Interview With Game Composer Michiru Yamane

Have you ever played a Castlevania game? What about the Nemesis/ Gradius series? Rocket Knight perhaps? Contra: Hard Corps? Maybe Suikoden? Sure, maybe even all of them. Then I assume you’ve heard much of the work of our guest today, because the link that joins these games is the music of the legendary composer Michiru Yamane.

She is one of the most prestigious composers of game music. She began his career at Konami in late eighties, composing along with other greats composers like Yamashita or Motoaki Furukawa Kinuya in games likes SD-Snatcher or TwinBee. But she jumped to the front row with the saga that kept her busy for fifteen years: Castlevania. In 1994 began with Bloodlines, the installment of the series for Mega Drive, and from there until his departure from Konami in 2008, has composed music for 8 titles in the Castlevania, including the legendary Symphony of the Night and the portables titles for Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS.

The interview could not be accomplished without the invaluable help in the questions and translations of Jose Manuel Iniguez (Director of Akaoni Studio), Gryzor87, Chiyoe Ishihara, IO and Javier Cadenas.

In the time you joined Konami, videogames were very different than now, composers did not have the resources they have nowadays to make the music they want. How do you decide you wanted to compose music for video games?

When I graduated from University, it was time for me to consider which way I should take. My high school handed me an offer to be a part-time lecturer of music, but I don’t know why I didn’t like the option.

I think I’d rather be composing or arranging music rather than teaching.

Around the same time, I found a classified ad from KONAMI, I applied immediately and I was hired. In the end, I joined a videogame company by chance.

Are you a gamer? What kind of games do you like?

I do like playing games. When I joined my company I used to play a lot of shooters or action games. Especially Parodius, which had children thronged at the arcades. I also liked Vagrant Story, God of War or the Tomb Rader series.

Nowadays, I rarely play anything, but I like games such as ICO or the Professor Layton or Ace Attorney series, which require the player to think.

What is your opinion about the music and sounds used by the classic video games (eg SD-Snatcher, Twinbee…) in contrast to the complex and orchestral current pieces? 
 Unique techniques of composing and arranging arose, as we overcame hardware limitations and found great sounds and music with its own personality. That music suited its games, and though it was simple it had depth, and it is still worth to listen even nowadays.

Do you think the “chiptune” it is still a valid way of making music for video games?

Yes, I think so. It has become a musical genre itself. Although modern hardware allows graphics or sound to be more free. If you create 2D pixel art games the music is more suitable if it’s done in traditional ways.

Listening to the soundtracks of Nemesis III, Contra: Hard Corps or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, it can be seen that you master different styles, like music for action, epic, sci-fi… As composer, what style are you most comfortable?

When considering what music will I compose for a game, no matter what genre, if I come up with a good idea at once then the process will be smooth. On the other hand, when I can’t find a good idea I end up messing with the trial and error method. Though it is hard, I love composing for what it is, so I try to enjoy doing any kind of music.

There are songs in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night OST, like Wood Carving Partita, or Dance of Pales that have a melancholy feel, almost sad. What feelings you want to transmit to the player with the soundtrack?

As for “Wood Carving Partita” or “Dance of Pales”, I felt those were maybe too lyrical to be background music for an action game. 
I remember that I got stuck trying to make them fit in the atmosphere and the graphics, instead of telling how I felt. Maybe those feelings ended up in the music in some way, some kind of melancholy.

Your music fits perfectly in the games you worked, music and graphics works together. How is your usual process of composition for game music?

If it’s possible, I play the game to decide about tempo or style for the music. I also ask the level designer or the director about their opinion. If only graphics are available to me, then I need to focus on that for an idea. In very early development stages I sometimes compose based only on storyboards or references.

After I decide tempo or style for a song, I compose basic things like its melody or harmony aided by a piano. Then, I input everything to the computer and do the orchestration.

Is it hard to work for a company as big as Konami? I mean, in terms of exigency, enough time to work, creative freedom… What are the pros and cons?

I’d say a good point is the stable income. And for me it really was a valuable experience that people around the world could enjoy my music along with a game such as Castlevania. If you don’t care only about game music and you want to do other kind of music, it’s a good thing to be freelance.

One of the keys to success in the Castlevania series is its music so characteristic, mix of romance and action and catchy melodies. What inspires you?

The game world itself. Regardless of how old or new, I drew inspiration from films and novels relates to Dracula, of course. Also Ayami Kojima’s aestheticism and visionary illustration was a big help for me to compose, as well as the beautiful graphics created by background artists.

Besides, ethnic music that I listened to when traveling has given me a lot of inspiration. 
I have been to Spain, and I was touched by flamenco passionate music.

In 20 years at Konami, you have made a lot of music, do you have any song that you feel especially proud, a favourite?

I could say the one I did for Ganbare Goemon 2 for Famicom, which was entrusted to me when I had just joined Konami, and also the one for the Castlevania series, for which I did a lot of music.

Is there any particular reason to choose these two games?

As for Goemon 2 the senior composer and I tried hard to make an effort everyday and devise better sound or music so that users could enjoy it. Those were times in which few people cared about game music, not like nowadays. In a way, we were researchers.

And as for Castlevania, there are a lot of fans who love the music for Symphony of the Night and they keep sending me encouraging messages. I’m very happy to know so many people enjoy my music since so much time ago.

In the latest installment of Castlevania series, Lords of Shadow, the soundtrack has been composed by a non-Japanese composer, the spanish Oscar Araujo. Did you hear the soundtrack? Did you like it?

A solemn and big scale orchestration which draw listeners into the world of Lords of Shadow. In particular, the chorus reminded me the religious or philosophical elements of the Middle Ages. I was deeply impressed with the orchestration for the battle scenes. I think he has done quite a good job.

Recently you left Konami, and now you are a freelance composer. What new projects do you have?

I want to make not only music which revolves around visuals, but also music in its own.
I’d like to approach to jazz, and hopefully play something live.

That jazz feeling can be seen in the soundtrack for her next project, Skullgirls. It is her first project for a non-Japanese company, Autumn Games, in early 2012 for PSN and XBLA and looks awesome. Currently only two song have been released, enough to realize that, although outside of Konami, the talent is still intact.

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