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GDC 2009: Shooting The Breeze With Hitoshi Sakimoto

GDC 2009: Shooting The Breeze With Hitoshi Sakimoto

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It was the final day of GDC, and with no particular agenda, Tim and I strolled into our interview with Hitoshi Sakimoto. What we found is that he’s amazingly mellow and easy to talk to. We discuss a variety of topics ranging from Sakimoto’s many trips to the United States, some of Basiscape’s recent projects, their company philosophy, and the unacceptable lack of an Opoona soundtrack release.

We also get Sakimoto’s opinion on the underground game music scene (which you may be surprised to hear), and find out that we’re not the only guys who are fans of Ken Hirai! Finally, we discuss what’s next for Sakimoto and Basiscape before heading our separate ways.

Read our interview with Hitoshi Sakimoto after the jump.

OSV: We’re here with Hitoshi Sakimoto. Composer and owner of Basiscape. Everyone on OSV knows your work already, so I’ll just start with a question. You gave your keynote speech yesterday morning on “Experiences and Rare Insights Into The Videogame Music Industry.” You mentioned how cold it is in San Francisco, so I’m wondering if it’s your first time here?

Sakimoto: I thought it was going to be warm! I bought this thick San Francisco parka at the souvenir store on my first day here because I didn’t have anything else. It’ll be a nice souvenir to take back home.

OSV: I know you’ve been here before with the PLAY! Concert. Other than that, have you been to other places in the United States before?

Sakimoto: I went to Otakon in Baltimore last year, and I’ve been here a couple of times on holiday. I went to Disney World in Florida and to Temecula, a little ways north of San Diego.

OSV: Oh, Temecula? That’s kind of in the middle of nowhere!

Sakimoto: Well, I like horseriding, so I went there for horseriding.

OSV: They also have lots of wine vineyards there. So it sounds like you’ve been here a number of times.

Sakimoto: I also lived in the US when I was young. I lived in Gainesville, Florida for about three years when I was young.

OSV: Oh, that’s very interesting. I don’t think anyone knew that you had been here so often and that you had lived here for a period of time. Well, let’s jump into your most recent work in Japan, Riz-Zowad. I guess this was loosely based on the Wizard of Oz, so I’m wondering how you came to work on this project and how you approached the title given that it references this classic book.

Sakimoto: Somebody I knew at the company offered me the job and introduced the project to me. It is inspired by The Wizard of Oz. So I listened to the music from The Wizard of Oz musical and movie, and as I listened to this music, I had to stop because the music in the musical and film were so good. As I listened to it, I thought I had better stop because I’d have the pressure of comparing whatever I wrote to what had been done before. I then looked through the illustration books to get a feel for the atmosphere, and tried to absorb the feeling and atmosphere from the pictures.

OSV: And it’s kind of interesting that you mentioned yesterday during your talk that it’s important for a composer to constantly listen to music and learn new skills. I’m curious to learn about this project. You listened to all the old Wizard of Oz music and had to stop because it was so good that you felt pressured. I wonder if that has ever happened on other projects where you listened to something for inspiration and had to stop because you felt you might be influenced?

Sakimoto: Of course I felt a lot of pressure when I heard those old pieces from the musical and film, but I stopped listening not because the pressure, but because I didn’t want to be too influenced by their musical style. I have done a lot of work in recent that were continuations of previous projects. For example, Final Fantasy XII and Gradius V. I listened to the old music as a reference, but I couldn’t listen to too much of it. Once I got the point or the essence of the music, I had to stop listening. If you listen to too much of it, it defeats the purpose of hiring a new composer to work on the project.

OSV: So, RIZ-ZOWAD was a collaboration with Naruke-san, is that right?

Sakimoto: Miss Naruke composed the opening and ending themes for the game.
OSV: And how did the two of you end up working together? I know you gave a joint talk at the Tokyo Game Show, so I’m wondering how the two of you met and how you feel the project came out in the end?

Sakimoto: We actually met right before the project offer came. The developer requested to have Michiko Naruke do the opening and ending themes for the game.

OSV: So she did the opening and ending, but was there feedback between the two of you to make sure the music sounded similar in style and sounded cohesive?

Sakimoto: In the beginning we talked about the direction that we’d go with, and we then worked separately. When I heard the demos, they matched perfectly, so there were no problems for us working together.

OSV: Wow, maybe she read the same picture book.

Sakimoto: She did mention the process was the same. She also listened to the old music from the musical and movie, and said, “Oh, I better stop.” Then she looked at other material.

OSV: The next thing I wanted to ask about is Let’s Tap. I don’t know if it’s out in Japan.

Sakimoto: Well, that was produced by Basiscape, but I wasn’t involved directly with the music.

OSV: Well, that kind of leads into another question I had about Basiscape. I’ve noticed that there are a number of composers on the team, and sometimes there’s a project that everyone contributes to, and other times the composer, on behalf of Basiscape, will work on the project by themselves, without the rest of the team. So I’m wondering if you see Basiscape as a loose organization of composers, or is it more of a solid unit as you see it?

Sakimoto: So there are four in-house composers and four composers who work from home, including myself. The priority for all of the composers is if it’s your project, you compose it on your own and you try to get jobs on your own as well. The composers who are able to work on their own and get jobs on their own will do that, but those who are not will get instructions from the manager so we can distribute the workload.

OSV: So, for example, let’s say Iwata-san goes to a networking event and meets some new people. Does he distribute his own business card, or does he distribute a Basiscape business card?

Sakimoto: He’d give out a Basiscape business card because we are a company that we belong to, and it’s a specialized sound management company, so there is a really strong connection between the team.

OSV: So what do you see the purpose of Basiscape being? Is it so that lesser-known composers can also get work through your contacts and Iwata-san’s contacts when a big project comes into Basiscape? Then maybe a lesser-known composer who couldn’t get work on his own can grow and be brought up into the industry? Would you say that’s a goal of Basiscape?

Sakimoto: Well, I see Basiscape as a gathering of many creators. One of our goals is to use the company as a window for us to get work. It’s not a very strict company. If a composer becomes famous or recognized and wants to do his own thing, he’s welcome to leave. It’s pretty easy. My main direction for the company is to gather all the great sound creators into one place, to create something that clients can rely on. There are a lot more specialists in Basiscape than there were before, so we’ve been able to divide the jobs into small areas so everyone can specialize in their own particular area, so it’s much easier to work on the projects as a team. If you’re working as a freelancer, it’s much more difficult, so it’s much easier when you’re working with a team.

OSV: So on that topic, Hibino-san gave a talk at GDC about business in Japan. He said in Japan it’s considered impolite to talk about money, and it’s very difficult for many composers in Japan to talk about money. And Hibino-san mentioned your name when he was talking about people who are good about talking about money because you run Basiscape. So where along your long career did you learn to talk about business to get to the point where you are with Basiscape?

Sakimoto: When I started the company, that’s how I learned! [laughs] When I first started the company, I had no idea. I knew nothing about business. There was somebody who really helped me during the first year with this stuff. It’s Mr. Takugawa who owned a company called Quest, actually.

OSV: Oh, interesting. I actually had a question about Opoona. If you remember, when I was at Music4Games, I did an interview with you about this title. It was an excellent interview, and we discussed at the time how there wasn’t a soundtrack release in Japan. You mentioned sales. You said we’ll see how it does in the United States, and if it does well, you said you might consider a soundtrack album. And unfortunately, I don’t think it did very well. But the music is so good that there needs to be something… even it’s iTunes. You know, a digital release. Because what fans had to do is output from the Wii and record to their computer. So the quality is very poor and there are no track names, so I want to urge you to please consider releasing the Opoona soundtrack! [laughs]

Sakimoto: Yeah, I would like that as well. But the circumstances are right now that it doesn’t really seem to make sense in terms of business. There are no talks or any planning at all at this stage, but if we work on an Opoona project in the future, I hope we can bring up the idea of a soundtrack.

OSV: I suppose I understand a CD because maybe you think it won’t sell much. But in terms of digital, aside from preparing the files, it seems easier. Is there an issue in Japan where digital releases still cost money to release?

Sakimoto: You’re right, it doesn’t cost that much, so I understand where you’re coming from. [Laughs] To do something in terms of companies, they must see the benefit from it, and right now, they probably don’t.

OSV: I understand. It’s just very sad.

Sakimoto: In every angle regarding Opoona, it didn’t really go well, including the sales figures. But the people who worked on it have a strong desire to do something about it in the future. So if the timing is right… we have to wait for the time, because right now it’s not a good time with the current situation. There’s still a chance!

OSV: I’m curious. Opoona has about 3-4 hours of music and it’s one of my favorite projects from Basiscape, so I’m wondering how do you feel that such a big body of work that had live players that had live recorded ensemble work and orchestral work, do you feel it was a lost opportunity that maybe people didn’t hear very much of it? Is it one of your favorite projects at Basiscape?

Sakimoto: I would rather think about how to resolve that situation than dwell on it not being released.

OSV: That’s right, you said that yesterday in your panel. I do have a few more questions about various things. During your talk, you mentioned that Iwata-san’s mother didn’t like the “noisy sound” from the old games when you guys were first writing music. So I’m wondering how your parents felt about your music back then. I know you were at home at the time, writing music for old systems, but has it changed now that you and Iwata-san are writing high-qualtiy music. Have your parents warmed up to your music?

Sakimoto: When I was younger, my parents didn’t like the noises. But I don’t really remember when they changed their attitude, but most likely when my style changed from rock to an orchestral style?

OSV: Perhaps Final Fantasy Tactics?

Sakimoto: Probably around the time of Super Famicom. That’s when they had changed their mind about my music.

OSV: I’ve noticed that some people can’t even stand the sound of the Super Famicom.

Sakimoto: Well, I can understand that.

OSV: I have a question about the doujin scene in Japan. You know, the fan-based music at the convention market. Some composers in Japan are very upset that people make money off the music that they wrote, so I’m wondering what your opinion is about fans arranging your work and selling it at the convention market?

Sakimoto: In terms of the law… it’s illegal in Japan. But as long as the purpose is not money, and it’s not for financial gain—I’m not in the position to say they can play it—but I will turn a blind eye. Events like Comiket where we were able to gather young manga artists and composers, for me, it’s a really great platform for people who are just beginning. For me, it’s a pleasant experience to see these events happening. But… it is still illegal, so I wouldn’t recommend it or encourage it.

OSV: Do you listen to any of the stuff that fans put out?

Sakimoto: Of course I have. I don’t know how they are able to do it, but I was impressed that it was amateur work. The quality of the work.

OSV: It’s amazing how talented they are. You came out of a time when it was all kids making these games, and people were very impressed, and you said that’s how you got 80 projects by the mid-90s.

Sakimoto: I like the underground culture. I have been raised in that environment to a certain degree. So I do think they have a lot of power in the underground community. As long as the purpose isn’t to make profits out of other people’s work.

OSV: So earlier, you mentioned that looking at other work and being influenced is sometimes a problem. With Final Fantasy XII, it was an existing franchise, and there were some expectations. You even arranged the “Main Theme” and “Battle on the Bridge.” I’m wondering how you approached these pieces with that in mind. You had to use your originality, but had to be influenced by the original work on this case.

Sakimoto: I thought originally I had to keep the atmosphere or the feel there in the music, so I listened to the past Final Fantasy scores. But as I listened, I thought I might as well go all out and create my own style and express my own taste in the music, so I ignored the past works completely and ignored the expectations. I tried to do a lot of arrangements and a lot of complicated stuff for those two arrangements, but I found it had more impact if I just did a simple arrangement. So I found it was better to just simplify the arrangements.

OSV: And it worked out really well. Those tracks were very good. And I have a kind of fun question. At Original Sound Version, we listen to a lot of Japanese music, like Japanese pop. One of my favorite and other staff members’ favorite artists is Ken Hirai, and Hibino-san laughs at me because he says it’s only for teenage girls. Do you agree, and are you a fan of pop music at all in Japan?

Sakimoto: I like Ken Hirai, although I don’t listen to much pop music. I don’t know if it’s only for teenage girls, but I do like Ken Hirai.

OSV: Maybe Hibino-san is just too cool for Ken Hirai! So I have to ask the obligatory “what’s next?” Is there anything you’re working on inside or outside of games that you’re able to tell us about?

Sakimoto: Around the 11th of April, we will be releasing Muramasa, a Japanese-background game, but it will be released internationally. By the same company that made Odin Sphere, I don’t know if it will be released internationally.

OSV: Oh, oh, it will! Muramasa. It will be distributed by XSEED in the United States in late 2009.

Sakimoto: I think it will be released on April 11 in Japan.

OSV: Everyone is really excited about that game in the States.

Sakimoto: Also at the beginning of April, I can’t remember the exact date, but the animation series for Valkyria will start as well.

OSV: And you’re scoring the entire thing?

Sakimoto: Yes. But the atmosphere of the music in the animation is very different from the game. The director loved comical style music, so I guess you’ll just have to hear it.

OSV: Were these team-based or by yourself?

Sakimoto: Valkyria is being done by myself, but Muramasa is by Basiscape.

OSV: Will we see soundtrack albums for both?

Sakimoto: We’re talking about it right now, but nothing has been finalized.

OSV: Well, great. Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure. We’re huge fans, and it’s been a pleasure to have you come to GDC and see you in SF.

Sakimoto: Thank you.

[Special thanks to Bing Lu at Basiscape for translating]

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