Yuu Miyake Interview: Katamari Sound Director Goes Freelance (December 2012)
Yuu Miyake is a game music pioneer best known for being the sound director and lead composer for the Katamari Damacy series. Last year, he left Namco Bandai Games to embark on a career as a freelance composer. Since doing so, he has embarked on a range of new projects and collaborations, between continuing to work on the Katamari and Ridge Racer franchises.
In this interview, Yuu Miyake takes the opportunity both to recollect his works at Namco Bandai Games and give an outlook for the future. He reflects on how he was raised on Japanese goods, what inspired the vocal score for Katamari Damacy, and how working on the Tekken and Ridge Racer franchises suited him. The end result provides a fascinating into Yuu Miyake the musician and Yuu Miyake the individual.
Interview Subject: Yuu Miyake
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Ben Schweitzer
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening, Hiroaki Yura
Chris: Yuu Miyake, we greatly appreciate you taking the time to talk to us, as you embark on a freelance career. First of all, could you tell us about your background? What experiences first made you passionate about video games and their music?
Yuu Miyake: I am grateful for the chance to speak here as my freelance career begins. Background is a pretty general term, so bear with me for a bit. My mother loved cultural activities, so the house I was born into had an Electone with rhythm machine and a four channel home stereo. Under these influences, by the time I could stand, I would dance to Aretha Franklin or the classical music used in movies. (It had recently become popular to feature pieces of classical music throughout a film, a trend that continues to this day.) Even as an infant, I could feel rhythm and harmony. I came to believe that music had a kind of power in it.
Around the age of 5, I attended my mother's Electone classes. It may have been because I had already heard the "living music" of the era, but I was never able to adapt to the practice pieces they gave to children, and because frankly speaking I was not the least bit interested in playing exactly what was written in a score, I remember quitting by my third month. On the other hand, thanks to those lessons, I was able to understand what a musical score is.
I was a sickly child, often in and out of the hospital. This happened so frequently that I gradually separated from home, and received my school lessons in the hospital instead. Under the weight of sickness, my activities were confined to specific spaces. It could be only on my bed, or in my room, or only part of my room. I was never allowed to leave the building, so I could only play in limited ways. So, all of the children (up through 9th grade) had tape deck by their pillows and listened to music to pass the time. By the time I was a child, the Japanese had taken the tape recorder, which had previously suffered from poor sound quality, and made it into something that one could listen to music on. The fact that Japan was, at the time, the world leader in tape recorders was certainly an influence in this.
When I was 7 and 8, I listened primarily to 70s anime themes and insert songs, disco, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. The 1979 album Solid State Survivor was a particular favorite, and I would listen to it every night, volume at the lowest possible setting so that the sound wouldn't reach the neighboring beds, until the tape wore out. That was my first experience with electronic music.
Chris: If I'm correct, you also encountered games for the first time during this period.
Yuu Miyake: Yes, I also experienced video games for the first time when I was hospitalised. As for video games, at that time Nintendo's Game and Watch series had become a phenomenon, and after once again entering the hospital, I received a portable game as a treat after an operation. (What I received wasn't a real Game and Watch but rather a bargain game called Bakudan Man.) This too I would play constantly, even after I tired of it, because that was the only thing I could do. When my condition improved and I left the hospital, I began to go to arcades. There had just been a surge in the popularity of "invader games" in Japan, and unlike portable games, arcade games had music.
Aiming towards a career in illustration, I had been drawing constantly, but an incident when I was in 6th grade changed all of that. Harumi Hosono-san of YMO released the world's first video game soundtrack, an album called Video Game Music. On top of that, the music was from the Namco games that I loved. That was the moment when, for me, those two elements, games and music, came together. The one I listened to until it wore out, though, was the musically superior The Return of Video Game Music. In the 80s, none of the music that I liked was popular, so I listened to and sought out video game music until I entered college. Following the release of Video Game Music, dedicated game music labels were set up in Japan, and the magazine Beep included recordings of game music in the form of sonosheets. When the music was not released, it could be recorded off of the game board itself.
I resolved to work on games, but lacking musical training, I got a PC8801-FA with sampling capability, drum machine, PSG, and FM synth installed. After that I managed to obtain sequencing software. From there, it wasn't long before I began to compose. Now that I think of it, it looks like I was raised on domestic goods, doesn't it?
Chris: Your major breakthrough was as sound director of Katamari Damacy. What inspired you to create a quirky and humorous vocal soundtrack for this game? Was it liberating to be given so much freedom by designer Keita Takahashi?
Yuu Miyake: Like I said, I had known and loved game music since its beginnings, and I had a natural sense of its good points, its bad points, what to do, and what not to do. And from my experiences in a band in college (I was young, so my punk spirit helped as well), I had come to dislike following the past as-is, and gained a passion for creating things that retained a method while breaking taboos, that expanded boundaries and felt different, but were still good. Around that time, an idea had come up in conversations between Keita Takahashi and myself that the absolute best way to undertake creative work is to deny the present. You could call it a dialectical approach... I think that was why we arrived at the concept of an all-vocal score.
Speaking of breaking taboos... more specifically, but without citing examples, there had been a number of games in the past that had featured songs in their BGM, but none of them had been particularly successful. That's why the average game director would be reluctant to use songs as background music during gameplay. Of course, on top of that, you could end up ignoring the player and adding distractions, or creating one of the many games that people might like if they tried but that don't sell, and you have to do a good deal of planning with the worldview of the lyrics and the selection of vocalists, so there are a lot of reasons.
But in the end, I was intrigued by the plan Keita Takahashi had written, and I wanted to get it out there and show it to people. So I chose the strongest of all instruments, the human voice. But why had Keita gone along with such a wild proposal, you might wonder. At that time he and I were in the extreme minority, holding the artistic position on various matters, and we saw eye to eye. Since then, we've worked on projects together, and I think we've developed a level of mutual trust.
The concept of freedom was imported into Japan during the Meiji era, and I think that we all know its effects.
In any event, regardless of it being the only element designed for popular appeal, the gameplay elements in particular were poorly understood by initial buyers, and sales limped along. At first the game was even declared a failure, and we didn't plan on releasing it overseas.
Chris: Among your responsibilities was the main theme for the Katamari franchise. How did you come up with the unforgettable melody and eccentric style of this theme? Did you ever expect it to become one of the most recognisable tunes in game music?
Yuu Miyake: As one who had been listening to video game music since its earliest days, when the Famicom gave us countless strong melodies that could withstand arrangement, the game music of the latter part of the 90s had not been very memorable. All of this unmemorable music might be fine for its purpose, but I wanted to have something like the iconic music of the past, where just hearing it brought back memories of the game, and made you want to play it again. In corporate language, I suppose you could call it a selling point.
Perhaps it's a return to the early days of video game music, a "mini-renaissance". Of course, I had also planned on using it in TV commercials and such, but I didn't set out thinking, "I'm going to compose a hit".
I worked out the melody while walking around, recording it along with the noise around me on my cell phone. And that was how I worked on this game. In my performing philosophy, the first time is often the charm. It's fascinating to record performers when they don't understand the material, and I often use the same method for recording shouts as well.
Chris: We'd love you to discuss your inspiration for a few other themes you created for the Katamari franchise as well, namely: "WANDA WANDA", "Cherry Blossom Color Season", "Beautiful Star", and "Lonely Rolling No More".
Yuu Miyake: I wanted to use all sorts of different genres, so that people would find something to like, whatever their taste. I thought about what kinds of situations and gags we could get by combining the game with various graphics, music, vocals, and lyrics. We came up with all sorts of ideas for music. We took the most interesting of them and produced them for the game.
"WANDA WANDA" is a homage to the music from the tokusatsu series Ultraman Seven, but using the most recent sampling techniques to cut together a house music groove. For the cut-up I used a self-produced reactor patch and cut in real time just like a DJ, changing the feel by playing with the filter parameters. And finally I added robot voice (text-to-speech). As we didn't want to use anything too trendy in the game, it was put somewhere where it wouldn't stand out.
"Cherry Blossom Color Season" is a mock-Japanese folk song couched in formal language, with horribly stereotypical lyrics about lost love, but sung by a children's chorus. The texture was taken from American home dramas of the 70s, particularly the string harmonies. The other music on the soundtrack was upbeat, and I wanted to show how something more peaceful could fit as well. There's also some quiet sobbing in the background.
"Beautiful Star" is a collaboration between Yoshihito Yano and myself. I came up with the atmosphere for the track, and Yano did the composition. I handled the majority of the arrangement, including the instrumentation. We recorded the pianica live because it wouldn't have worked any other way. Sometimes while creating something you hit upon an idea that is effective, but a pain to implement. If there's not enough time, you insist. The noise heard throughout was actual crowd noise Yano recorded in a park, and I processed afterwards. It was a bit of a musique concrete approach. You could also say I added elements of Japanese electronica.
As for "Lonely Rolling No More", there are a few points that stand out: The amazing timbre of the Fender Rhodes Mk. 1. That I was able to pull off a three-part structure in an in-game track. That I was able to get organic elements into a house track. The vocal harmonies. My practicing the piano solo, which was largely cut because I couldn't pull it off in real life (laughs). In particular, the male and female vocals in octave unison. Finally, that this track was the prototype for all of the sadder tracks in the series.
Chris: One of the most impressive features of Katamari Damacy's soundtrack was that it was entirely composed within Namco. Would you agree that the internal approach enhanced the creativity of the soundtrack? What characteristics of the company's composers made it such a success?
Yuu Miyake: It had always been one of my main goals to bring game scoring up to the level of film score, so that it would not be inferior to the rest of the music industry. But by taking my inspiration from elsewhere, I realize that I had gotten away from my goals to some extent.
On the other hand, having known the talents of the Namco sound team from before I started at the company, I knew what each member's strengths and weaknesses were. I figured that if I could draw out all of their potential, then my goal would be in sight.
It was also important to know whether they worked from a true passion for video games, whether they loved them or not, whether they could discuss them on equal terms, whether they could contribute ideas, whether their direction would extend into every inner detail. Every member of the Namco sound team could do all of these things. Just like with a band, it's important for everyone to give whatever they can for the group effort.
Chris: As sound director for the series, you have nevertheless organised the involvement of various vocalists and, in the case of Katamari Forever, remixers. How do you scout artists that would suit the game? Do you ever recruit artists you listen to in your spare time?
Yuu Miyake: If one keeps doing the same thing project after project, it won't remain fresh for long. The internal staff were feeling a bit tired out, so there was a need for renovation.
I had been working as an artist from time to time, so I had already had the chance to hear various other artists' shows and music. I also went through my over-sized sound library to see what I could actually use in a game. I thought about what had already been effective in others' music, what I could make more interesting use of, and whether I could use this or that differently.
I didn't really scout artists, per se, preferring to give them direct offers instead. I would meet with them, explain the plan for the game, and see if they agreed to do it. Of course, there were also a fair number of rejections among those I asked.
Chris: Beyond the Katamari series, it seems no coincidence that you were involved in the Tekken series' most creative soundtracks. How did you adapt your music to fit the hard urbanised environment of this series? While working on Tekken 3 and Tekken Tag Tournament, did you realize you were pushing boundaries in the games industry?
Yuu Miyake: Tekken features the type of music I considered my real work, my specialty. It is my line of work, so to speak. But my inclination to add my own artistic flavor was strong, and I can't deny that I felt the development was somewhat rushed. I feel that the result was more popular overseas than in Japan. On the other hand, since I've been approached for every Katamari game, I've turned a bit towards pop. To get people to play something a long time, it helps to follow current trends a bit.
As far as pushing the boundaries of game music, I make that a personal goal with every project I take on. I want to surpass what I've done in the past, you could say. If I didn't, I would never be able to work wholeheartedly.
Chris: Your guest contributions to the Ridge Racer series (e.g. "HydroPrism", "LOLO 1010", "Pulse Phaze", "Electro Madness") have also made a tremendous impact. Would you agree that these tracks best reflect your unique approach to electronic music? Did you compose such tracks freely or did you carefully consider their placement within the game?
Yuu Miyake: This is also my line of work, the line I entered Namco to take on, in fact. I had wanted to try my hand at DJing and putting on shows of the dance music from Europe, Chicago, and Detroit that I had heard from its inception this music that Japan didn't have. So I am aware that I made some poor tracks too. Using automated hardware (what you might call a machine) and automatic software, I was able to extend tradition and bring in some original elements as well. In that way, I worked freely, but with a measure of caution.
Looking back, I now think that I was able to make use of my experience as an electronica click house artist. I had been collecting things I thought I could use from locations around the world.
Chris: Keita Takahashi's other experimental project Noby Noby Boy tended to split consumers. What led you to create a soundtrack almost entirely composed of solo performances? Were you satisfied with how it supported the game's world?
Yuu Miyake: The gaming world often undergoes radical shifts, so I think that it might be okay to talk about this ancient history now. It was an extremely difficult project.
First, I started with the sound effects. The plans Keita gave me didn't have any explanations on them. It was unclear as to how far his ideas could actually be implemented. As for my end of the planning, I didn't understand what kind of game it was going to be, so, in the end, right up until the mastering, I felt that the majority of Keita's ideas had been left unrealized. Because of those kinds of reasons, I had to make large-scale corrections part-way through production. At first, we had planned on having the music composed by the in-house team that had worked on Katamari, but owing to repeated changes in schedule, the timing didn't work out and the idea was scrapped.
The biggest part of the sound design plan was that we wanted to avoid having artificial background music that didn't actually exist in the game's world. You could say we were going for a feeling of immersion. We thought that the characters would have and play instruments, and that would form the score. So in that way, you could say that we had planned on an ambient music approach from the beginning. In the game as released, there are "speaker characters", and the music comes from them. We made it as far as being able to play with the speakers.
These were elements that couldn't be used in the Katamari series this use of music from the game world and the ability to control and change the background music. Incidentally, these methods gave me an insight into Hirokazu Tanaka-san's score for Balloon Fight.
Chris: You also worked on the iPhone version of Noby Noby Boy. Were many adjustments and additions needed for this version?
Yuu Miyake: We fixed it from the ground up, making the sound effects more creative and taking a design-based approach. It certainly has the "Noby sound", something like an instrument, like a theremin or a synthesizer. But instead of adjusting parameters by turning knobs, you play the game and change the sound that way, which adds a playful element. From a hardware perspective, there were limitations, but that inspired me to work even harder. I also had to plan for the times when the player didn't play right by introducing wrongheaded music, so sometimes it would be a siren, sometimes a bass, sometimes it would form a melody (and sometimes it wouldn't). You could think of it as an easier to understand synthesizer program.
But if the player doesn't think of it in terms of instruments or performances, thinking "I just want to make nice sounds", I wanted it to work for them too. (This was Keita's idea, that it should be fun just to play around with.) As an app, background music plays a relatively minor role, but if you play with it on, I wanted it to suck players in. Apps also remind me of old games, with some cheap parts (cheap in a good way), so I featured some vintage game music.
Chris: At 4star Orchestra, you finally received the opportunity to bring the music of Katamari to the live stage. Could you share your memories of your set? What were the challenges of adapting the music for live performance?
Yuu Miyake: I was not directly involved with the performance or planning of the 4star Orchestra concert. Fortunately the orchestral arrangement (minus strings) was handled by an arranger whose work I love, so I was very pleased with the result.
In any event, it was a wonderful experience. Everyone clapped and laughed. It may have been because of Shigeru Matsuzaki-san's performance of "Katamari on the Swing", though, as he was used to live performance. His appearance was amazing. "OK, mister sunshine!", he said as he came on stage with his sun-tanned skin, nailing the timing precisely. He knew the on-stage banter worked out in advance for between numbers perfectly, and his delivery was spot-on. For the encore, "Ai no Katamari", he handled the spoken part without a hitch. "This world cannot stand wars, it doesn't need countries, it just wants everyone to come together." When he sang those words, he matched exactly what I had had in mind.
Actually, a number of us had wanted to hear a live performance of the Katamari music for a while now, but it's not quite mainstream, so the Katamari series gets short shrift when the staff move around. If the opportunity arises, I think it would be great to have a concert with a more personal approach.
Chris: Last year, you left Namco Bandai Games to become a freelancer. Why did you choose to become a freelancer at this point in your career? Are you excited about the prospects this will bring?
Yuu Miyake: It's not as if I had particular career plans. Last year was an unhappy one in a number of ways, and I decided to do 1.5 times as much work as I had been doing, to contribute as much as I could. Some former colleagues of mine might cry foul, but there is also a personal connection to the victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.
At that time, trying to think of a way to create what I wanted to create to create something that I could confidently recommend to consumers the option to quit presented itself. That wasn't the only reason, but it certainly led me in that direction.
Now that I have left, I have the exciting opportunity to collaborate with various companies without being attached to any of them, for example SEGA on Super Monkey Ball and Square Enix on Gunslinger Stratos. I almost wish I had gone freelance sooner.
And through my associations, I now have the chance to work in other genres, such as movies and anime, and I'm looking forward to it. The anime and game industries in Japan are closely connected, so it's exciting for me as someone who hasn't worked outside of one to think about what I could do in the other.
Chris: Despite this shift, you contributed to the Vita adaptations of Katamari Damacy and Ridge Racer. Could you tell us more about your work there? Does this reflect your intention to work closely with Namco Bandai Games in future?
Yuu Miyake: Of course. As the split was on good terms, I plan on continuing to work with Namco Bandai games, particularly on the Namco side of the brand.
Taku Inoue was the sound director for Katamari for the PlayStation Vita, and his sense and passion are close to my own. I contributed as a guest artist. My contribution was a loli-voice rap, something that fits the world of Katamari but hadn't been tried yet, and I was very pleased with the result.
Ridge Racer was handled by former Namco sound team members at SuperSweep and Detune, so it is a natural extension of the old games. I hadn't been active in the dance music scene as an artist for a while, so I started back up again around 2010, and the results of that preparation came out in Ridge Racer.
In addition, if I am called up for it, I would gladly work on any other Namco Bandai projects, as I have told members of the Namco sound team. I feel that the Namco sound that I first encountered as a child is a part of my culture that will never leave, so even after I left the company, I have nothing but gratitude for having had the chance to contribute to the projects that I did.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Yuu Miyake. Is there anything else you'd like to say about your work, past and present? In addition, would you like to leave any messages to fans around the world?
Yuu Miyake: I would like to thank all of the readers for their time. Thanks to this interview, I had a chance to take an objective look at my works from the Namco period to the Namco Bandai period. I can see that I shifted naturally from simply wanting to match games with good music to wanting to express in sound things that would not normally be found in games. This shift may be thanks in part to the influence of the creative spirit of Keita Takahashi and the Katamari team. From now on, I want to bring in these kinds of expression, without regard for label or format. I hope you look forward to it.
Also, I've formed a unit with my longtime collaborator on the Katamari Damacy series, Yoshihito Yano, called Mikanz, and we've been hard at work on a project since late last year. It won't have the Katamari name on it, but it feels like an extension of that style, and I'm sure that fans of our work will enjoy it. I hope you look forward to that as well. Until next time!