Shoichiro Sakamoto Interview: Tributes to Touhou and Retro Game Music (February 2011)
Shoichiro Sakamoto leads a double life. For his day job, he composes a range of music for Shinji Hosoe's music production company SuperSweep. Between these roles, he produces arranged and original albums for his independent label Sound Sepher alongside numerous doujin artists.
In this interview, Shoichiro Sakamoto discusses his life as both a professional and independent artist. He reflects on a range of his game scores, spanning the shooter Impetuth to the visual novel 11eye to a string of anime adaptations. The 28-year-old also discusses his inspirations for his Touhou tributes and Megalomachia battle themes, including his love for the Touhou universe and retro game music.
Interview Subject: Shoichiro Sakamoto
Interviewer: Don Kotowski
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localization: Rebecca Capowski
Coordination: Don Kotowski, Shinji Hosoe
Don: First of all, thank you very much for speaking with us today, Shoichiro Sakamoto-san. For those unfamiliar with your music, would you be so kind as to explain your musical background? Why did you decide to become a video game music composer?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: Hello, Shoichiro Sakamoto here. Thank you for the opportunity for this interview.
To begin with, I've been a gamer since I was a child. I was particularly fond of the music in Falcom and Square's titles, and I remember singing along while playing when I was a child.
I decided I wanted to be in game development when I was in middle school, and so I studied programming, scenario writing, graphical design, etc., on my own. I worked on my own game for three years. That was my introduction to the field. Since I took particularly well to composition, I decided that it was really what I wanted to do for a living, and so I enrolled in a specialist music school after high school.
Afterward, while I did some work for free on a few games, I also became involved with composing for doujin games, and I was exposed to many different types of music. In 2005, I joined SuperSweep Inc., where I am today.
Don: Your music appears to be influenced by a range of classic game music as well as various popular and classical artists. Could you elaborate on which influences are particularly important to you?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: I'd definitely point to Falcom's and Square's soundtracks as my musical roots. I've listened to them since I was a child, and I don't think they'll every fade from my mind — I can sing them right on the spot even today.
Beyond game music, I love J. S. Bach's classical music; Stratovarius, Impellitteri, and Liquid Tension Experiment's metal; Rob Dougan's film scores; and BT in the techno genre. As for Japanese artists, I've been influenced by AS666, world's end girlfriend, and Dir en Grey. I like a lot of indie artists and visual kei, too — I listen to a lot of it. I guess Malice Mizer was my gateway to the genre.
Don: I was first introduced to your music through the soundtrack release of Impetuth. Could you please describe your approach to this unique shmup developed by O-Games and what it was like to work with Shinji Hosoe on the score? Could you reflect on any favorite pieces you have on this soundtrack?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: Thanks, I'm happy to hear it! For this project, I was asked to "imagine the world of Impetuth and go wild in bringing that image to life through music," and I really was allowed to compose the music to my liking. The game's graphics and gameplay bring back so many memories from me, so I tried for a sound that could induce nostalgia, yet was still new.
I'm particularly fond of "Assault from the Evil World." I made it for the boss battle, thinking "this is my only shot!". After someone from the staff of O-Games listened to it, they gave me a phone call expressing their delight, which really hit home. We then talked over the phone about the music we both liked. Meeting people like this is one of the more enjoyable parts of composing for games.
Don: You were also in charge of the music for the O-Games developed game, Undercover Live. Could you please describe the overall style for this music and your inspiration for it? Do you have any favorite pieces of music from this soundtrack?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: Yes, I handled all the tracks for Undercover Live. Since the game is a detective story, I went for a "stylish," "hard-boiled" sound. An album was never released, so it never did much for my reputation, but I liked the title theme and battle themes on the album.
The title theme is the first thing the player hears when they fire up the game, so I had to put my all into it; I wanted to ensure that listeners get that stylish, hard-boiled sound from the very first moment they hear the music. I also think the battle themes, which featured 16-beat rhythms, did a good job of conveying an appropriately oppressive, brutal sound.
Don: Some could argue that your most popular soundtracks are for the 11eyes series. Could you describe your approach to the various soundtracks you've composed for this property? Did you find scoring for a visual novel more difficult than scoring for shooters?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: For 11eyes, I really emphasized the gothic themes in the game. I've always liked the gothic style, and the moment I laid eyes on the world of Red Night around which the game revolves, the sound just crystallized in my mind.
After that, the score for 11eyes never gave me a bit of trouble. I just put the image that came to me into music. In any case, looking back at it now, I think the project was simply a really good match for me.
As the name implies, visual novels don't have many opportunities to express the story through on-screen action compared to other genres, so I feel that much more of the story can be told through music. For that reason, composers have a great deal more freedom; I wouldn't say the job is more difficult, so much as it poses a lot of challenges!
Don: According to your website, you've also done a lot of work on games related to various animes, including Naruto and Death Note. Could you please describe how you approach the music to these types of games and how you make each of these series sound different from one another?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: The thing I worry about the most when composing for anime-based games is "how do I bring this world to life in my own way, through my own sound?", since the franchise already has established music through the anime. I try to create a sound that brings out the best in the work through a new perspective.
Also, the sound naturally changes from series to series, because each has a different story, setting, and characters, so I have to compose thinking, "we're using these characters this time, so I'll use this kind of sound", or "OK, it's this kind of story, so we need this kind of sound."
Don: Beyond official and independent game projects, you have made a name for yourself in various doujin circles under the alias Jun.A. What inspired you to become a doujin artist and how do you think you have grown as a doujin artist over the years?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: I do like being able to pick and choose my projects, as the world of doujin music is purely a labor of love for everyone. I enjoy how, unlike the game world, you can handle every detail yourself, from the sound production to the little stuff like ordering a batch of CDs from the publisher and designing the cover art.
Also, you can also interact with the fans directly and hear their thoughts at events like Comiket. Thinking back on the smiling faces of fans is a great motivation while composing.
One way in which I've grown as an artist is by becoming more versatile. I can now compose from a wider variety of perspectives than I could before and can incorporate viewpoints I wouldn't normally have been exposed through composing alone.
Don: Your biggest accomplishment in the doujin arena has to be the creation of your own doujin record label, Sound Sepher. What was the impetus for creating your own record label? Do you think it has made you more well-known name for those who follow various doujin circles?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: I guess the driving forces behind the decision were "I want to do it all myself" and "I want to see the fans face-to-face". I started out making games on my own, after all, so the desire to take part in a wide variety of experiences — to feel more and learn more — is the impetus behind everything I do.
The Touhou Gensou Shiten series (Banquet, Canon, Deary, Excess, Fable), in particular, comes principally from the love that comes from my enjoyment of Touhou. I score these albums in the way I would have if I were the composer of the series. The series is also inspired by my love for the other artists and wondering what they would each do with a particular piece.
Sound Sepher is really a labor of love for me, so I put a lot of love into each of these albums. Of course, in creating my own label, I can share the music that I like and broadcast some of it to the public. I therefore hope everyone becomes familiar with the project.
Don: In the world of doujin artists, the Touhou series has created an extremely popular foundation for doujin artists to release their work. Could you please give your opinion on the Touhou craze and on why you think that the music of Touhou is so popular among doujin circles?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: A rather difficult question! Touhou fanatics are very aggressive in seeking out the albums they want, loading up on 100 albums or more at an event and whatnot. I think it's really amazing.
One thing that is really impressive about Touhou is how it takes the best things about retro game music and integrates them into the Touhou style.
Could the retro game music that holds so many memories for me resonate with Touhou fans in the doujin circles, making them think "I need to make that my own!!"? Or is Touhou on its way to becoming something akin to a common creative language, and we're just using that language to express ourselves? Either way, I think it's interesting.
Don: If you were given the opportunity to create a doujin album that wasn't related to the Touhou series, would there be any games or series that you'd like to release a doujin arrangement album for?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: Moving beyond Touhou, of course I would like to arrange Falcom music, but that would seem to pose a bit of a problem. I think it's great that Touhou gives its official blessing to arrangements.
Don: In addition to Touhou arranged albums, you have produced a two original albums inspired by battle themes, Megalomachia and Megalomachia 2. Could you elaborate on the concept of these albums and what it is like to collaborate with various artists?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: In terms of the Megalomachia series, the music is partly inspired by my love for the battle music of various games. I aim to explore how I'd compose my own battle theme in that vein. It's also inspired by my love for the other artists whose battle music I want to hear.
It's very stimulating to be able to create an album, such as for the Megalomachia series, with so many other artists. For example, if I present a battle theme to an artist, I could get back an interpretation of that theme that would be completely different from the image in my own mind. It's such a refreshing surprise to experience — a taste of another world, so to speak. It's a really wonderful experience.
Don: Thank you very much again for your time today Shoichiro Sakamoto-san. What does the future hold for Shoichiro Sakamoto and the Sound Sepher label? Is there anything you would like to say to your fans around the world?
Shoichiro Sakamoto: Yes, thank you very much! I don't yet know when I'll get my wish, but I'd like to produce a game I myself designed through Sound Sepher. I'd handle the music, of course. It's been a childhood dream of mine, and I'd like to see it come true in the near future.
As for the short-term, I hope to continue improving and making high-quality music that everyone enjoys, so please keep watching for my new work!! Thank you very much again.
Many thanks to Shinji Hosoe and Don Kotowski for organising this interview. In addition, thank you to Rebecca Capowski for her translations.