Manabu Namiki Interview: Redefining Shooting Soundtracks (May 2011)
Basiscape's Manabu Namiki has helped to redefine the sound of Japan's arcades with his electrifying scores to shooters by NMK, Jaleco, Raizing, and Cave. His soundtracks for titles such as Zed Blade, Battle Garegga, Ketsui, and Mushihimesama have received best-selling soundtrack releases and inspired multi-artist arranged albums. Outside these works, Namiki is known for scoring numerous anime-inspired fighting games and collaborative projects.
In light of his numerous achievements and increasing popularity, we took the opportunity to exclusively interview Manabu Namiki. In the transcript that follows, Namiki discusses his path from being a part-time graphics designer to becoming a sound producer at a leading studio, digging out some demos and noting various landmark scores along the way. He also discusses Basiscape's charity relief efforts for the Tohoku Earthquake and reveals he is currently working on something completely different for him: an RPG.
Interview Subject: Manabu Namiki
Interviewer: Chris Greening, Don Kotowski
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Ben Schweitzer, Eriko Muraji
Coordination: Tsubasa Yasuoka, Demetri Potiris, Hitoshi Sakimoto
Support: Kamil Rojek
Chris: Manabu Namiki-san, many thanks for allowing us to interview you today. As long-term followers of your work, it is truly an honour. First of all, could you tell us about your background and how you developed your combined love for games and music? Did you enjoy game music in your youth?
Manabu Namiki: You're welcome. Thank you for taking an interest in my work. It all began around 1980. In the toy shops and on the roofs of department stores, where we played as kids in Japan, these comical and catchy games were set up: Pac Man, Crazy Climber, Donkey Kong... all of these classics, one after another. Each of them brought a new wave of culture shock, and before I knew it, I became a video game addict. So I continued to go to arcades just as a matter of routine, and having spent my youth in this way, even now, being a member of society, I bring my family to play from time to time. I have loved video games and arcades for over thirty years now.
In regards to music, I never received any specialized instruction, and I never learned to play the piano or any other instruments. My first interest in sound was in the sound effects and background music for children's animation and video games. In 1984, the same month I entered middle school, Haruomi Hosono and Namco collaborated on the world's first video game soundtrack, Video Game Music, which I preordered at a record shop and bought the day it came out. I enjoyed it over and over, so many times, and that was the beginning.
During my middle school years, in addition to game music, I was an enthusiastic fan of hard rock and heavy metal, and went to see bands like White Snake and Metallica live when they came to Japan. I bought an MSX2, a personal computer, with money from a part time job. Programming PSG data in BASIC, I attempted to imitate the cool riffs of the bands I mentioned. That was my start as a self-taught composer.
Speaking of my enjoyment of game music when I was young, in 1989, I formed a video game music cover band with a bunch of friends for our last high school culture festival. With two guitars, three keyboards, and one person handling synth and programming, the band had an unusual setup. We played music from After Burner, Out Run, Darius, Midnight Landing, and The Ninja Warriors, and using the Sequential Circuits Pro-8 analog synthesizer, I usually handled the melody line. The performance was terrible, and we had trouble with the monitor amp during the show, so it was a difficult experience, but I look back on it with some fondness now.
Chris: According to your personal website, your first works in the games industry were as a graphics designer on Taito's Rezon in 1991. From this background, how did you come to work as a sound creator for NMK the following year? Did you prefer working on audio rather than visuals?
Manabu Namiki: In 1990, after leaving high school, I was attending a yobikou to prepare for college entrance exams. One day, a friend invited me to tour a developer called Allumer. While I was there the head of the company told me "our graphical department is short on manpower. Would you like to work here part-time?" I was unsure about taking on the job, as I had no skill at drawing, but I was fascinated by the prospect of working in development, so at the request of my artistic friend, I accepted. Learning graphical skills under my boss, who was an art college graduate, I participated in the development of a game for the first time; it was a game called Rezon.
After entering college, my enthusiasm for my part-time development job began to wane, and one day, not having finished some sound programming work my boss had sent me, I was fired from Allumer. By that time I had already lost interest in college, so I began to think about how to get into game development. My part-time experience brought me to realize how little talent I had for graphics, how difficult programming was, so I resolved to go for the only thing left, sound work. I produced a number of demo pieces using my personal MSX2 and MIDI instruments. Miraculously, last year I managed to uncover the tapes, and I secretly uploaded them: Demo 1, Demo 2, Demo 3.
At the time, I was interested in a robust developer called NMK, who had released unique arcade games like Thunder Dragon and Hacha Mecha Fighter. I discovered their contact information in a business magazine and called them. I was let down when they told me "we are not looking to hire new employees at this time," but when I went over with my demo tape, fortunately, it was well received. So, employed as a sound director, in March 1992, I left college and starting in April, entered NMK as a true employee. Looking back, my desire to work on games in any capacity was much stronger than my desire to work in sound.
Chris: Your best-known works for NMK were Thunder Blade 2 and Zed Blade (aka Operation Ragnarok). Could you tell us about your experiences creating music and sound effects while working under technological limitations on these projects?
Manabu Namiki: For Thunder Dragon 2, I used the classic hardware of the time, a combination of FM synthesis and ADPCM synth. For Zed Blade (Operation Ragnarok) — which, as you know, was on SNK's Neo Geo MVS system — I used the same combination, but with a somewhat richer palette.
I used the same two-step procedure for both: first I created the music and sound effects using MIDI instruments, then afterwards I converted them into data for implementation on the game board (PCB). With Thunder Dragon 2, I tried out this technology, using FM synth and the phrase sampling of ADPCM simultaneously, for the first time. At the time, it hadn't been established as standard for NMK, either.
With Zed Blade (Operation Ragnarok), I was able to make full use of this technology, and wrote the music in the hard-core techno style that was undergoing a surge in popularity in 90s background music. My mission at the time was to ensure that NMK's games put forward a robust enough sound to compete with other companies' games in arcades, and it was simple yet challenging and rewarding work.
Chris: This year, both soundtracks will be released by Sweep Record as part of the newly announced 'Manabu Namiki Works' series. How does it feel to finally have these soundtracks released on CD and how do you feel about their music all these years on? Could these releases be the start of a larger-scale commemoration of your work?
Manabu Namiki: I am grateful that fans have patiently waited over 16 years from the games' releases for soundtracks to appear. "Thank you for waiting so long; sorry for the wait!"
As for my personal feelings as a composer, listening to my work from so long ago, I find that parts stand out to me as clumsily done, but at the same time, it's interesting to experience how different my expressions and methods were from today. Perhaps I have matured a little?
I don't know about a "large-scale commemoration" (laughs), but if I have the chance to make soundtracks from my other past works, as the original composer, I would certainly like to take an active role.
Chris: During your initial years in the industry, you also worked on a range of other arcade projects including Bombjack Twin, Super Space Fortress Macross, P-47 Aces, and Desert War. Could you tell us a little more about your offerings for these works for biographical purposes? Which of these projects were most influential to your wider career and musicianship?
Manabu Namiki: Bombjack Twin was my virgin work in video games. As a fan of the original Bombjack, I worked on the remake with the utmost regard for its predecessor. I only reworked the music to play back on ADPCM. It had a comical feel, like the game.
For Super Space Fortress Macross, I only wrote the music for the location test version. The job came only a month, or maybe not quite a month, after I had joined the company. Since the only goal was to be finished in time for the location test, the music wasn't included in the final product. The music in the final product was composed by an outside company.
My senior, HIDE-KAZ, was the primary composer on P-47 Aces. I provided three MIDI files, but didn't do the data conversion. I really like the music for the moon desert stage, so I may release the original version at some point.
I worked hard to make Desert War the definitive work of my career at NMK, so my memories of the project are quite strong. It was the point at which I had taken my first steps away from amateur music production, and I think it has had a great influence on my later work. This is a bit off-topic, but by the time the game was actually released to arcades, I was already working at a different company. So I remember the strange sensation of playing the game and looking at my work as if it were someone else's.
Chris: Most consider the shooter Battle Garegga as your popular breakthrough as a composer. Do you agree this project was a defining one for your experimental electronic sound? Looking back, what influenced your approach for this title?
Manabu Namiki: In April 1995, I left NMK and immediately entered Raizing. At the time, some of the staff at Raizing had quite impressive careers that had produced games such as Musha Aleste and Summer Carnival '92 Recca at other companies. As the first member of Raizing's sound staff, I wanted to work together with these highly talented, radical people in order to make better games, so, as you guessed, I needed to push myself to achieve that experimental electronic sound.
I held a great admiration for techno music, and I had a good deal of respect for the Detroit techno artists in particular: Derrick May, Underground Resistance, and Carl Craig. The main programmer of Battle Garegga was also a fan of their music. Inspired by their music, I almost felt that I had something of a mission to take that energy and breathe life into the game's music.
Battle Garegga used FM synth and ADPCM synth for its hardware. This equipment was obsolete compared to the standards of other arcade games in 1995, so I needed to make full use of it to design the sound for this radical new shooting game. I made use of all the skill I had accumulated with this hardware at NMK, and I also studied Hitoshi Sakimoto's use of FM synth carefully.
The sound of Battle Garegga was influenced by my friends at Raizing, by Detroit techno, by Summer Carnival '92 Recca, by FM and ADPCM (YM2151 and MSM6295), and by the game music of Hitoshi Sakimoto and Shinji Hosoe, all of these people and things I respect.
Chris: Your initial soundtracks for Cave, DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou and Ketsui: Cutting the Bonds of Hell, were also defining landmarks in your career. Could you please the different musical approaches you took on each of these scores and what your main visual and musical inspirations were? Were you proud that these projects yielded your first commercial soundtrack release?
Manabu Namiki: In April, 2000, I left Raizing, and while searching for a new job I gradually turned to freelance work. It was a period of general uneasiness; my job hunt had been an utter failure, and game projects I had taken on a freelance basis were cancelled. DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou and Ketsui: Cutting the Bonds of Hell were the catalyst for my escape.
On the wishes of Cave's IKD-san (Tsuneki Ikeda), I received an offer, asking if I would be willing to write music for an upcoming game. I was overjoyed at the prospect of working on an arcade shooting game again, and that it was the newest Cave work was even more exciting.
But the production turned out to be an exceedingly difficult task. The target hardware was a somewhat old piece of foreign-made equipment, and the documentation was written in a foreign language, making it hard to understand. The data for the music needed to be produced in the Amiga MOD format (Protracker compatible), and everything had to be compiled onto a single floppy disk. It was very difficult working under these restrictions. This is a bit nerdy, but I had to compose the music in 8 voice, 8-bit PCM without any envelope follower. Do you know how hard that is? (laughs) After having spent my time in this process of trial and error, there was very little time left in the production, so I produced the soundtrack by entering the data directly using ModPlug Tracker while composing.
After going through all of that trouble for Dai-Ou-Jou, I thought that Ketsui would allow me a bit of a rest, but that turned out not to be the case at all (laughs). In both games, the music is based on that game's individual qualities, from my own personality and know-how, so they resemble each other closely, but I stressed the delicate aspects of the former and the wilder aspects of the latter. I remember Cave would capture images from the game in development onto video tape and deliver them via bike, and inspired by the video I had seen, I turned to ModPlug Tracker and composed meticulously, as if drawing a blueprint. I am very grateful that shooting game die-hards from around the world have supported a soundtrack produced under such unusual circumstances; it is truly an honor.
Chris: Your soundtracks for Mushihimesama and Mushihimesama Futari exude a considerably lighter and more organic flavor than your other Cave works. Could you elaborate on why and how you developed a unique sound for these soundtracks? What inspired you to collaborate with colleagues Masaharu Iwata and Kimihiro Abe on these projects rather than score the titles alone?
Manabu Namiki: These games utilized Cave's new hardware, with beautiful semi-transparent imagery and streaming audio. In contrast to the mechanical path that previous games had taken, this new technology opened up all kinds of expressive routes, so we aimed to create a soundtrack that would lend color to the game's world, mixing the styles of pop, rock, techno, and ethnic music.
With Mushihimesama, it was decided beforehand that I would work together with Iwata-san. Initially, I was going to compose Mushihimesama Futari alone, but due to various circumstances, Abe was brought in part-way. Looking back, I feel that these collaborations came out well, widening the scope of the music.
I am aware that my personality comes out very strongly in this series' music. Shooting games tend towards hard, dark, and heavy music; it's not very interesting to compose nothing but that kind of music, so I decided to take the lighter pop route instead. It's a sound one doesn't hear in games very often, and I am very fond of it.
Chris: In addition to you continuing the series' music for the DoDonPachi series, you also developed the music for the ESPGaluda series with ESPGaluda II. Rather than a more anthemic trance approach, as featured in the first game, the trance for this soundtrack is somewhat more individualistic. Could you explain your approach to this soundtrack and reflect on any favorites?
Manabu Namiki: Actually, when ESPGaluda was in production, they asked me to compose the music, but unfortunately, due to my schedule, I couldn't take the job. So I was glad to get my chance with ESPGaluda II. As it was a sequel, IKD-san directed me to "follow the original composer and compose trance music." I had never had any interest in trance, so I started from "what is trance?" I did research with an acquaintance who knew much more about club music than I did, and bought a number of CDs I thought would be helpful for reference.
But, as I had thought, my taste in music is different. So I decided that instead of trying to write genuine trance, I would take the essential elements of trance and add them to my normal shooting game style. A kind of pseudo-trance. IKD-san dubbed it "Namiki trance" (laughs). That's probably where the "individual approach" comes from.
Chris: Beyond shooters, you have continued to work with Eighting on wide range of fighting games. First of all, could you reminisce about your experiences representing the different fighters on the Bloody Roar series? Were these projects important for your development as a rock musician?
Manabu Namiki: I only participated in the first two Bloody Roar games. The hard rock music featuring live guitar that was added to the PlayStation versions was handled by other composers, and we had nothing to do with it. I was in charge of creating the instrument sounds for the original arcade version, as well as overall sound direction, and for the PlayStation version I worked on conversion. As for composition, for the first game, I only wrote the game over music, and for the second game, I did the opening, the ending, and some of the stage music.
Chris: Since then, you have gone on to work with Eighting on numerous fighting games based on anime franchises. Focusing particularly on the Bleach: Heat the Soul series, how did you define the series' music as the lead composer of the original title? Some seven instalments later, how have you and your colleagues kept the series' music sounding fresh over the years?
Manabu Namiki: Yes, the music for the Bleach: Heat the Soul series began with Mitsuhiro Kaneda and I composing the first title. I was mainly involved with the first four and the seventh games in the series. During the production of the first game, our client requested that we create "hip hop and street style jazz". Guided by our respect for the cool, stylish look of the comic and its fascinating story, we created a fighting game soundtrack that included those elements musically.
Kaneda took the jazzy route, since he specializes in acoustic music, and I worked on the hip hop-style sampling collages, and we laid the foundation for the rest of the series' music. Each title since then has expanded, so in response the number of pieces and composers for each game has grown, and I think that has kept the music fresh.
Chris: In recent years, you have integrated large-scale rock influences on your latest shooter soundtracks. In particular, could you elaborate on how you developed the guitar-laced scores for DeathSmiles and DeathSmiles II? How did the contrasting settings of Halloween and Christmas influence your approaches for these titles?
Manabu Namiki: I added neo-classic rock flavor to the DeathSmiles series's music to match the game's gothic horror world. Since I personally have no skill at playing the guitar, I assembled a synth track from the sample library, and Basiscape's guitarists, Noriyuki Kamikura and Yoshimi Kudo, performed to create the final guitar track.
The first game had a Halloween theme, and since gothic horror and shooting games go well together, I found it easy to find inspiration to compose. But the second game had a Christmas theme — which, to be honest, felt very out of place — so I found composition a good deal more difficult. As a result, the first game's music is pure goth-loli, while the second one has a good deal of variety. Personally, I really like both of them.
Chris: Recently, the extremely hard-edged soundtracks for DoDonPachi Dai-Fukkatsu were also released. What inspired the decision to create two different versions of this soundtrack, a White Label and Black Label? Was it enjoyable to go completely wild on these soundtracks with your colleagues Yoshimi Kudo, Azusa Chiba, and Noriyuki Kamikura?
Manabu Namiki: DoDonPachi Dai-Fukkatsu (White Label) had a particularly tight schedule, even for a Cave game, so I composed together with Kudo and Chiba-san, who had just entered the company at the time. We worked as a team, of course, but as the composer of the previous game, and of many shooting game soundtracks, I personally worked as if it were a compilation of my career. I felt that this project should be the realization of the ideal shooting game soundtrack I had been researching for so many years, and if I could do that, my role would be fulfilled.
When Cave came to me afterwards asking if I could "remake all of the music from scratch for a 'Black Label' version", I was astounded. I had already done everything I had needed to. Once again, the schedule was tight, so, after puzzling it over, I came up with the idea of taking a postmodern deconstruction/reconstruction approach to my ideal. As a simple analogy, if you think of the White Label as the straight-A students, the bad students who mock them are the Black Label, I decided.
As the music director, I found it quite difficult to communicate with my fellow composers, Kudo, Chiba, and Kamikura. Obviously, there is a generation gap, and their experiences and ways of thinking are different from my own. I gave them examples of electronic music like The Prodigy, Daft Punk, Shinichi Osawa, and Kitsuné to try to get them to understand where I was coming from, but it wasn't the kind of music they were used to. Under those circumstances, the whole team put a great deal of effort into the project, and going through that process together, the music for the Black Label was born. I am very grateful to them.
Chris: In the last two years, your music from Cave's soundtracks has been arranged in a range of album productions. What features of your original music do you feel appeals to so many official arrangers and also facilitates such diverse arrangements? Do you have contrasting feelings about the arranged productions led by Basiscape, for instance the first DeathSmiles album, with those led by external musicians, for example the second DeathSmiles album?
Manabu Namiki: In regards to the Cave series arrange albums, those were produced under Cave's direction, and since I wasn't actually involved, I don't know the details. From the standpoint of the original composer, I feel surprised that so many great musicians from inside and outside the country would want to arrange my music. It still feels unbelievable. If I have the chance, I would love to ask the musicians what they thought and felt about arranging my music. If your site would like to make it possible, please let me know.
Chris: While you mainly work as a sound producer at Basiscape, there are times when you work as a contributor on Hitoshi Sakimoto's projects too, for example on Opoona which has just been released on CD. How do you feel about participating in such projects? Is it ever challenging to assert your individuality while fitting the overall sound?
Manabu Namiki: In addition to my shooting game music, I collaborate on projects within the company on a regular basis — Bleach: Heat the Soul, Opoona, and so on — so no one project leaves a particularly strong impression. Of course, it is always exciting to see the individual personality of each composer come out in the color of their music, and one can discover many new things.
I always get a thrill out of seeing whether I will be able to fulfill my role or not in collaborative work (laughs). Sakimoto-san's music has been an important influence on me from the beginning, so I am looking forward to future collaborations as well.
Chris: Thank you Manabu Namiki-san for your time today. What exciting plans does the future hold for you? Would you like to say anything to fans of your music around the world?
Manabu Namiki: Thank you as well. Everyone, thank you for reading through to the end. First, I would like to express my gratitude for the aid that the people of the world have so graciously provided for Japan in the wake of the earthquake that struck eastern Japan on March 11th. Here at Basiscape we have put up a charity page, Oto Gift, and the music is available in album form at iTunes and Amazon MP3. We hope to have your support.
As for current projects, I am currently working on a soundtrack for a game a little bit different from the rest of my career, as the sole composer. [This title is Black Rock Shooter: The Game, an RPG based on a popular anime.] I have poured my heart into this game's music. I hope that all of you get the chance to play the game, listen to the music, and enjoy it. Look forward to it. I hope that you continue to receive my music well in the future. Let's enjoy it together!
Many thanks to Basiscape's Tsubasa Yasuoka, Demetri Potiris, and Hitoshi Sakimoto for helping to arrange this interview. In addition, thank you to Don Kotowski for contributing to the Cave questions, Kamil Rojek for help coordinating the interview, Eriko Muraji for translating the questions, and Ben Schweitzer for translating the responses.