Friday, January 8, 2021

Q&A With Composer Ryuji Iuchi: Fan Questions (Part 1/2)

Recently composer Ryuji Iuchi held a special end-of-year Shenmue-themed livestream for everyone on his YouTube channel, a fun two-hour session that was filled with live music performances and chat. Throughout the stream, Ryuji also answered questions from fans, with many having been submitted from overseas fans, via the Shenmue Dojo.

As there were people who were unable to join the livestream, Ryuji has kindly given his permission to translate the Q&A into English and share them here on the blog.

The translation begins from here.

Q: For musical pieces with lyrics, like Shenhua's Theme and Wish, were the lyrics written first, or added afterwards? If I recall correctly, in the case of Wish, Yu Suzuki requested a song that would be like First Love*...

* First Love was a best-selling song (and album of the same name) by Japanese-American singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada released in early 1999.

Ryuji Iuchi (RI): For both of these songs, I wrote the music first, and the lyrics were added in afterwards. For Wish, I remember that Yu Suzuki did ask for a song like First Love. The thought was that it would be great if it was something that could rank on Oricon [the Japanese music industry-standard singles popularity chart].

Q: Recently you've been creating a lot of music for TV programs. Are you credited in these, and if so, what kind of programs are they? Are they still being shown on TV?

RI: I'm credited in some of the programs, and not in others. I think the ones in which I'm credited have all finished showing now as far as I'm aware, but if you live in Japan, then you'll definitely be familiar with the programs in which my music has played. Many people may perhaps have heard it without realizing. Some of it is background music, but there is also theme music - however, in most cases uncredited. As well as TV, my music can also be heard elsewhere such as on the radio, or at soccer events and so on.

Q: Do you feel that, overall, video game music receives the recognition it deserves?

RI: Yes, I think it is properly recognized. From the days of arcade games, companies like Namco (especially), Konami and Sega, have identified the composers. People could identify the person who created a particular famous piece of music through being named in the credits.

And while in the past, the sounds very much had a "video game music" feel about them, with modern-day video games, the quality is comparable to that of a movie as the sounds are in general no longer created as chip-based sounds. Game music is becoming widely known to the general public - for example, people who love the music of Monster Hunter.

So yes, I think it does receive proper recognition.

Q: Of the music you've composed, which song stirs up your emotions the most?

RI: Hm... For Shenmue, it would probably be Wish. Outside of Shenmue, it would be a certain theme song for a TV Tokyo program from way back.

The iconic cut scene of Ryo riding home with Nozomi in the first game, during which "Wish" is played.

Q: When you were working together with Yu Suzuki on Shenmue, what was your favorite moment or episode?

RI: There are plenty! For Shenmue, I commuted in to the Sega offices to create the music. Sega provided me with the equipment like keyboards, tone generators and computers.

Working on the same floor as me were various other sound people like "Master" Hiro, Mitsuyoshi-san of course, Koshiro-san who came in an external contractor, Yanagawa-san and Nitta-san*. So we had all sorts of people on the same floor I worked on, including staff who were working on arcade games. We used to go out with them to eat lunch, have a drink, play billiards, go bowling and so on. That was really fun.

* Veteran Sega composers Hiroshi Kawaguchi & Takenobu Mitsuyoshi; Yuzo Koshiro; Takeshi Yanagawa; Tadahiro Nitta.

It was truly amazing! You might leave your desk to go to the bathroom or buy something, and Master Hiro might be there. Or Mitsuyoshi-san might go by. Or you might find yourself standing right behind Koshiro-san. Thinking about it now, it was an amazing experience. And we'd all go out drinking together, or for a yakiniku [grilled meat] meal. I once played billiards with Master Hiro. I feel so lucky to have been in such an environment.

Another anecdote, with regards to creating the game, is that the design and coding had to reach a certain point before a check of the music could be made, and in those cases we'd have to to wait around. So we'd stay overnight at the office - something that's probably not so easily done these days. While we could have waited there in the office, for a change of scene we'd leave the office and visit a park, or go to a café, to fill in time. Those times were also fun. (That was just within the sound staff for Shenmue, not with others like Master Hiro).

One episode that involves Yu-san is when we had the NHK TV crew along to film for a documentary. While they were there, Yu-san gave me a request to make a certain version of a song for him. So I wrote the song with the camera filming right alongside me! That was one of my favorite moments. I got the request in Yu Suzuki's management room, when down in the elevator to the floor the sound team was on, went back to my own desk, wrote the song; and once it was done, with the camera still filming, I went back up in the elevator and presented it to Yu-san. That was over the span of several hours. It was the Christmas version of something, I think. It might have been for use at the premiere (event), I don't quite remember.

"I wrote the song with the camera filming right alongside me"
(screen capture from NHK's July 1999 "Making of Shenmue")

After I had finished writing the song, I stood up from my desk and went over to the elevator. But just as I was about to enter it, the NHK cameraman asked me if I could go back so he could film that part again. For a moment of such little importance, I had to act it out again as if I was doing it for the first time. I thought to myself, "Ah, this is what televised performances are all about!". While I deal a lot with TV filming nowadays, back then I had had no experience with it at all. So it made quite an impression on me.

Q: How long did it take you to write the Tomato Convenience Store theme? Did you listen to actual convenience store jingles before writing it?

RI: It probably took me around 3 hours to write, I think. The first thing that came to my mind was the main phrase: "Anata no konbini, Tomato Ma-to!" ["Your convenience store, Tomato Mart"]. That's probably just like an existing convenience store song, right? One of the Japanese convenience store songs probably has the words "Your convenience store" in it. I started with that and wrote it from there. I didn't listen to any convenience store songs for reference before writing it, though. Rather, I created it from my own impression of them, choosing a "convenience-store-like" catch phrase. 

When it came to Shenmue compositions, we had to write them as quickly as possible. At the time, the usual time for writing a song outside for projects other than Shenmue was about 6 hours, while for Shenmue it was more like 3 or 4 hours.

Just the sight of store front is enough to conjure up the happy Tomato Mart jingle for any Shenmue player.

Q: Can listening to an existing song first lead to the new song sounding too similar?

RI: Yes, it can! In this field, you often get given a song as reference, with a request to write one that is similar. But often it's not communicated very clearly as to what aspect in particular the client wants: is it the tempo, the key, the mood? In trying to determine that, you might listen to the song over and over and the result is that it stays inside your head, and the new song will sound too similar. So even if a reference song is provided, I try to listen to it as little as possible; usually once, and form an image from that. For Shenmue, of course, there weren't any reference songs, however.

Q: You have been playing through Shenmue I & II recently on your streams. Which of your songs did you think best matches the scene in which it's used?

RI: Nightfall [released officially as "The Night Falls" on the Shenmue I & II sound collection]. And also Wish.

Nightfall really gives you that feeling of "Ah, it's 7pm". The cinematographer really did a good job here. I think that's why it makes such an impression: for example, the way the lights flicker on. It really reflects the design sense of the creator. The cinematography is wonderful. I think that's why Nightfall in particular fits so well for me.

The SEGA neon sign and street lights flicker on as the Nightfall music plays.

The version of Wish in the game has actually been edited. After the section with the drum fill-in, it has been cut and joined right to the ending, and when I listen to it even today, I feel that these edits, including this timing, really work with this scene.

Q: What memories do you have of your first day of composing Shenmue music at Sega?

RI: Where we were stationed at first wasn't in the [main] sound room. It was more like a small office that was next to the sound room, and at the time apart I believe I was there with Takeshi Yanagawa and  Yuzo Koshiro from Ancient Corp.

The equipment I started out with was a Yamaha DX7II keyboard (I changed to a full-sized keyboard later on in the project) and a [Roland] SC88 tone generator. My first song, Shenhua's Theme, made use of heaps of the built-in sounds from the SC88. I think I actually used two SC88s.

A Yamaha DX7II-D keyboard

We were given a table each for holding our equipment, which also included a Mac computer.

Ryuji working on a composition with an Apple Macintosh at Sega (screen capture from NHK's July 1999 "Making of Shenmue")

In the later half of the project, I used other equipment like a [Korg] TR-Rack and a Roland JV-1080, which is a tone generator that produces more sophisticated compared to the SC88.

That brings us to the end of Part One of the Q&A from Ryuji Iuchi's end-of-year livestream. It was great to see so many fans joining the stream live, and amazingly generous of Ryuji to organize this special event with Shenmue fans, chatting and sharing anecdotes about his career and his involvement with Shenmue. Those who attended live were also lucky enough to enjoy several live musical performances. Thank you very much, Ryuji!

You can check out past Shenmue musical performances on RyuTube - Ryuji Iuchi's YouTube channel - please show him your support by subscribing! Ryuji is also currently holding weekly playthrough streams of Shenmue II, which you can watch live or catch up on past streams he has archived.

Continued in Part Two.

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