Featured, Game Music

Hiroki Kikuta Survives MAGFest, Answers Questions

January 21, 2011 | | 5 Comments Share thison Facebook Hiroki Kikuta Survives MAGFest, Answers Questionson Twitter

A surprise last-minute special guest for MAGFest 9, Hiroki Kikuta flew over from Japan in what is his second visit to the east coast in a rather short span of time. Fans will remember he attended Otakon 2010 in Baltimore last August, so it was certainly unexpected that he’d come to the same area again so soon.

Unfortunately for everyone (Kikuta and fans), it wasn’t the world’s most enjoyable trip. Kikuta-san, the composer most famous for Secret of Mana and whose new work Shining Hearts just hit Japanese stores, was an active participant in the festivities on the first day (Thursday). He played a live performance of a new piece of music he’d written, and he volunteered to be a judge in a cooking contest akin to Iron Chef. Apparently, the food made there was atrocious, and Kikuta didn’t hide that fact.

Whether it was the nasty food that sent his immune system into a state of shock, or some combination of jet lag and just finishing his work on Shining Hearts, Hiroki Kikuta awoke Friday feeling rather ill. He spent all of Friday in his hotel room. On Saturday, he mustered enough energy to attend the Q&A panel and subsequent signing that was planned for the afternoon. It was here that he informed fans that, while he’d very much like to mingle with others at JamSpace and elsewhere at MAGFest, he wasn’t sure he’d be feeling any better by Sunday.

Sure enough, he wasn’t.

But we’re still super-appreciative that Kikuta-san powered through what looked like a raging headache/cold/fever combo to meet with MAGFest attendees. The Q&A panel was hosted by my fellow OSV staffers (Chris Ling, Audun Sørlie, Shota Nakama). I sat in the audience to soak it all in, and it certainly wasn’t below me to get my Secret of Mana soundtrack signed.

After the jump, you’ll find out what the fans wanted to ask, and the very… unique… answers that Kikuta gave. It’ll be sure to entertain.

“Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

The first question thrown out at the panel is one of many that can be answered with some quick research on the Internet (Wikipedia, other published interviews, etc). But asking the same question again can result in more colorful answers. In this case, the first question was, “how did you get involved in videogames?”

The story goes like this: Kikuta was trying to get by as a Manga artist, but he found he couldn’t get by with it. He didn’t play console games, but he did play arcade games. He started applying to work at videogame companies, either as a musician or a (graphic) artist. He got turned down by Falcom, but then he got a job with Square.

The competition to get in with Square was fierce: Kikuta estimated that there were about one hundred applicants for the one position. It was Nobuo Uematsu who took note of Kikuta’s talent and decided to bring him on board. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another attendee asked a generic question about how Kikuta composed such great music for Seiken Densetsu 2 (aka Secret of Mana) and its sequel Seiken Densetsu 3. Hiroki Kikuta’s response was very detailed. He talked about the early planning stages of Seiken Densetsu 2; meeting with the developers many times to get a feel for what the game would be and what they wanted. It took six months of various meetings, including lunch and dinner appointments, before any “get-your-hands-dirty” work began.

The third question: “what kind of projects are you working on these days?” Of course, those following Kikuta closely already knew the answer: Shining Hearts, a PSP title from Sega. Kikuta had a lot of fun describing the game, noting that its primary feature is not combat, but cooking: specifically, baking bread. Baking the bread and giving it to party members increases your power. Kikuta’s advice to the crowd: “If you like baking bread, be sure to play Shining Hearts.” Of course, Sega has not yet announced if this game will be coming to North America.

Have you ever heard a rumor that there are secret, hidden, and/or personal meanings to the track names for Secret of Mana? I hadn’t, but some of the attendees had, so they asked Kikuta about it. Kikuta-san didn’t directly answer the question, but emphasized the importance of a song title. “It’s like a baby, and you don’t just randomly assign a name to a baby. When I name my ‘baby,’ my pieces, I think about the things that influenced me in writing that song, and then I pick the name […] You think of the things precious to you, and then you name your piece. I think that’s important.”

The most interesting question I heard in the entire panel came from a fan named Thomas. He asked Kikuta-san about his opinions regarding the recent passage of Tokyo Assembly Bill 156. Kikuta didn’t know what it was. And frankly, neither did I. You can check out the details of the bill from this blog post by dankanemitsu. But I think this statement sums it up: “With the passage of Bill 156, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will have the additional power to restrict any manga, anime and video games (but not live photography works) that feature any sexual acts that would violate criminal codes or Tokyo ordinances OR sexual depictions between close relatives who could not legally get married to be treated as adult material IF they are presented in ‘unjustifiably glorified or exaggerated manner.'”

Thomas’ question seemed to be sounding a false alarm, though, as he asked Kikuta if he was worried about the way it might affect industry seeing as he had worked on games like Koudelka (which, though dark and strange, doesn’t fit any of the criteria in the above post). In any case, the generic spirit of the question, if I may paraphrase, is this: what are your thoughts on government censorship of creative works, and are you worried?

Admitting that this topic isn’t a happy one, Kikuta gave his answer: “Most Manga and doujin artists aren’t actively concerned about these issues. This is an issue that concerns all of Japanese society, and the decision by the government is likely affected by our country’s history post World War II. I think these issues [of censorship and restriction] come back to the Japanese education system, and while I have plenty to say about that, it would take me days to explain it. If Japan continues to accept these decisions and this path, our culture will die quickly. To me, it is very sad.” Wow. Deep stuff.

Perhaps more closely related to the topic at hand, the next person in line asked about Kikuta’s work on eroge like Sakura Relaxation, and if Kikuta could recommend any eroge to the panelists. Initial response? “No, I can’t recommend those games to you!” After the initial laughs, Kikuta explained that he really enjoyed working with the developers of various eroge, because they gave him free reign to compose whatever he wanted, and they were also very nice people in general. An interesting bit of trivia was given to us as well, when he noted that his “in” to work on Shining Hearts came through popular Manga artist Tony Taka, whom Kikuta met through work on eroge.

Thinking on this, Kikuta paused, and then offered some advice to the crowd: “If you are part of any creative effort, no matter the type — arcade, console, h-game, indie game — do your best. In any circumstance, do your best to make the thing you want to make, because there is always someone watching, someone who will notice. I guarantee you this.”

“What’s the first step to writing a game soundtrack?” I’m not sure who asked this, or why they asked it, since I thought this was essentially answered by the earlier question where Kikuta discussed meeting with the developers. But Kikuta-san gave an interesting answer to this, one that related back to the fact that he was feeling quite ill. “If it’s a big project, the first thing I do before I start working on it is to work out.” Exercise is the key to good composition, huh? As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly his point. Instead: “For several months, you’ll be stuck behind a desk writing the music, and that depletes your energy levels, so try to boost your energy from the start with exercise. If you’re unhealthy while making the game, it will affect the end quality.”

There were a lot of chiptune fans in attendance for MAGFest. But, of course, the Super Famicom didn’t use hardware-generated chiptunes. Instead, the sound programmers defined a sound bank and created sequenced music. And just how did Kikuta deal with the sound limitations? This, too, has been answered in the past. But before getting there, Kikuta gave a brief history lesson on synthesizers.

It starts with Robert Moog inventing the Moog synthesizer, first commercially released in the 1970s. Kikuta rightly credited Isao Tomita for introducing Japanese people to the Moog synth. Of course, the original technology wasn’t like a keyboard or any other traditional musical instrument. Kikuta recalled a joke known among musicians: “Somebody buys the Moog machine expecting to play it like a musical instrument, and he spends a whole day playing with it, hitting it, trying everything, and it makes no sound. The next day, he’s pointing at the machine, explaining to his friends that he can’t get the thing to make any noise, and in that moment, it begins producing sound, and then they can’t get it to stop.” That sounds about right to me.

Kikuta continued the history lesson by noting one of the earliest electronic composers, who frequently used the Moog: Wendy Carlos (born Walter Carlos). Kikuta noted Carlos’ work on the original Tron film, and our readers are probably also familiar with Carlos’ score to the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.

The point of the history lesson? “Anything that can produce a sound, no matter how difficult, is a potential tool for the composer.” This, as many of you can predict, leads to Kikuta’s explanation of how he not only composed Seiken Densetsu 2 but also worked with and around the limited technology (mostly space limitations) to create a good sound. Key to this discussion are limiting the number of different “voices,” determining which ones can receive heavy compression and which require minimal compression, and keeping volume levels (dynamics) between the voices at the right place to express the right things. Kikuta actually spelled this part out later due to a question based on a rumor about Seiken Densetsu 2 originally being intended as a “Super Famicom CD” project.

One of the better-informed folks in line to ask questions was a young lady named Amy. She asked about Kikuta’s work on Concerto Gate: specifically, did Kikuta enjoy working with Kenji Ito, and how did that dynamic work? Kikuta described it like this: “I sound like me, and Ito sounds like Ito. We don’t sound like each other, and we maintain our own separate styles. They don’t really mix well. But maybe, that’s the best part [of the soundtrack].”

Being that MAGFest has plenty of rock bands covering VGM, a fan asked Kikuta what his feelings were on this kinds of bands. This invoked a very sincere response from Kikuta, which was as follows:

“I know some game companies may give you a hard time about it, but I think it’s a great thing. And it doesn’t matter if it’s professionally recorded or totally amateur. It’s good, because there are people that still love the music from console games 15 to 20 years ago, which is unusual, but these bands bring fans of that music together.”

The next question allowed Kikuta-san to follow naturally on the topic he was getting to, which is in regard to this old music sticking together. You see, an attendee asked about the difference between writing music for cut scenes vs. gameplay (such as combat). The long answer Kikuta gave boils down to this: cut scenes have a time limit, and you hear them once. You have to write something very powerful. For the gameplay music, it loops, and if it’s too powerful it becomes irritating, but if it’s a nice catchy background piece, you can enjoy hearing it for hours at a time, and that’s why it has stuck with people (like the MAGFest attendees) for so long. If the players get tired of the music, the looping doesn’t work and people will want to just turn down the music.

I have to quote Kikuta on this particular part of the response: “There are some film composers who think they can also compose videogame music with the same approach. But those are very different things, and if the composer doesn’t understand that, the game music will go in a different direction.”

Can a Q&A panel for a composer take place without someone asking about influences and favorite self-composed song? I don’t think so. And while I’m just as guilty as anyone else, I agree with the collective audience response of hushed laughter or exasperated sighs.

Fortunately, the person asking about influences tacked on “what are you listening to right now?” — which is at least slightly more interesting. Kikuta acknowledged that, in his youth, he listened to a lot of electronic music and progressive rock. Bill Bruford is his favorite drummer. He likes “fusion” music; that is, jazz-rock fusion. When pressed for specific artists he enjoys, he mentioned Jeff Beck (with whom he’s performed before).

As for newer music, the last album Kikuta bought is from the popular American music group Owl City, which Kikuta described as “some dull, boring guys playing synthesizers — I love it.” Much laughter ensued due to this description.

Kikuta’s favorite song, you ask? Composers often change this answer over time. Just over a year ago, this question was answered in an interview that Jeriaska did with Kikuta and Shimomura for Gamasutra, and Kikuta said his favorite song was the “Overture” track from Concerto Gate. But this time around he mentioned the theme for the Sprite character Popoi, but not the one that the developers had chosen. The song Kikuta wrote for Popoi ended up being used for the Kakkara Desert (track title “Secret of the Hot Sands”). Kikuta mentioned he sees Popoi as the core and central character to Secret of Mana, which is why he fades away at the end of the game, because the adventure is over.

Here’s an interesting question: “How is videogame music serving to evolve music and the music industry?” Even more interesting was Kikuta’s answer. He believes that while music is ever changing, it isn’t “evolving.” It isn’t “progressing.” The roots of the music have always been there. He also doesn’t think civilization is evolving either. Consider: people from hundreds of years ago are, on the whole, no more or less happy than we are today. And today, “I hear people partying at MAGFest. And there is always music when there’s a party, and it’s been that way for thousands of years. What’s important is that the current music is enjoyable, regardless of genre or style.”

Asked about having a favorite Square soundtrack outside of his own, Kikuta acknowledged that he really enjoyed Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy IV. But, specifically, the arranged album “Celtic Moon” remains one of his favorite albums to this day.

The most personal question was one asked near the end, and it came with some strange advice from Kikuta.

Question: “In doing work for Manga and games, did your parents approve, or did they disapprove of what you were doing with your life?”

Answer: “Everyone can have disagreements with their parents about what to do with one’s own life. Life is difficult; things do not always go well. The truth is, you must always lose something in order to gain something else.” (I heard someone in the audience murmur about Fullmetal Alchemist’s “law of equivalent exchange”). “You’ll want to make sure that when you make those exchanges, you’re getting what you truly desire and the trade is worthwhile. Thus, if your parents disagree with you — yes, you should try to explain your position to your family — but if they do not understand you, then give up your family!”

Incredulous gasps, laughter, and applause ensue. From my perspective, I was immediately reminded of the teachings of Jesus: the pearl of great price, and forsaking one’s own family for a higher calling. These are bold words; Kikuta was clearly not joking when he made this declaration.

Kikuta tempered his response a bit, pointing out that family is there to support one another in difficult times, even if you disagree. “You must continue to believe that someday, your parents will understand.”

The allotted time for the Q&A was almost over, but the unconventional advice continued to come with the asking of the final questions. One person asked where, in writing music, the creative process “begins and ends.” Kikuta emphasized the importance of maximizing focus and concentration. Kikuta said, “do whatever it takes [to focus]; there are different ways to do that. There are some things you can tell people, and other things you can’t tell people, about how you gain your concentration. Find your method, and be in that moment of confidence where you say to yourself: ‘I’m a genius! I’m god!'”

That part about what can and cannot be said: was Kikuta saying there’s something ineffable or unknowable about how one reaches that sweet spot of focus? Or was that a tacit approval of using less-than-legal substances to get there? No one asked for clarification, but I spent a lot of time thinking about this point. Indeed, if it’s the latter, many musicians have taken that route.

From this panel, I observed things about Kikuta that I knew, things I suspected to be true, and things I’d never known before. I knew he was talented and confident. I suspected he was a very deep thinker. But I didn’t realize he had such a rich knowledge of synthesizer history, nor did I know the specifics of his depth of knowledge.

This is a man with whom I’d love to sit down and have some tea and just absorb his words. He’s seen a lot, he knows a lot, and it looks like he’s still in this business for the indefinite future. We at OSV wish Kikuta-san luck in his future endeavors, be they music composition or game design.

For the readers: what questions didn’t get asked that you would want to ask Hiroki Kikuta?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


We like it when you talk to us

Add your comment below and subscribe to this conversation here. Spam will be moderated.



Make it fancy?

« Next Post

Previous Post »

More like this Post