Feature Q&A: Hidenori Shoji & Hideki Sakamoto on Yakuza 2 Kiwami

Jerry on 2008-11-11
Yakuza 2 Kiwami brings together several videogame composers in chronicling Kazuma Kiryu's journey into the underworld of organized crime.

Among the musicians responsible for the game's soundtrack, Sega's Hidenori Shoji maintains the raw kinetic energy of the original game score. Joining him for the sequel is Hideki Sakamoto, the representative director of Noisycroak and composer of the innovative puzzle game Echochrome.

Here the composers offer some background on the creative process underlying the Tokyo soundscape depicted in the Playstation 2 action title, remastered for current generation consoles.

v How would you introduce this new chapter in the Kazuma Kiryu saga?

Hidenori Shoji: The story of Yakuza 2 takes place one year after the incident that set the first game in motion, of ten billion yen having been stolen from the Tojo Clan. Kazuma has returned to a quiet and peaceful lifestyle, but when the Tojo clan`s appointed gang boss is assassinated, he is embroiled in a complex unfolding plot of scandal and intrigue. Various aspects of the Tojo Clan's dark past gradually come to light.

The preceding title took place primarily in Kamurocho, but this time the story centers on a territorial rivalry between eastern and western regions. Not being restricted to Kamurocho, but having the ability to walk the streets of Kansai as well, adds a new element to the unfolding events of the storyline.

One element of the Yakuza series that sets it apart from many game titles is the concern for authenticity. For example, there are licensed restaurants that appear in Yakuza 2 that are known to exist in Tokyo. Did this concern for authenticity, which appears prevalent in many aspects of the game title, inform your creation of the score?

Hidenori Shoji: While it is a stretch to say that the series singularly reflects reality, it does pursue one goal rather steadfastly, which is to be good entertainment. The world of Yakuza has a number of fine details that are outright falsehoods. However, these falsehoods serve to create an immersive environment that operates on a level outside reality. You encounter shops and restaurants that exist in reality, allowing for slices of life to be mixed in with the fantasy.

How have we gone about strengthening this impression in the creation of the musical score? To put it simply, we wanted to establish the sense of a living, breathing world. This is a place that an assortment of people who are engaged in fierce struggles to survive make their home. We wanted this reality to be as gripping and raw as the redolent smell of dirt, so we used a variety of crude sounds and unrefined techniques to get this feeling across. In this way we were looking for the score to involve the interplay of entertainment and rough reality.

Sakamoto-san, how did it come about that you became a part of the music staff on Yakuza 2?

Hideki Sakamoto: Noisycroak had worked on the soundtrack to Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz for the Wii. During its development, Sega sound manager Haruyoshi Tomita became interested in our company's approach to music composition. As it so happened, I was a huge fan of the original Yakuza game title, so being commissioned for the sequel was not the kind of offer that I was about to pass up.

Having heard the score for the original game, what were your initial personal impressions of what Hidenori Shoji had written? What were you interested in bringing to the sequel as far as your own musical style was concerned?

Hideki Sakamoto: In terms of instrumentation, Shoji-san had developed an extremely stimulating guitar sound for the game, so I was interested in seeing what I could do with piano compositions. His style is edgy, with tremendous power and impressive speed underlying his songs. His use of instruments and editing techniques offered ample resources for me to study upon entering the production side of the series. My own compositional style has its roots in classical music, which might be one distinction that helps differentiate our musical approaches.

For an English-language audience that may not be familiar with Japan`s films and novels revolving around the Yakuza, what would you say are some primary elements? Are there aspects of the music that pay homage to the history of the genre?

Hidenori Shoji: You could say these stories revolve around the desire to see one`s own sense of justice served. There exists in the Japanese mindset an unflinching desire to defend one's honor. When you think about the musical genres that can be employed in evoking all the different facets of this dramatic theme, naturally the sky is the limit. Look at the sheer variety of the musical genres that show up in Kill Bill Vol.1, which is a good example of the individual`s quest to execute a personal sense of justice. We were really looking to defy the stereotypes of the conventional approaches to this subject matter, so as to give the Yakuza series a freedom of expression flowing from the soundtrack.

There is one more thing that I should mention from the standpoint of my position as sound director. In terms of the portrayals found in Yakuza 2, you can tell that the director of the voice recordings discouraged the voice actors from falling back on the cliches of anime character acting. When scenes involving characters exchanging insults and threatening each other take on cartoon cadences, it cheapens the whole experience. The agreement not to include this anime style of acting altogether I think adds to the distinctive dramatic feel of the series.

What musical instruments did you find were effective in capturing the intensity of the combat scenes found in the game, and how did you go about differentiating one battle from another through the use of musical variation?

Hidenori Shoji: In terms of the battles taking place in the Yakuza series, from the standpoint of a guitarist my musical priorities rested on using distortion effectively. In adding a degree of edginess to the composition, I sliced up the samples of my guitar recordings without restraint, at times interjecting sounds of sirens and gunshots. When you get a sense of a siren being discernible in the background, it gets across a sense of uneasiness, tension and dread. These were the kinds of negative associations I was aiming at subtly instilling.

Another technique employed in the soundtrack was purposefully mixing it up a bit throughout the different fight scenes in the game. We went ahead and altered the style of music that plays and the instruments that are performed. As you can tell by listening while playing the game, the style of music changes when entering a battle depending on whether you are presently located, and Kansai-based encounters have a jazzier feel to them.

Sakamoto-san, we heard from you on the subject of your soundtrack to Echochrome, which centers on live recordings of a string quartet. Were the challenges of working with the electric guitars, electronic music, and live instruments that appear in Yakuza 2 altogether different?

Hideki Sakamoto: Seeing as the classical score to Echochrome entailed maintaining a rather strict compositional methodology, there were a number of hurdles to clear before getting the soundtrack to sound exactly the way I wanted. The score for Yakuza 2 involved a totally different process of composing, and my attention was on cool-sounding riffs and effects. I was very interested in bringing electronic and acoustic instruments together, seeing as each have their own unique properties.

One noticeable element of your music for the game is that on quite a few tracks, including as Evil Itself, North Menace, and Beast Itself, are the electronically distorted vocals. Can you tell us a little about the quality that you were looking to capture with these vocal pieces and some of the technical details behind recording and manipulating these sounds?

Hideki Sakamoto: Outside of my base in classical music, I'm really into electronic rock and chemical breaks. For the music that plays during the battle sequences, I was really interested in there being a destructive quality to the sound. As far as vocals were concerned, singing just did not have that destructive impact. You can get the point across if you try for it, but I didn't feel that was enough. It proved more effective to distort the vocals electronically to the point where you could no longer understand the lyrics, which gave it a raw sound. This involved using a lot of compression for the vocals, while adding guitar effects, phase shifting and heavy metal-esque distortion for an overall anarchic impact. The songs were not created according to any strict methodology, but through intuition and experimentation.

The scenario is by Hase Seishuu, a well known writer of crime novels in Japan. Upon first reading the scenario for the original game, what impression did the story leave you with? How did you intend to go about creating a score that would complement this narrative?

Hidenori Shoji: The scene in which Kazuma has his first encounter with his rival to the east to me succinctly gets across the idea that the yakuza are some mean customers. You get the impression that the scope of the story is vast. These are aspects of the scenario that are foundational to the entire game project. To write music that complements the compelling depth of the narrative, it was necessary to proceed from the point of view of bridging the gap between the scenarist and the player.

Why is that a significant goal? If you consider that we are primarily setting out to create an environment that you respond to emotionally, not being able to consider the game from the vantage point of the player is a problem. At the same time, you must consider the task from the production side of things. What is the aim of each scene? What are you setting out to convey? Reading the scenario while considering those two essential perspectives

The Yakuza original soundtrack released in Japan includes your songs from the first two games together in a single compilation. How was the experience for you, collaborating with a larger musical staff, for the sequel?

Hidenori Shoji: Both inside and outside the company, a number of musicians were engaged in the making of the game score. At Sega I was assisted by the team comprised of Ito-san, Hanada-san, and Ogawa-san, while outside the company Sakimoto-san and Hibino-san made their contributions. Then there are the vocalists, including Makotch-san, Yuri-san, Tomika-san Haruki-san and Kawai-san. It made me really glad to see the soundtrack evolve as a compendium of these varied musical talents.

In discussing the game with the production team, the art designer mentioned something interesting. His feeling was that game soundtracks often sound like merely a collection of music data, rather than a finished product, due to most tracks fading out into silence at the end. I must say, I see eye to eye with this observation. Since that time, whenever I contribute to game soundtracks I try to establish a clearly demarcated ending for each track rather than a gradual fade-out. While it takes some time to add endings for all these songs, if it in any way adds an extra element for the listener to enjoy, I feel it is worth the extra effort

It should be mentioned that we received a ton of requests from fans to release the soundtrack for this game. It made me very happy, because without the constant barrage of emails, the soundtrack album for Yakuza 1 & 2 probably would never have happened. With that in mind, it would not be a stretch for me to consider this the most significant soundtrack of my career in music thus far.

In what capacity has Noisycroak Studio as a whole been participating in the music for the Yakuza series?

Hideki Sakamoto: The sound of the Yakuza series was determined by Shoji-san in the original game. For our part, we were responsible for reinforcing this aesthetic. For instance, we were responsible for several of the side quests and the hostess club sections. The staff of Noisycroak was responsible for assisting me with the sound effects and voice editing found during the cinematic cutsccenes. Everyone who worked on the game was very familiar with the original, so they were deeply absorbed in conducting this work up until the point where the game was finally completed.

Can you tell us a little about the way music is used during the game's cinematic cutscenes?

Hideki Sakamoto: The process of creating music found during these full-motion videos was entirely different from the making of the in-game themes. The first step involved synchronizing the movie file with my music sequencer, then playing along on the piano while watching. I went ahead and recorded these sounds without concerning myself too much with maintaining the regularity of the tempo. Using this recording as a framework, I then added other instruments.

Using this method, I varied the characteristics of the composition to complement the behaviors and movements of the characters on-screen. For scnes with an irregular pace to them, I began by determining the rhytm and then varied the beat according to the development of the scene, adding bass, guitar and synthesizer tracks where needed.

Sound effects were another important factor. You can bring out important elements of any scene using either music or sound effects. For example, there is a fire in the introductory scene, which required adding sounds outside of what was viewed onscreen, such as the blare of ambulance and fire truck sirens. Thinking about sound effects in this way, it requires an abundance of information to give the scene a semblance of reality.

The singer Eri Kawai contributed two incredible songs in English for the series. Sadly, she is no longer with us. What was your experience working with her on the Yakuza games and what are your feelings about her contribution to this series?

Hidenori Shoji: When I heard the news, I could not hold back my emotions. It was just too unfortunate. She was at once a vocalist and an esteemed songwriter, and I take pride in the thought that I had the honor of working with her.

In the Yakuza series, the story take place just before Christmas. The storyline begins with violence and concludes peacefully, which we wanted to make clear by including a hymn at the end. We spent a lot of time perfecting the tone of this song so that while there are a number of tumultuous events that take place during the story, players can clear their minds of this strife upon the game's conclusion. The appearance of Eri Kawai's performance was essential to this aspect of the game.

In my experience working with her, I was left with the impression that she was an exceedingly gentle, sensitive person. The work went very smoothly, due to her lending her expertise on various technical aspects of the recording process. I hoped to have the chance to work with her again, which is no longer a possibility. It was with great sadness that I realized that recording the staff roll theme for the game would mark the last time we would work together, but the quality of work she brough to the series remains something for me to strive toward accomplishing in my own creative process.

This article is available in Japanese on Medium. 龍が如く、龍が如く2 ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK is streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.