Battle themes of the Dragon of Dojima and Mad Dog of Shimano

Jerry on 2022-04-28
Yakuza 0 music director Hidenori Shoji oversaw the music score for the critically acclaimed Ryū ga Gotoku Studio prequel, treated to a six-disc soundtrack LP release by Laced Records.

By Jerry Jeriaska (The Ongaku), translated by Hidenori Arikawa and edited by Thomas Quillfeldt.

Following five commercially successful mainline entries in the Yakuza franchise, the game designers at Ryū ga Gotoku Studio in Tokyo, Japan set their sights on developing a prequel, entitled Yakuza 0 in the West.

Flashing back to the streets of the fictional red light district of Kamurochō in the winter of 1988, the sprawling crime drama presents players with the origin stories of protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, as they face off against high-ranking yakuza bosses.

We caught up with music director Hidenori Shoji to hear about the making of the high-energy battle tracks, challenges encountered in utilizing motion capture on musically oriented cutscenes, and the musician’s aims in collaborating with fellow composers at Sega.

Ryū ga Gotoku Begins

Since the mid-1990s, Hidenori Shoji has been recording music for Sega game scores for arcade cabinets and home consoles.

It first hit home for the composer that his work was making an impact on the world stage when the famous singer Christina Aguilera posted to her website that her favorite videogame was Super Monkey Ball. The Sega puzzle game series prominently features Shoji’s music compositions.

Since then, Shoji has contributed to every entry in the Yakuza series, both front-and-center as a composer and behind-the-scenes as music director. The franchise not only extends into the past with the “0” prequel entry, but has even penetrated into the recesses of historical fiction.

Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan! witnesses the series protagonist assuming the identity of the Sengoku era’s legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, while Ishin! finds him taking on the role of Edo period samurai Sakamoto Ryōma.

However, in Yakuza 0 we are introduced to Kiryu in circumstances that are far from sympathetic. In Chapter One “Bound By Oath,” a loan shark has hired him to corner a delinquent client in a vacant lot and beat him into submission. The scene reveals that Kiryu’s rise through the ranks of the Tojo Clan has left blood on his hands.

Shoji explains that the light and dark sides of Yakuza 0 are represented by playable characters Kiryu and Majima, respectively. Those themes are reflected in the choice of music genres associated with each character’s battle techniques.

“First off, there is Kiryu's fighting style known as ‘Chinpira’ (Brawler) Style,” Shoji explains. “It was not so much a matter of choosing a style of music that would fit. Rather, it is fixed in place that this is the background music you hear when encountering a battle for the first time. I made a conscious effort not to start off with too aggressive a melody. The aim, rather, was to dive in with something a little lighter, as in a comparatively upbeat track."

Battle track “Force Addiction” is associated with Kiryu’s “Brawler” Style. In Japanese, the fighting technique is called “Chinpira” Style, referring to his standing as a low-ranking member of the Tojo Clan. Alternatively, this label would translate to “thug” or “hoodlum,” illustrating his relative insignificance at the outset of the prequel.

As it turns out, his low rank brands him as easy prey for the yakuza, who utilize his deed for the loan shark as a means to use him as a patsy. When the body of Kiryu’s mark is discovered the following morning with a fatal gunshot wound, he must find a way to cut ties with the Tojo Clan’s Dojima family, hunt down the killer, and clear his name.

The Chained Dog

The setting of the Cabaret Grand in the fictional district of Sotenburi presented Shoji with one of the most difficult challenges of Yakuza 0’s development.

In Chapter 3 “A Gilded Cage,” we are introduced to Goro Majima, the manager of a popular music hall in the Kansai region of Japan. Before long, Majima has a run-in with a drunken, unruly patron who challenges him to a fistfight on the floor of the lavish club. However, Majima has sworn never to strike a paying customer, and must deftly dodge the lout’s awkward punches and kicks.

At the start of this peculiar duel, undoubtedly not the first of its kind, the band members performing on stage at the Grand recognize that this is their cue. They launch into a heart-pounding rendition of “Customer Creed,” selected for such an occasion. The musical performance takes place as the Mad Dog of Shimano and his would-be assailant face off.

This scene involves “diegetic” music, meaning “Customer Creed” is heard by the characters onscreen. The music originates within the location, unlike the battle tracks associated with brawls on the streets outside. What made "Customer Creed" a chore for the composer was the fact that the music needed to be synched to the movements of the virtual band members.

“Composer (Yuri) Fukuda from the sound team participated in motion capture for the pianist,” Shoji relates. “When you watch the pianist during that big band sequence, all those movements were performed by Fukuda during her motion capture session."

"In the same way, mo-cap for the guitarist was done by ZENTA. He is a composer from outside of Sega who has contributed music for the Ryū ga Gotoku series, including karaoke songs, and here threw in some motion-capture acting.”

Shoji was asked to compose the music track prior to the cutscene being mapped out by the graphics animators. However, additional adjustments had to be made as the scene came together in order to link the music’s timing to the motions of the computer generated band members. This was one instance where extensive discussion was required between the music director and visual design staff on the development team.

Majima’s introduction again subverts the player’s expectations, as it inverts the dark versus light motif that defines the game’s dual protagonists.

The curtain rises on Kiyru cornering a cowering victim in the dark corners of a vacant lot. By contrast, our first impression of Majima is of a by-the-book professional. Majima exercises such self-restraint that he meekly allows a bottle of champagne to be poured upon his head by an unruly customer.

Proof of Resolve

To clear his name, Kiryu must evade detection by Kamurochō's deadliest lieutenants and their disposable underlings. The antagonists of Yakuza 0 are the stuff of legend, led by a hot-headed psychopath named Daisuke Kuzu, a mafioso-styled sadist called Hiroki Awano, and the cold and calculating strategist Keiji Shibusawa.

As Kiryu progresses in his training, he perfects a new fighting technique, called Rush Style. The associated music track, dubbed “Parry Addiction,” was influenced by Western boxing matches, particularly their portrayal on the big screen. A character played by actor Brad Pitt became a focal point for defining the technique.

“At that time, I was impressed by what I saw in the film titled ‘Snatch,’" Shoji recalls. "The film score accompanying the brawls and boxing matches depicted in that movie left a strong impression. I decided to write a music track with that kind of flavor, but in the breakbeat genre.”

Kiryu’s determination to leave the Dojima Family, which has marked him as a renegade hunted by the three lieutenants, sets in motion the character’s path to redemption. Leading up to the events of Yakuza Kiwami, he is on his way to fulfilling his destiny as a legend of Kamurochō.

"Acquiring the ‘Dragon of Dojima’ style within the game sets the stage for the events of Ryū ga Gotoku 1," Shoji relates, "so I went about arranging ‘Receive You,’ which has returned in new variations in every installment since Ryū ga Gotoku 1.”

Majima, however, has set out on an opposite trajectory. However sympathetic he may appear at the outset, the darker nature of Majima’s ambitions gradually surfaces as he hones his fighting prowess. The course correction comes with the introduction of the battle track “One Eyed Assassin,” associated with his Thug Style fighting technique.

“In the contest between light and dark, Kiryu's side is decidedly brighter,” says Shoji. “That prompted me to compose a music track with an overall quality of brilliance, accentuated by light moments. Majima represents the flipside. When encountering an enemy, the mood darkens and so his (Thug) Style technique is represented by a sinister drum'n'bass track."

One-Eyed Assassin

In a parallel storyline unfolding in Sotenburi, the Shimano crime family is putting the screws on Majima. As with the Dragon of Dojima, the Mad Dog has been backed into a corner.

Explained in a flashback sequence laid out in still images like fading photographs, Majima botched an assassination attempt on the chairman of the Ueno Seiwa Clan. As a consequence of his failure, he was punished by the Shimano family, suffering soul-crushing beatings and losing his eye in the process.

Now Majima must make amends by filling the Shimano organization’s coffers with the profits earned as manager of the Grand. Overseeing this operation is Tsukasa Sagawa, a sardonic father figure who exacts ever higher levies on Majima’s salary to satisfy the yakuza’s demands. One day, Sagawa allows him a means of escaping his predicament.

Majima is given the offer to enroll as an assassin, targeting a delinquent client known as Makoto Makimura. Where Kiryu seeks to escape a false accusation, Majima now grapples with the choice of whether to embrace such a fate in reality. The only means of putting his past behind him is to pick up where he left off as a professional assassin.

As he accrues greater experience as a fighter, Majima gains access to his signature baseball bat, learning the Slugger fighting technique. What perhaps most clearly distinguishes Majima from his Kamurochō counterpart are the flickers of glee that cross his face when knocking the wind out of his opponent to the tune of “One Eyed Slugger.”

“Majima's Slugger fighting style employs the use of a baseball bat,” Shoji explains. "To help bring out the darker quality of this technique, divorced from any association with baseball, I selected dubstep as the choice of genre. The idea was to emphasize the impression of violence in this implement being used as a weapon."

For Majima’s break dancing “Breaker” style, alternatively called “Dancer” in the Japanese release, Shoji found a genre that would complement the character’s amusement when tripping up his foes. "The (Breaker) technique is a humorous fighting style whereby Majima elatedly gets the drop on his enemies, so cheerful connotations are unavoidable,” Shoji explains. “The trick was to somehow suggest a darker aspect to it. That led me to combine something upbeat with a style of underground dance music."

Over the course of the Yakuza series, Majima has gained a reputation for mixing comical flourishes with flashes of viciousness, catching his enemies off guard. His ultimate battle technique, the Mad Dog of Shimano style, represents a subtle callback to Yakuza Kiwami.

“Listen closely and you will recognize that it's another arrangement of Kiryu's 'Receive You' theme,” Shoji explains. "Whereas 'Dragon of Dojima' is characterized by a dazzling tech trance style, ‘Mad Dog of Shimano’ is arranged in a gritty metalstep style."

Ryū ga Gotoku Ethos

Shoji’s role as music director involved collaborating with over a dozen co-composers on Yakuza 0. When combined with the workload required for crafting hooks and performing instruments on his own compositions, micro-managing others’ output simply was not an option. Nor did such an approach strike him as a meaningful exercise in eliciting creative inspiration from his team members.

“As a music director, I start out by communicating some sense of the overall intention of the music score,” states Shoji. “At the same time, I have no desire to suffocate that special offering that each musician brings with them. Oftentimes the best approach is to offer some direction and then leave the rest to them.”

This hands-off approach has allowed numerous musicians to communicate their personal interpretation of harrowing and exhilarating scenes unfolding in Kamurochō. Each artist is encouraged to innovate when it comes to crafting the sounds of Ryū ga Gotoku’s nightlife–from the drunken street brawls, to the intimate karaoke parlors, and fluorescent dance clubs.

“Allowing room for an individual's personal discretion is important,” Shoji states. "It would be too restrictive for me to stipulate, ‘Write this kind of song, using this method, employing these instruments.'"

“For instance, take the example of the aforementioned battle tracks," Shoji explains. "Let's say that I were assigning someone the (Thug) style track. I would suggest they take a look at Kiryu's (Brawler) theme as a reference. ‘Here is a thematically light track that I wrote. Why don't you make a dark one to go alongside it?' I might ask in an abstract sense, "How would you go about representing this thematic contrast between light and dark?'"

“From there, it's left up to their personal interpretation. The important thing is to allow that individual's special something to shine through.”

This article has been reprinted from this source: Laced Records Blog. Hidenori Shoji is a composer and music director –