Osamu Kubota Interview: From Bemani Remixes to Korean MMORPGs (September 2010)
Osamu Kubota is a Japanese composer with a multifaceted career. The artist has made a major impact on the game music scene in Japan through Bemani productions and Korea through several MMORPGs. In addition, he has participated in a range of television and movie soundtracks, original albums, and band projects in recent years.
In this interview, Osamu Kubota discusses his life, career, and perspectives in some detail. He initially reflects how he made his mark in music games with his daring contributions to the beatmania series and several original albums. He subsequently discusses his various film projects before discussing his diverse contributions to two major MMORPGs, NED Online and Granado Espada. He finally reveals some upcoming projects, including his desire to continue doing live events and studio recordings with his new band.
Interview Subject: Osamu Kubota
Interviewer: Don Kotowski
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Don Kotowski
Don: Thank you very much for your time today Osamu Kubota. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers and describe your musical background and influences?
Osamu Kubota: Hello! It's nice to speak here.
Well, as most listeners would imagine, my roots are in classical music. However, I didn't graduate from a conservatoire, but studied linguistics in University of Tokyo before making a major debut in 1989 as a band keyboardist. Languages and music have something in common, and I daresay my studies in both fields still go on today. Progress in either improves the other, like a pair of wheels.
I began my piano lessons at the age of four, and my mother remembers I liked reading scores of Tchaikovski and Rachmaninov during my childhood — so posh, no? I fell in love with a kind of schizophrenic (sorry!) dynamism from Russian music, besides the charms and delicacy of French harmonization found in scores of Fauré, Ravel, etc., which led me later to live in Paris for several years.
During my high school year — say, early '80s in Japan — band music was banned by conservative teachers and parents, which raised my resistance spirit. A decade after, I was fighting against anti-classical tendency which dominated in Japanese musical industry. It was no earlier than this century that I could finally put forward my style — but today I think I was always enjoying obstacles. To me, music is based on liaison to the real world, as Mr. Sting says, so I've never behaved in a overblown attitude, like "Listen, this is MY music!".
Don: Many people recognize your name due to your involvement with Konami's beatmania series. Could you please elaborate on your overall goals for the music you create for these games and how you get them to fit within the scope of the game itself? In addition, please discuss some of your favorite compositions from the series.
Osamu Kubota: I've been working for beatmania for more than a decade, and actually have done quite a few experiments on the series; my constant focus is to let the players feel as if they were playing real instruments. For example, in "Avant-guerre", which is my latest and most favorite beatmania tune, I tried to turn the machine into a piano that could sound distinctively, even in the noisy arcade without any rhythm tracks — a tough work, sonically.
When I composed my first tune "Presto" back in 1999, most arcade game music I knew was step-sequenced with the buttons assigned to the drum samples, hits, loops, or chopped vocal ricks. To contrast to that, by suggestion of my friend djTAKA, I introduced melodious piano work in a jazz fusion style with multi-velocity Steinway samples spanned throughout. At that time, fusion music was regarded somewhat old-fashioned against electronica in Japan and I'd therefore been a bit nervous prior to the release. This was completely dispelled as I saw teenagers had fun actually performing "Presto" in the arcade. "Everybody's trying to be you!", TAKA shouted, and then I gained confidence in order to continue composing for beatmania.
Don: On a related note, you contributed an arrangement on djTAKA's album milestone. Since I haven't heard the original, could you please describe it and elaborate on the direction of your arrangement of it featured on the album?
Osamu Kubota: Honestly, I didn't understand the original at a first listening — it was so profound, as is the title meaning "the tree of sorrow". The direction from the client was to produce "big-scaled, storytelling jazz"; however, the original sounded so spontaneous and avant-garde to me, which is truly the jazz spirit I love. After listening for a hundred times, I cut the original elements into fragments and reconstructed another story in my way. The hint lied in ECM Records, where Bill Evans integrated Chopin and jazz with orchestration by Claus Ogerman.
Don: You've mentioned before that you are a fan of live instrumentation. You were recently the arranger, orchestrator, and conductor for the album Zektbach: The Epic of Zektbach -Ristaccia-. Could you please elaborate on your approach to arranging the original music and your overall aim with your orchestration? What were some of your favorite memories of this project?
Osamu Kubota: Zektbach was a fun. I've been a big fan of Tomosuke Funaki (Zektbach) for some time and, when I first saw him at a Konami party, we promised to do something together. One year later, I got a phonecall from him saying "It's time to move!", then this project was launched. There were no difficulties after that. Russian classics, upon which the root of our music dwells, was featured; orchestra and my piano part were recorded at Soviet-built CCTV studio in Beijing and sounded exactly as we had dreamt.
We discussed, argued, and mixed the tracks together, and later on I was so surprised to learn that Tomosuke was born in the same city in Japan as me — surely that's the reason we shared something on the root level! But the reason why we both liked irregular beats is still unclear... just kidding!
Don: Before moving onto what you are perhaps most famous for, you've also mentioned that much of your work is within the film and television industry. Could you please describe the challenges that come with composing for such types of media and how it differs from your approach to composing for video games?
Osamu Kubota: The biggest difference is "Who dominates the stories?". In films and television dramas, it's a director who sets up all the cues and hooks, and once the whole story is packaged in the final master, it can't be altered. I've become accustomed to that way, since it resembles the approach of score-based classical music, where composers can characterize each dynamic layer cue to cue according to the timeline — sad part, comical part, romantic part, thrilling part, etc..
In games, by contrast, there are no cues given and players lead the story, so composers have two options. One is to eliminate dynamics and remain safely in background sequences, so as not to drop out of the player's mind. The other is to introduce much more impact and overwhelm the player's mind. The former apparently justified the reason why electronic instruments and loops were continuously featured in older games, while the more challenging latter is becoming mainstream in modern game soundtracks. Thus orchestra is employed; players don't care about the possible gaps or awkwardness created by a conflict of timelines between pre-recorded music and an ongoing battle, only whether the music sounds huge like it comes from outer space!
This difference tortured me when I first scored for the games, yet enchants me nowadays — yes, it's even fun. Composers must plug away, anyhow, though.
Don: In other interviews, you've mentioned that you were composing music for an animation called switch. Could you please describe the overall musical direction for this title and the influences that brought about this decision? In addition, please discuss any other scores in this field that you were particularly fond of?
Osamu Kubota: Thankfully, I heard the the author of switch was a fan of my music and that enabled kickoff. The story has a bit of a suspenseful touch and the author, not the director, wanted romantic, sad European aestheticism. With surprisingly few directions from the production side, I was so comfortable, yet I felt a bit like a solitaire. Generally, Japanese directors are not particularly talkative, but it doesn't mean they are generous — switch was an exception.
I usually welcome talkative, loquacious directors. When I scored for a Chinese film A Letter from an Unknown Woman, I was at a hotel in Beijing for months — almost like I was under house arrest — discussing with the director and main actress Xu JingLei every day and night, which I enjoyed very much. Later the film won a "Silver Shell" prize at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain, which proved Xu did the right thing.
I was a bit upset then to find so many tracks were turned down and unused in the final edition, but c'est la vie! — the film belongs to the director. That was my favorite cinematic score in recent years, when it comes to my own ones. I would love the unused tracks to be released in the market somehow.
Don: Korean MMORPGs are perhaps where you are most famous. Although Granado Espada is arguably your most famous work, I'd like to discuss a Korean MMORPG you mentioned in a previous interview. Could you please elaborate on the musical styles and influences for the game NED Online? Was this a solo work and, if so, what were the challenges for composing such a large number of pieces?
Osamu Kubota: NED Online is undoubtedly the toughest work I've even done. I composed approximately 100 tracks for the game in one year. NED's musical director Ms. Ji-yoon Lim — a very talented composer who won a Midem Game Music Award and scored for a Cannes-awarded Korean film Old Boy — was a good friend of mine as well. Thanks to her proper directions, I didn't feel it hard whatsoever. According to Lim, my musical vocabulary was rich enough to cover hundreds of pieces, but the only hardship was the mixing... the track and variation numbers were so huge that we got so confused in the mixing/mastering process. The process was even more complecated since we worked in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul.
It's a little bit of pity that NED's release seems to have been delayed and even the game's main concept has been changed after I finished the whole mastering. I hope its soundtrack will be released either on CD or online, which should eventually reward my one year.
Don: Now, the moment you've probably been expecting. Granado Espada is, without a doubt, some of my favorite music composed by you. Could you please give ample detail about what it was like working on such a large team, consisting of SoundTEMP, S.F.A., and Kim Junsung? How do you feel the established musical styles of these artists complemented your music style?
Osamu Kubota: Yes, this is a large team... Although I love the music by all other artists, I have believed that influences between artists should be carefully controlled, since the developer seems to prefer pure and distinctive colors from each musician. Recently S.F.A. and I became intimate friends and found we have got some similar things, i.e. ethnic flavor, solo violin phrases, and preferred chord progressions; even if nobody notices it, we are sure we do. So we have to manage to avoid bumps.
Don: Regarding your own pieces for Granado Espada, what was your overall aim in the direction of your music? I've noticed you included a lot of musical styles, such as jazz, classically-oriented music, some synth-based pieces, and some impressive vocal tracks. Could you please discuss any personal favorites from the Granado Espada series that you may have, including expansions?
Osamu Kubota: You know, Granado Espada is based on a story of expanding frontiers, which naturally brings adventurous encounters with new worlds. That requires my maximum musical skills that I have acquired through years of travelling abroad. In the first half of a year in the production, I was wriggling in and out just to find solutions; the director Kim Hakkyu looked like a perfectionist at that time to me, so I travelled many times between Tokyo and Seoul in order to communicate with the developing team. Sufficient time was provided, fortunately, so I could successfully establish my brand-new musical styles, including vocal orchestration with a phonetically invented language.
My own favorites are the very first song I composed, "Aria de Coimbra", a basic representation of the emotional departure of the game, and the latest track "Fame or Die", also very much characteristic of my music. Both of these two songs feature classical orchestration and soprano vocal, which represents how Granado Espada's story begins with European immigrants.
Don: You recently had a Granado Espada Live Event in Japan. Could you please tell the readers what it entailed and is there anything to look forward to regarding your music for the game in the future?
Osamu Kubota: Yes, the performance demonstrated that classical music could obviously 'rock'. Actually, most of my tunes in Granado Espada are based on orchestration, which is supposed to be hard to reproduce 'live'. So I decided not to reproduce them, but rather reform them, employing real bass and drums as well as string quartet, French horn, and a beautiful-looking soprano singer. The half-outdoors stage was sizzling in the heat of a summer day, with temperatures almost reaching 100°F — so tough, so toxic.
Thanks to the listeners, we have developed good reputations and I will continue this band project alongside my solitary composition works. Hopefully the band will play for some other game soundtracks too in the near future. Check out to see what's going to happen with my new band
Don: The world of game music is a diverse and colorful beast. Where do you feel you fit into the overall production of game music and, if there was anything you could change about the overall direction of game music in the industry, what would it be?
Osamu Kubota: Well, although I don't think I am a good game player — given I'm always thinking of music when I play — I am pretty much curious about how game music is moving toward. Until this day, I repeatedly said game music was simply 'comfortable' as it allowed me musical freedom; indeed, game directors let a composer compose freely if his name is known.
Today I feel ashamed of that, however. No more BGMs! The more interactive the games are developed to be, the more attachment I will feel. My answer, in order to maximize the release of hormones in your body, is information content; my task is such a large-scaled canvas, each tiny square-inch of which is written with perfect details and could even be rewritten on demand. It may take up my whole life, though...
Don: Thank you once again for your time Osamu Kubota-san. Can you reveal any details about current or upcoming projects on which you are working? Lastly, would you like to leave a message for your fans and for our readers who were just introduced to you today through this interview?
Osamu Kubota: I've done a lot of things whose NDAs zip my mouth thus far, unfortunately. What I can say now is Granado Espada updates will be released that includes my newer tracks. In addition, my piano scorebook Finger Strokes Volume II is going to be published pretty soon; it includes "Avant-guerre" and "Scherzo" from beatmania, "die Fuge" from Granado Espada, and "Consolation" from my solo album Snow in Saigon. Hopefully an international purchase shall be possible via PayPal. Another noticeable thing is my new band — I'll put more focus again on live performances with them, as I mentioned.
Thank you for the interview this time. I am so happy to be interviewed in English, through which my thoughts can spread all over the world immediately. Last but not least, I would like to thank Don Kotowski for providing me with such great opportunities. Be happy!