought was a good thing. I was in charge of the rest of the songs, as well as all of the sound effects, data creation, and sound programming.
Okamura-san was a pianist who came from a music college. We ended up working on a number of Famicom games together at the time. I think he might even be a piano teacher these days.
Saito-san was my superior, and was a teacher in music composition. He's famous for having been the composer for Konami's Tokimeki Memorial series. I learned a lot of important things from Saito-san outside of composition, including how to approach work. He's the senpai* I respect.
*Note: Senpai is the Japanese-style workplace/relationship "mentor" or "superior".
Mohammed: One of the things that surprised me — even back in the days — was how much the music has evolved from Captain Tsubasa 1 to 2. For example, Hyuga Theme is more developed and mature in Captain Tsubasa 2, even though it’s based on the same tune from the original Captain Tsubasa game. An even better example might be Schneider’s Theme; the music in the second game has much more depth and instruments to it, and feels scarier (for the lack of a better term), than the first one. Did your work on Ninja Gaiden hone your composition skills, and prepared you to improve your work for the second installation of Captain Tsubasa 2?
Keiji: That's exactly correct. For creating the music for Captain Tsubasa, I used a composition technique that I tried with the first Ninja Gaiden. I used things such as sampling drums, delay, bends, vibrato, etc. to add weight and emotion to the songs. Using the limited capabilities of the Famicom, I feel that creating good audio was a very creative task.
Mohammed: Both Ninja Gaiden and Captain Tsubasa were famous for their focus on storytelling. Between every match in Captain Tsubasa, there’s usually a scene where the characters talk, and where Tsubasa learn more about his next opponent. And of course, Ninja Gaiden had a lot of those moments as well — most famously the ending theme.
Did you compose the music with the director based on those scenes, or did you make them based on requests? (For example: sad theme, or fast-paced theme.) Your music fit the scenes very well, which is something worthy of praise in the days of Famicom, where it was hard to pull any emotional punches because of said limitations.
Keiji: Much effort was put in towards non-game scenes for Captain Tsubasa and Ninja Gaiden. We called those scenes Cinema Display. Therefore, music occupied a very important position in conveying emotion. I met with the director, settled on what type of image the music should convey, and then composed from there. It wasn't a task of merely composing the audio after seeing the completed scenes; I ended up looking at still pictures and listening to explanations from the director in order to bring the images to life. The videos would be completed afterwards, so it was quite a task aligning the videos with the length of the songs. In particular, the director of Ninja Gaiden, Yoshizawa-san, was a movie maniac, so it was quite an arduous task.
Compared to that, I think I had quite a bit of freedom for Captain Tsubasa 2. Finally, I went by the motto "As long as it's cool, then go for it" so after Ninja Gaiden, the stuff I liked began coming out in a straightforward manner.
Mohammed: In the original Ninja Gaiden, the credits scene mention you, B. B., and Hakase in the Sound Design department. Was that similar to Captain Tsubasa, in which you produced the music and supervised the sound, or was it different?
Keiji: For Ninja Gaiden, we had B.B. (Ryuichi Nitta-san) create around 3 to 4 sounds for us. Hakase-san didn't actually end up doing anything. I handled the composition for the rest of the songs, sound effects, sound drivers, and data creation.
Mohammed: You didn't work on Ninja Gaiden II and III, right?
Keiji: I was not involved with the development of Ninja Gaiden II. For III, I handled the creation of sound drivers and specific data (sampling, bends, vibrato, delays, etc.).
Mohammed: Fascinating. I believe you worked on Tecmo Super Bowl after Ninja Gaiden. It was a substantial release in the market, as it was the first game to license and feature all 28 NFL teams. Building on your past skills with Ninja Gaiden and Captain Tsubasa, how did you approach music (and sound) composition in Tecmo Super Bowl?
Keiji: I've loved the NFL since I was in college, and used to watch it on satellite TV a lot. Therefore, I was quite excited when Tecmo got hold of the license to create NFL games. However, composing the music for this game was quite difficult. We were worried about whether to go with a marching band style or with a rock style. We felt that the product was not supposed to have music, featuring only short tunes, special cheers, and voices; but this only contains the Famicom's audio source chip. That said, by putting in the voice of the quarterback, we were able to show results for the game. I used the techniques garnered from Captain Tsubasa and Ninja Gaiden to do the sound composition. Unfortunately, because we put in the voice data, we were tight for data storage space, so we cut quite a bit of the bend data. I created something that sounds more like a real guitar. I have some regret regarding losing that.
Mohammed: And what did you do after Tecmo Super Bowl?
Keiji: I created the last Famicom title from Tecmo, Radia Senki. I did the composition along with Rika Shigeno-san and Kaori Nakarai-san, though I was the one who created most of the main songs. Sound effects, data creation, and sound drivers were all mine as well. We were unable to create the sampling drums on the game as the programmer was unwilling to do so. Sankakunami-san created the drum sounds for us, which we used. I think this is the best Famicom sound I've been able to do. That said, it didn't sell. Afterwards, I created business-oriented (arcade) game sound, and then Daisumo on the Super Famicom, while giving game advice for Tecmo Super Bowl and Captain Tsubasa 3, both for the Super Nintendo. I was head hunted by (and ended up moving to) Koei.
Mohammed: Very interesting…I didn't know about Radia Senki; it seems to me like a fun and original RPG. Too bad Tecmo didn't release it in the West. I can't help but think that Captain Tsubasa and Ninja Gaiden's cinematic scenes may have prepared you in composing for a role-playing game. Was composing for this genre any different?
Keiji: RPGs are a game genre with Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and many games with highly rated music, so there's pressure in having to create something good. That said, Yoshizawa-san from Ninja Gaiden was the director, and having been accustomed to composing music thanks to Ninja Gaiden and Captain Tsubasa, we were able to smoothly make the game without anything feeling out of place. We maintained a balance by having 3 people on the music composition team, so we had a lot of fun with the job. The theme song of the field screen, Kusahara wo Iku ("Along the Grass Field") is my favorite among the tracks I composed.
Check it out: Radia Senki Soundtrack: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlz1HJkD1Kg
Mohammed: As for Captain Tsubasa 3, I always had a feeling that you didn't compose it, because the sound was very different from your style. Glad to know my hunch was right. (laughs)
Keiji: I had absolutely no role in the actual development of Captain Tsubasa 3. As you mentioned, that game doesn't have my style in it. It was composed and arranged by Kaori Nakabai and Rika Shigeno. They composed Ninja Gaiden 3 too.
Mohammed: And Shake Keijin?
Keiji: Shake Keijin is actually me. I was credited because Captain Tsubasa 3 included some of my songs that have been arranged. (P.K., Loss Time, et cetera.)
Mohammed: Interesting. And what did you work on when you went to Koei?
Keiji: At that time, Koei was involved in porting a lot of the company's PC games to various other hardware, so I was doing nothing but porting work after transferring. There's more weight (and importance) to being an arranger than there is being a composer. I arranged Sangokushi, Sangokushi 4, The Age of Exploration, Emit, among others. Afterwards, I was in charge of Angelique's composition, which was my first time supervising a composition. Then, we made a Super Nintendo game that contained a handful of music from me, but it was put on hold and eventually cancelled. Even today, I still think that was pretty unfortunate.
The time of the transition from the Super Nintendo to the Saturn and PS1 had me researching music composition, which took me away from the game development side of things. I then went onto doing management work (as a section chief) and managed content creation. However, while performing management duties, I wrote a number of songs for the first Sangoku Musou (Dynasty Warriors in the West). I think my flair really comes out in the opening theme.
Mohammed: This explains your sudden absence from the industry. What's the last major game project you worked on?
Keiji: That would be Capcom's Onimusha Tactics. That was around 10 years ago. After that, I did a few games for Konami, and then for 4 or 5 years, I've been doing original ringtones for cellphones.
Mohammed: It's interesting how you shifted from being a composer at Tecmo, to (mainly) an arranger at Koei, and then slowly — unfortunately — fading out. What did you do after that?
Keiji: After leaving Koei, I founded a music composition company with a friend. I'm working there even today.
Mohammed: Haven't you thought about making game music again?
Keiji: Unfortunately, I don't have much interest in games at the moment. I really enjoyed the game hardware of a long time ago that had limitations to the playback of music (NES, SNES, et cetera). I don't think I'll be making any game music anytime soon. However, if I receive some kind offer to make a game, who knows? Maybe I'll end up making one.
Mohammed: I certainly hope so. I notice that you're currently making ringtones on iTunes Store under the name Decica Style. Can you tell me more about this?
Keiji: Yes, Decica Style is a brand name for the original cellphone ringtones we're currently making. Originally, we were arranging ringtones meant for Japanese feature phones to run on smartphones and then selling them. Our goal is to make cool music that can be useful in life. I think it's fun imagining cellphones from all over the world ringing with ringtones I've created.
Mohammed: That's a really interesting thing to do. You're not composing alone, right?
Keiji: Yes; Arata and Hirai, who supervised Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3, are also a part of it. However, about 80% of the total work is mine. We just started, so we haven't made much profit from it yet.
Mohammed: You told me before that you're familiar with the rock band minibosses, who cover gaming music, including Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl. Are you familiar with other people's work? Ninja Gaiden, especially, is very popular among independent bands and composers. Vomitron covered Ninja Gaiden, and Armcannon covered Tecmo Super Bowl, to name but a few.
Keiji: I know of Vomitron. It's a cool hard rock arrangement. I didn't know about Armcannon. (I'm listening to it now.) Yeah, it's good. I think the opening for Tecmo Super Bowl is a song that is easy to cover with a guitar band. I'm happy because, looking at YouTube, I see a lot of my own songs being covered. I can sense that my songs are popular not only in Japan, but overseas as well.
Mohammed: Since Capcom's Onimusha Tactics, have you been approached by other developers to compose game music? Or were you deliberately trying to stay away from the gaming scene?
Keiji: After the PlayStation 2, in Japan, the direction for game music has changed, and if you're not a person into making movie soundtrack-like music, then a job won't come your way. Unfortunately, that's not my style. I can't conduct an orchestra. I feel as if my music is no longer needed. However, if there's a game that matches the style of my music, then I'd like to have a go at it again.
Mohammed: I guess it's a good thing I got ahold of you to compose something new again — something longer than ringtones. You know your fans want more than 5-seconds ringtones. (laughs) Can you tell me more about the new chiptune track you're making for the album?
Keiji: I'm very happy at having been given this chance. I created chiptune tracks a long time ago, but it was difficult. Constructing that music is different from that of ordinary music, so I made the music while learning/recalling it. You, Mohammed-san, wanted blazing, emotional music akin to Captain Tsubasa and Ninja Gaiden, so I've done as much as I could to do just that.
My software used is Logic, and the sound sources are chipsounds and EXS24, and the effects are whatever is included in Logic and WAVES. It was a hard task, but it was fun so I'd like to challenge it again if there's an opportunity. I'd like to use FM sound sources in the future.
Mohammed: You gave me the finished music track some days ago, and I think you nailed it; the track, to me, sounds like a delicate mix between Captain Tsubasa and Mega Man — it really feels as if it rode a time machine and came from the past. I can't wait for people to hear it when we release World 1-2.
And speaking of, what will you be working on next? How about we break the news, Yamagishi-san?
Keiji: I am using this interview as an opportunity to announce that I am working on a new chiptune album with you, Mohammed-san. It's my first original solo album under my own name (Keiji Yamagishi). Please look forward to this new album, which, compared to recent game music, will be a "retro-futuristic emotional chiptune world." Of course, I would love for fans of Captain Tsubasa and Ninja Gaiden to look forward to it as well.
Mohammed: I'm very excited for what we've done so far, and I can't wait to see how it evolves. Thank you so much for your time, Yamagishi-san. I had a lot of fun chatting with you; this has been a truly informative talk. Good luck with Decica Style!
Keiji: I am very lucky to have made your acquaintance, Mohammed-san. I think my passion towards music has come back to me. I'm happy to have realized that the work I did when I was young was not all for naught. I might even be influencing the children of the world. (laughs)