Noriyuki Asakura on the Music Of The Tenchu Series

Jerry on 2009-02-23
The restrained intensity of Noriyuki Asakura's soundtrack to the 1998 Playstation title Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was one design feature that helped to underscore the memorably strategic gameplay.

While infiltrating the castles of rival feudal lords by ducking through their shadows, protagonists Rikimaru and Ayame were accompanied by songs that maintained the steady rhythms and artful purpose of a trained assassin. Developer Acquire's production of Tenchu 4 for Nintendo Wii and Sony PSP intends a return to the stealth gameplay conventions of the original.

In the West, the influence of the first game is mirrored by the title Tenchu: Shadow Assassins. Asakura, head of the sound studio Mega-Alpha and composer of Tenchu 1 through 3, also makes a return, this time introducing a broader palette of international musical conceits to Tenchu's world of ancient espionage. The latest installment in the series continues to apply progressive rock concepts in broadening the bounds of traditional Asian music.

Taking place in a meeting with the composer during the production of Tenchu 4 Original Soundtrack, an album published by Aniplex Records in Japan, this interview centers on the intersection of audio techniques found in the original Stealth Assassins along with the recently localized Shadow Assassins.

The discussion offers various insights into how the composer sought to differentiate the game's audio from mainstream renderings of traditional Japanese music, in favor of a fusion of Asian musical influences, so that game players could savor an otherworldy soundscape more reflective of the historical setting's distance from everyday reality.

In English-language regions, players have commented on how the use of instruments on the original title matched the pace of the game and helped provide the stealth combat with an immersive quality. How did you go about finding a balance between traditional instruments and modern musical styles that would complement the gameplay?

Noriyuki Asakura: I was interested in taking a different approach from what you find in most narratives set in a historical Japanese era. Often, an ambient soundtrack styled after imperial court music is used. Because that is frequently the norm, I looked instead to establish a novel vision of Asian music. Instead of limiting myself to Japanese traditions, I opened up the score to Chinese and Thai influences.

Beyond that, I incorporated West Asian musical styles, such as the Arabic scale practiced in Turkey. The goal was to fuse these various elements with Western rock and fusion in a way that would defy anyone's expectations. Just like you had progressive rock music in the '70s, I was exploring the idea of progressive Asian music.

How did you first become involved in the making of Tenchu for the original Playstation console?

I had been introduced to Masami Yamamoto (producer at Sony Computer Entertainment), who had been searching for a composer for the project. I was given an impression of the storyline, and based on that, I delivered a sample from a previous project that I felt might be appropriate. Clearly it resonated with him because he asked to include that very track. The song had been written for another project, so I was required to speak with the copyright holders, but eventually this track became an important part of Tenchu. This is the theme that plays during the game's opening.

For the remainder of the soundtrack, I was asked to continue along those lines. Looking back, it was serendipitous that this music arrived in the hands of Tenchu's producer at the right time.

What previous experiences would you say prepared you for scoring the soundtrack to the game?

As far as video game music is concerned, I was involved in the making of Crime Crackers, a game that was released close to the hardware launch of the PlayStation. Sony was going strong, they told me they wanted a cinema-quality music score, and that money was no object. The quality of a music project cannot help but be influenced by the budget. In this case, we had access to the equipment needed for various audio experiments.

The end result was as polished as one could have hoped for. For someone who prefers working with actual acoustic instruments, as I do, it was a blessing. At that point, I had yet to recognize the full appeal of the Asian musical aesthetic. When I did come to grasp it, the newfound appreciation was perfectly timed. I had just started composing for Tenchu and the anime Ruroni Kenshin.

Can you tell us about choosing a foreign language for the vocals heard in the intro to the original Tenchu?

That's Hausa, a language from West Africa. I was interested in conveying images like "a sense of isolation within the vastness of the surrounding earth" and "being alone at prayer on the dry desert sand." My plan was to use English lyrics, but it felt like the wrong choice for conveying this image. The next step was try it with Japanese, but the language was too close to everyday conversation. I made a variety of attempts at lyrics that suited the original concept, and Hausa was the best match.

To get ideas and acquire musical instincts, yes. I've gone to Turkey and Malaysia for this purpose. To generate the energy required of working in the entertainment industry, I visit New York and Los Angeles. It's all about a sense of balance. But when I travel, it tends to be by myself.

The character of Rikimaru is a prominent example of ninjas in videogames. How has the history of the character affected your approach to writing music for the Tenchu series?

He's a powerful representation of masculinity, I'd say. There is a scene in Tenchu 3 where he is surrounded by armed assailants and the odds against him are overwhelming. I named the introductory theme of the game "Fate ~SADAME~" as an indication that the character's destiny is to persist, no matter how many enemies face him. That's my image of the character.

The performers of the song are people you have worked with since?

We have a unit called add'ua composed of a guitarist, bassist, vocalist and myself. The vocalist, as you may know already, is Yui Murase.

Tenchu's gameplay style is often referred to as stealth action. How have you gone about providing a mix of action and suspense in the music to suit this genre?

This subject actually relates to the idea of progressive rock as well. Prog rock musicians in the '70s found a way to introduce significant variation to the atmosphere of a given piece by changing keys frequently.

To apply this approach to music with an Asian background it seemed to me would organically expand the horizons of those conventions. Sudden dramatic changes in the intensity of the score are situated so as to make listeners more aware of these shifts. However, the most important part of implementing this concept of progressive Asian music was to make it sound natural.

Tenchu 4 is anticipated as a return to the spirit of the original game. Was the goal to revisit concepts from the Playstation title while also exploring new territory?

This was in fact the request I received from the director-- to make something entirely original while retaining the image of the original Tenchu. It made me think, "That sounds like a contradiction in terms!" (laughs) The way I interpreted this challenge was to include new instruments, try and see if drums could be used to different effects, and include a touch of classical.

What instruments were recorded for the live tracks?

On this score, violins have a strong presence due to the participation of Gen Ittetsu Strings. A frequent collaborator on Tenchu, Kiyotsugu Amano also offers his familiar guitar accompaniment. New to this project is the use of live shinobue [a high pitched Japanese flute] and shamisen. While previously I have sampled sounds for these instruments, I sought out musicians for original recordings for Tenchu 4.

Can you tell us about some of the other performers that have participated in the recording sessions?

Hyakutaka Fukuhara plays the shinobue, while the shamisen is performed by a third-generation shamisen master, Yutaka Oyama. The drummer is a friend of mine, and we performed in a band together back in the day, so he picks up on my ideas quickly.

It concerns me that among young composers today, very few have experience playing in a band, as this can be an invaluable experience for a musician. It teaches you to communicate as a musician and work as part of a team. Practicing a given song together with a group, you will learn more about it than by working on it by yourself. Creating only according to one's own personal tastes, a musician finds few opportunities to grow.

What will be added to the soundtrack for the upcoming PSP port of Tenchu 4?

Fundamentally, the score is the same for the Wii and PSP versions, but two new tracks have been added to the portable game. There are additional classical elements, something of a departure from the norm. It is a continuation of the Asian musical theme, but with hints of classical music blended in. The audio recordings that took place earlier today included drums and percussion instruments. That is to give the audio more of the feel of a film score.

Overall, what were you most interested in emphasizing in the process of writing the score to Tenchu 4?

Love. The theme is love. It might sound misleading but throughout the series a prevailing theme has been Rikimaru's love for others. s a composer, my job is to help make this love manifest, which is also an expression of care for the figure of Rikimaru. In that sense, the meaning is love.

This article originally appeared on: Translation by Ryojiro Sato.