Hitoshi Sakimoto Interview: A General Introduction (October 2010)
Hitoshi Sakimoto, without any doubt, belongs to the Eastern game music's hall of fame. He has created the music for such well-known titles as Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and the Valkyria Chronicles saga. Today, he runs his own company Basiscape, as well as the music label Basiscape Records. His unique style and versatile musicianship also make him one of the most recognisable and artistic artists in the industry.
When Valkyria Chronicles 2 premiered in Europe on September 3, we took the opportunity to contact the soundtrack's creator with great success. The ensuing interview introduces new listeners users to the overall scope of Sakimoto's artistic career, while touching on more current matters as well. Get ready to ride through the world of Sakimoto's music!
Interview Subject: Hitoshi Sakimoto
Interviewer: Kamil Rojek
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Eriko Muraji
Coordination: Tsubasa Yasuoka
Kamil: Your music is enjoyed by a variety of people — gamers and non-gamers alike. When you create game soundtracks, do you take this into account?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: When I am composing pieces for games or anime, I always aim to compose pieces that can be listened to and appreciated as "music" alone. The role that music plays in games and anime are very clear, and the objectives are actually quite simple. Of course, if we were to compose music solely intended for listening, it may end up ruining the scenes and atmosphere, but I do try to compose pieces as listening music as much as possible within the constraints.
Kamil: In 2006, you joined the honored ranks of main Final Fantasy composers. You scored the twelfth installment of the main Final Fantasy series, to be precise. Do you consider this opportunity a type of special award, for you as a composer?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Yes, I think that it is a great honor to be involved in a flagship series such as Final Fantasy.
Kamil: Before you worked on Final Fantasy XII, you produced the Final Fantasy Tactics Original Soundtrack. Despite having been composed more than 10 years ago, is utterly timeless. One of the biggest indications of the album's immortality is the fact that it's still being rearranged and performed in live concerts. Most recently, the music, created by Masaharu Iwata and yourself, was played live in 2009 by the Hoshirabe Orchestra. Both you and Iwata-san attended the show as invited special guests. Could you tell us a little bit more about this show and your impressions? Is there any hope that this concert will return this year?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Oh yes, the Hoshinoshirabe Orchestra performance held in Tokyo late last year. They have told me that they plan another in Osaka around March next year, and yes I will definitely be there.
One thing that I was pleasantly surprised about was that every single musician in the orchestra was a fan of the music from Final Fantasy Tactics. But most of all, it was very touching to find how much the people loved and appreciated our music. The atmosphere was so very warm and welcoming, whether I was sitting with the audience or standing on stage, it felt very comfortable. Iwata and I were saying it would be very nice to have a concert like that again, and so we are very excited to attend at Osaka next year.
Kamil: This wasn't the first concert you attended as an invited special guest. You also had the opportunity to listen to your own works live at the PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, Fantasy Comes Alive, and a number of Eminence Symphony Orchestra concerts (Passion, A Night in Fantasia 2007: Symphonic Games Edition, and Destiny: Reunion, for example). Do you eagerly participate in such events? If you were invited to a game music concert in Europe, would you attend?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: I definitely would like to attend as many as I can. I still haven't had any offers from Europe, and if there is to be one, I would be more than glad to attend.
Kamil: Basiscape, the company you founded in 2002, is drawing more and more attention from game developers. This interest has led to a growing number of works-in-progress. What does the soundtrack composing process look like when it's a Basiscape team work? Who assigns work to composers, and who selects tracks for game implementation or album soundtracks?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: When we are working on a single project as a team, we firstly choose someone to be in charge of the whole sound, then choose the leaders for each section (Music, Sound Effects, Narration) and then we divide up the work.
With the example of the music section, the person in charge of music will come up with a theme, frame a plan, and then give orders to the composers. The leader will then decide the schedules with our production manager. We take the composed pieces to our clients, and if we get the good to go sign, we then orchestrate, record and mix the tracks.
Sometimes individual composers will be required to do all these processes by themselves, but most big projects are divided up amongst us. In the end, we produce the data for the consoles. If we are required retake any tracks, the particular composer in charge of that track will redo them until it is approved, so basically we do not select particular tracks.
One of the important keys for these team projects is to plan the concept of the music, and to determine how to realize it. So first and foremost, the person in charge of the music and the game director will discuss in depth, to determine what kind of sound to create.
Kamil: You're famous for your characteristic style, which has been achieved by using the same instrument samples for years and years. These snippets serve are your trademark; thanks to them, people instantly recognize your music. However, it is now popular for game music composers to emulate orchestral sound as much as possible — a large contrast to your work, which doesn't attempt such realism. If you were given the opportunity to record a new soundtrack with a full orchestra, would you do it? Or would you prefer to compose electronically, with your trademark samples?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Firstly, it really depends on the budget to be able to record the pieces with a live orchestra, but even when we do have a sufficient budget, not all will be live recorded instruments.
You may be surprised that, for a lot of the pieces I have composed, although they may sound like live orchestra performances, they are actually synthesizers. The usage of live orchestras to synthesizer simulated orchestras, should be determined according to the composer's strengths and weaknesses. If a piece made using synthesizers were to be performed in concerts, I will make a lot of changes.
To be honest, I am not really particular about whether it is a live recording or synthesized sounds — I just do what is best within the given circumstances. It may sound negative when I say "given circumstances" (such as time and budget constraints) but there are always good and bad sides to it, so what I mean is to concentrate on the good sides and bring out the positives. In order to do that, we need to list up our priorities, and in my point of view, trying to simulate live performances using synthesizers are towards the bottom of the list. At the end of the day, the most important thing for a creator is what he can express in his creation, and I think that technique and circumstances are only methods to achieve that goal.
Kamil: You've never released any albums with your own rearranged music. Actually, the only piece of your own music that you have rearranged is "Sky Ray," included on the Stella Deus BGM ReArrange Album. Is it your policy to solely concentrate on original scores? Or do your plans include re-arranged albums as well?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Yes, I really haven't rearranged my own pieces. I think there are two ways in which music can be arranged — one is to build on the original, and the other is to completely change it. I think the latter is fine as long as the original composer is happy with it. If I were to arrange my own pieces, I don't know how I will go about it until it is actually in front of me. (laughs) But as we have started our own record company at the end of last year, and we do plan to release rearranged albums.
Kamil: One of your recent projects involves the creation of militaristic music for SEGA's Valkyria Chronicles franchise. The action of those games take place in fictional Europe during the war, and their soundtracks seem inspired by Western-style music. What was your main inspiration when composing these soundtracks? Did the European history of World War II factor into your creative process?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: You may be surprised, but it is more based on Nordic mythology rather than military. From my point of view, there is a Nordic mythology core, and the militaristic aspects are just added as flavoring.
Kamil: Your commitment to your music takes you many places. You even traveled overseas to record the Valkyria Chronicles 2 theme with the Czech Film Orchestra. How was the experience of working with European orchestra musicians? Is there any reason why you decided to hire a European orchestra instead of a Japanese one?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: I have worked with Eminence for most of the overseas recordings, but I have also worked with Czech Film Orchestra twice before. It came about when I just happened to know a friend who introduced me to work with the orchestra. I always thought the Japanese string ensembles were very skilled, but the string players in the CFO were outstanding, being very delicate, yet very powerful as well.
Kamil: Beyond these large ensembles, have collaborated with many great artists, musicians and vocalists. Who have you enjoyed working with the most and for what reasons?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Enjoyed working with most? That's a hard question (laughs). Of course, all the musicians I have worked with are all wonderful people, and I feel that I have learned a lot from them and touched by them. When we are recording, I feel like I'm the audience, and I receive a lot of positive energy. So it is hard to compare.
Recently I had the chance to record a piece with vocalist Yumi Matsuzawa [Editor's Note: For the opening theme of The Season of L Part 2: Invisible Memories]. She was full of expression and sang the songs with a lot of presence.
Kamil: In addition to video games, you have also worked on Romeo x Juliet and The Tower of Druaga, two major anime soundtracks. How would you describe the process of scoring anime, as composed to games? Have you ever considered composing for other types of media, like movies or television dramas?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: If I do get an offer to do some movies and television dramas, I would want to give it a try. When composing for anime, I basically compose in the same way I do with game music, but I think anime music needs to be more blended into the background.
The production procedures are completely different to that of game music, as we first receive the track orders, then have one meeting, and after that we deliver all the compositions without any consultation. In other words, there are no retakes. Tracks which have no use are just left out.
Kamil: In interviews, people often ask you about your favorite creative projects. Let's invert this question: which of your works are you least satisfied with? If you had the chance to go back in time and change any of your prior soundtracks, which one would you improve?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Least satisfied? (laughs) I can't come up with a particular project, but it is really sad to see compositions that do not get released when projects get suspended or cancelled.
If I were to look back on my past works, it would be just endless if I want to start making any amendments, and I probably wouldn't be able to stop if I start doing that. So I don't want to fix any of my completed pieces. I think it would be better to create new pieces instead.
Kamil: Many gamers look back with nostalgia at the era of PlayStation games. This was also the golden period for Japanese RPG games, which were famous for their extensive playability and outstanding soundtracks. Working with Yasumi Matsuno-san, you created some of your most significant projects during this era, as well. Is there any hope that you two will reunite someday? We would love to see the release of another blockbuster hit like Vagrant Story or Final Fantasy Tactics!
Hitoshi Sakimoto: It is a great pleasure to hear that. I am not able to speak about anything specific, but of course we would like to work together again, and I think that chance will come.
Kamil: Beyond such a collaboration, which projects are you currently working on?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: The anime Iron Vendetta (aka Koutetsu no Vendetta) is the only project I am currently working on that has already been officially announced. I am not able to talk about the other projects just yet, I'm afraid [Editor's Note: Today we know that Valkyria Chronicles 3 and Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune were among the projects that Sakimoto couldn't tell us about].
Kamil: Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans around the world?
Hitoshi Sakimoto: Thank you for reading this interview. It is such a pleasure to have the chance to interact with everyone like this. We will continue with our music making. We will be delighted if you would all listen to our music whenever you come across our names. Thank you very much!!!
Many thanks to Tsubasa Saito for organising this interview and Eriko Muraji for translating it. Look for interviews with other Basiscape artists to be published in the future.