Interview With Game Composer Kinuyo Yamashita

It is probable that many of you are the same generation as me, and you have grown up playing games like Maze of Galious, Gradius or Castlevania on NES and MSX. It has been more than 20 years since then, but I still remember much from those games, their wonderful music being a very good example.

Our guest today had much to do in this rosebud for many of us in our thirties. She is Kinuyo Yamashita, a true musical talent who has influenced much of the music for videogames since more than 20 years ago. She joined Konami in 1986, her first soundtrack being for the original Castlevania, which was composed along with Satoe Terashima. Just in two years and a half she left the company, after displaying her talent in games such as Nemesis II and King’s Valley II (one of her last works for Konami, and one of Michiru Yamanefirst ones), Maze of Galious, Parodius or Esper Dream (which never made it out of Japan).

Then, Kinuyo Yamashita worked as an independent videogame composer, in games such as Mega Man X3, Power Blade or the Medarot series. She currently lives in New Jersey, USA, and she made several appearances on VideoGames Live for the Castlevania parts. But she obviously does not forget Japan, and she contributed recently to the Super Rare Trax CD in aid of the victims of the earthquakes, with a piano version of her closing theme for Mega Man X3.

Hello Kinuyo! It’s a real pleasure to us talk with you. For those who still don’t know you (if someone) could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your musical background?

Thank you for interviewing me, Juan. Well my name is Kinuyo Yamashita and I’m a video game music composer from Japan. I have been in the industry for a long time and worked on many video games, but I’m probably most well known for my first composition, the original Castlevania. Before I worked at Konami, I had very little experience with music. I mean, my parents made me take piano lessons at age 4, but that’s all. I studied electronic engineering in college. So I didn’t really know I could compose music until I started working at Konami.

Being a electronic engineer and just graduated from college, how did you decide to become a composer for videogames when you were only 20 years old?

I wanted to work on the hardware for musical instruments after graduating from college. However, it was difficult for a woman to get this kind of job back then in Japan. The college I went to recommended Konami to me, they were looking for music people.

In the NES version (USA and Europe) of Castlevania you were credited as “James Banana”, and not for your real name. Why? Did they asked you before put that name?

I’m not really sure about the full reason. They didn’t ask or even tell me that they were going to do that. I was surprised to learn about this, I actually didn’t find out until recently. I believe the company wanted to keep their talent hidden, in fear or losing it to competition. That’s really the only reason I can think of why they would do that.

Your music fits perfectly in the games you worked, music and graphics works together like a whole. I can’t imagine Megaman X3 or Castlevania without your music. How is your usual process of composition for game music?

Thank you for your kind comments about my music. I usually try to get an image of the game first, like the characters, the speed of the game, what type of scenery is in the game, etc. I try to match the musical ideas I have to the game. Sometimes I’m about to see drawn pictures from the designer which helps a lot.

Your music in Castlevania has influenced all the later music of the series, remixing your songs in almost Castlevania game. But you were not able to look back because it was the first Castlevania, and also your first job in video game music. What inspired you to make those memorable melodies that are still remembered today?

Well, I can’t take credit for all the music of Castlevania and I’ve said that in several of my interviews. It wasn’t so much inspiration for me, it was my job. I just tried to make the music to the best of my ability. Things moved very quickly in those early days at Konami, I’m just grateful that people still remember and appreciate my music. It’s a great feeling for me now.

Now, you’ve played in some shows of VideoGames Live. The crowd welcomes you with a standing ovation, because they all love games like Castlevania, Gradius II, Megaman, Maze of Galius and its music… When your worked in those games, you thought they were going to be so successful?

I didn’t really have any expectations when they were being made. As I said in the previous question, things happened so quickly at Konami. I made one game and it was immediately on to the next, there wasn’t really any time for me to stop and think about the success of the game. But when I was making the music for Castlevania, I was able to demo the game a little bit and I thought the game was interesting.

Nowadays, the most successful games have a orchestral soundtrack, but you and many other composers still making old school chiptune and synth music, and people, also myself, still love that music. Do you think that kind of music has something different that can not bring an orchestral score?

I think so, I mean everything has it’s place. There are still fans of this kind of music, getting the retro sound with an orchestra would probably be difficult. Since I didn’t study music in college, I never learned about writing orchestral scores. I might be able to do it, I just haven’t had the opportunity. If I ever get the opportunity to work on a big title game again, it would certainly be something that I consider.

After only two years and a half you worked in great games like Castlevania, Maze of Galious, Gradius II o Parodius and Konami was one of the greatest game companies, but you left Konami in 1989. Why did you take that decision? Was it hard to start as a freelance composer?

I worked very hard at Konami, and eventually my body became exhausted. I had to leave the company. I also wasn’t satisfied with certain things, for example, that the company did not give credit to its employees. That’s why I left after only a couple of years. Starting as a freelance composer was difficult, I think had I not started with Konami it would have been almost impossible, the connections I made there definitely helped me. The contract work didn’t pay that well and work wasn’t guaranteed. It was difficult to support myself, but fortunately I was able to continue composing game music. I lived with my parents and sometimes took a part time job working at a cafe.

Castlevania OST was your first job in Konami, and you have make music for more than 40 games after that. But today everybody (even myself in this interview) still ask you for the first music you did. How do you feel about that? Do you ever feel tired or annoyed of being remembered always mainly for Castlevania and not for the later work?

Sometimes it’s sad because I don’t get the opportunities to work on big titles anymore, but at the same time I’m happy because they DO remember me and my music. I think that’s all anyone can ask for in this industry, is to be remembered. So I’m definitely grateful for that.

In more than 20 years working in the game industry, you have made a lot of music for such a great games. Do you have any song from your own work that you feel especially proud, like a favourite? Why?

All of them! It’s tough to pick a favorite, but I really enjoy the music from Mega Man X3. There was a lot of pressure when I made this music because I had to live up to the expectations of the series. The Mega Man series has great music, so I had to give the fans a similar theme, yet at the same time, something new and original.

You had a very difficult, near-death, experience in 1998 but fortunately you made a full recovery. I imagine that this fact completely changed your life and your priorities. Does that fact also had any reflection on your music and its mood?

Hmm, I don’t think it effected my music drastically because I’m always composing music based on the order of the developer. If the game or scene calls for sad music, that’s what I compose. If the game calls for upbeat music, that’s what I compose. I think it had more of an impact on my philosophy because I realize tomorrow is not guaranteed. The most important time in life is now, it’s actually the only time. I want to tell everyone to do what’s important to them now because you never know when life will be taken from you.

There is only a few females game composers, and almost all are from Japan. Do you think it’s due to some specific reason? it is harder for a woman to enter in the game industry?

Haha, I don’t know the answer to this question. In this day and age, I don’t think gender matters as much as it did back in the 1980′s. I think it’s tough for anyone to enter the game industry now, there is a lot of competition.

Now you have moved to New Jersey. Does that mean you go to work for american companies? What new projects do you have in the game industry?

No, I’m still an independent music composer. If I received an offer from a company now, I might consider it if it was the right situation. However, I think most video game companies don’t have music employees now, they contract the work. I’m currently not working on any projects, I’m looking for work.

More interviews with game composers HERE

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