Catching Up With Castlevania Composer Michiru Yamane
Author: Jeremy Parish
Date: 30 October 2012
Just in time for Halloween, we profile the woman behind gaming's premium-grade goth-rock.
1UP: When did you first become interested in music? What got you rolling down the career path that you've chosen?
Michiru Yamane: When I was very little, I studied playing the organ. I was very young, so I quit at one point, but then I started up again. A little after that, I started learning the piano as well. I always enjoyed listening to music on the radio and TV. It was when I noticed that I was already surrounded by music, and that I liked the music that surrounded me.
1UP: What made you quit learning the organ that first time, and what made you decide to go back after all?
MY: I was probably around three years old when I first started. My mother brought me to the teacher's house, where the teacher was teaching three or five other kids. There were three to five organs in the room, and the kids... They put me at the last organ in the room. The bigger kids were in front of me, and then the parents of all the kids were on one side. I felt really uncomfortable when I was first placed there, and I was probably a little frightened too, because I was so small. I couldn't stay at my organ, and I just ran over to where my mother was standing. So my mother realized that, "Okay, maybe it's a little too early. Maybe this isn't a good idea yet." So I quit going to that school. But we had an organ at my home, and my mother bought some sheet music for songs and things like that. She liked practicing on her own. After I got a little bigger, I went to a different organ school, and then I was able to enjoy it.
1UP: The fact that you started out with the organ, did that kind of push you towards working on games like Castlevania?
MY: Yes, I think that does have something to do with it. I started out my music career with the organ instead of the piano, and that might have given me an influence in that direction. I was playing the electric organ, a Yamaha electric organ, and that probably gave me a push.
1UP: When I think of organ music, I usually think of either really expansive, cathedral music, very Gothic, or else '70s rock. I guess with the electric organ, you were more toward the latter than the former.
MY: The songs I used to practice on the organ were mainly rock, like '60s and '70s rock music. A lot of the songs that were popular in America and Europe at the time, the songs that made the pop charts back then. But I also enjoyed listening to Bach. I also started learning the piano, so when I was playing the piano, I was mostly learning classical music. That's where I picked up a classical influence. I enjoyed practicing rock and popular music as well, but I started learning classical music when I was practicing the piano. I would go and buy LPs of Bach and listen to them. I enjoyed listening to a lot of classical music.
1UP: If you're playing the organ it makes sense to listen to Bach and play Bach. Besides him, did you have any particular musicians you looked up to? Contemporary musicians where you said, "I want to play like them someday"?
MY: Back in the day... I wasn't sure how, but I always knew very strongly that I wanted to do something related to music in the future. That's why I was learning the electric organ and the piano both. When I went to high school, my high school had an exclusive class for music, so I took that class. I was mainly practicing piano at the time, so I could get into university. Meanwhile, in my electric organ classes, I was learning how to compose music. I really got into that, so I started composing music late in elementary school. I got an early start composing music. After I finished high school, I went to university and studied even more about composing music. I learned about creating harmonies and things like that.
1UP: What made you decide to go into creating video game music specifically? Did you join Konami straight out of college?
MY: Before I entered college, when I was in high school, I went to the arcades a lot. Arcades were a healthy place to hang out in those days, but still, I was told not to go. And if someone tells you not to go, of course you feel curious and want to check it out. So I was checking out the arcades. They had Space Invaders and all that. So I knew about games like that when I was in high school. After I got into college, a friend of mine had a Famicom. I would go to my friend's house and play games like Super Mario and Pac-Man and this one Disney action game, I don't remember the title of it...
1UP: Mickey Mousecapade?
MY: Yeah. Anyway, that was how I knew about games. As I was getting closer to graduating from college, there were two companies that were hiring and looking for composers. One was Konami, and one was a company called Japan Electronics something-or-other... I'm not sure if they made games or not. But I decided, "Okay, they're looking for composers, so I should apply for these jobs." Konami was the first. I went in and interviewed at Konami. They called me back right after and said they wanted to give me a job. I never even ended up interviewing at that other company, and I went straight to work at Konami. Things might have been a little different if the interviews had come in a different order...
1UP: Did it seem strange at the time to become a composer for video games? In the Famicom days, I don't know if that was as widespread and accepted an occupation. Video game music was so much simpler back then. Did people find it unusual that you'd chosen that career?
MY: Earlier, when you were asking who I was influenced by, I didn't really say. [Laughs] But during my high school days, I listened to Kraftwerk, and I was a big fan of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who's a world-famous musician now, back in the day I followed him as one of the musicians I was a fan of. I was already into that kind of music when I was in school. The YMO was using... One of their tracks was influenced by Space Invaders. So I listened to that kind of music and I thought it was really cool. The Famicom had only three channels, so it was viewed as a special kind of music, a different kind of music. But I already liked games, and I thought that kind of music was really cool. Being able to compose as a job, and having it be game-related on top of that, it just seemed like the perfect job to me. I didn't have any second thoughts about going to Konami.
1UP: I don't think Yellow Magic Orchestra is well-known outside Japan, but it seems like it was a pretty big deal over here. Do you think that influenced a lot of your peers to think about video games and video game music and sounds in a way that was different from people outside of Japan?
MY: I think there are a lot of people who were influenced by the YMO and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Before I entered Konami, when I was still studying in college, a lot of my friends who were into composing liked them. And also, people who joined Konami in the several years after me, among them there were a lot of people who liked the YMO and Sakamoto. I think there are lots of people who like them, but they don't come out and say so, because they don't want to come out and say they like such a mainstream, popular artist. They did go mainstream here, but they still made great music. I feel like there's a lot of people who were influenced by them.
1UP: Do you think the popularity of their sound was tied in some way to the Famicom boom that was happening here at the time?
MY: I feel like that... After the Famicom became a really big boom, the YMO did take some influence from the Famicom and brought in some Famicom elements to their music. I can see that in some of their albums. There was an album, where they have a family... Do you know what "manzai" is? It's kind of like comedy...
1UP: Yeah, with the two people doing back-and-forth.
MY: Yeah. It was a family version of that. They were very innovative, and they would bring a lot of things into their music that normal musicians wouldn't. Also, they were one of the pioneers of sampling sounds or different things into their music. Normally a pop song would have lyrics, but they were an instrumental band that became very popular, which is a pretty rare case.
1UP: In becoming a composer for video games, I know you had experience and history as a performer and a composer, but did you also need to do programming? Was that something that was delegated to other people at the time?
MY: Before I entered Konami, they had this program to teach new employees whatever they needed to know before they started working at the company. Whoever was placed in the sound division, programming was one of the things they needed to learn, so before even joining the company, they sent me this textbook called "Z80," which taught me how to program Famicom music. They had this flow chart thing, and I had to answer questions and send them in before I got started at my job. I was really unsure. I was thinking, "Am I going to be okay? Do I really want to do this?" After I got into the company, Konami was like, "Okay, make-sell, make-sell, make-sell." The pace was so fast that there were people who did composing and programming all at once. But I was able to give more to the company by concentrating on just composing, so I was basically just a composer. I would make sound effects every now and then, too.
1UP: Did you work on developing any special projects? I interviewed [Hidenori] Maezawa a couple of years ago, who I know worked with you at Konami, and he talked about how he helped develop one of the special Famicom chips, the VRC6, and things like that. Did you ever have to do anything along those lines, or was that really not your specialty?
MY: What I remember is, when the very first Game Boy came out, I did some programming for that. But it wasn't programming from scratch. They had some basic code, and I would change parts here and there to change the sounds. That was more of an experimental thing, just to experience how to program stuff and understand how sounds were produced. I did that for the first three years I was at Konami. But in the fourth year, I moved to the Tokyo office, and from there on out I concentrated on composing. I might have done some other programming-related stuff, but I don't really remember. The Game Boy project, though, that I remember.
1UP: I saw in your profile that in addition to Famicom and Game Boy games, you also worked on MSX games. Was the process of composing for those systems at all different, or did you take the same approach no matter what platform you were working with?
MY: The Famicom and the Game Boy used PSG sound source, so they had two channels plus one noise channel. They had a kind of monotone sound. But the MSX had more channels, and it had a special kind of sound. I was able to express more with the MSX games.
1UP: Do you find that the discipline, the process of creating music for games now, is substantially different now than it was back then? Can you talk about that aspect of your work?
MY: The creation of the song, the track itself, comes from the same place. When I'm deciding what style of music will match a game or a stage, that part is the same. But after I come up with that image of the track, putting the sound into the hardware is a different process. Nowadays you can just create a song and then the hardware will play it back. It's not very difficult at all. But back in the day, after you made a track, you had to bring the sound into the hardware. That was what required special knowledge and skills. That was why, in those days, all the companies had to hire in composers, because they can't just have someone like Koichi Sugiyama create a song and drop it into the game. The person who's bringing the music into the game needs special skills. Let's say there's a C note. The C note would have a special number, let's say "440." I'd input the note as a number. After listening to the sound, I might decide I want to put a flat on it or something like that, so I'd have to go in and adjust the numbers again. It was a very complicated process, and that process required special knowledge.
1UP: The part that hasn't changed, the creative part, composing the music... how do you go about that? When you're composing for a game, do you just look at what the game is and start creating music, or do you look at individual scenes and scenarios and levels and characters and try to craft pieces of music around those elements?
MY: Back during my days with Konami, especially when I was working on Castlevania, I was part of the Castlevania development team. So I was involved early in the process of developing each project. Also, [former Castlevania producer Koji] Igarashi-san's personality required this too, but... I was very involved in everything. I would check out all the visuals as they came up, and I'd know practically everything about the development while I was working on the tracks. I was really close to the development of each project while I was composing. However, after I went independent... Let's take Skullgirls as an example. I would use whatever I was provided to me, which was more like the bigger picture. I'd take that image and run with it as I created the tracks for the stages.
1UP: I feel like that style works pretty well for a fighting game like Skullgirls, because it is kind of based around the scenes. Do you think that if you were to work on a more linear or scenario-based kind of game, as an independent contractor, you would take a different approach?
MY: So, Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness... Those two had very heavy scenario involvement. With those two titles, I would sit down with Igarashi-san and he would show me the script and say, "Okay, from this third line on, I want this kind of music, but up until that line I want the music to have this other kind of image." He was super-detailed, and that made it easier for me to work with him. That's how deeply I was involved with the scenario and the game while I was creating the tracks.
1UP: You said Igarashi's personality demanded working with him a certain way. Is that what you meant, his very meticulous attention to detail?
MY: Putting aside his personal, everyday personality, but... As far as his personality as a creator, he's a super-detailed person. He would leave the content of the songs up to me, but he had a very strong image of what he wanted. He's the kind of creator that has a strong image of the sound in mind.
1UP: Outside of the music that you worked on, can you give some examples of other ways that his creative insistence affected the games?
MY: If you played the games, you'll probably be able to tell, but the numbers of weapons and items and the variety of food items and stuff like that... He would leave the initial creation part to his staff, but he would check up closely on every single one of them.
1UP: You said that when you were part of the Castlevania team, you worked closely with the other developers, but what about the other games you worked on outside of the Castlevania series? What kind of relationships did you have with the designers and directors on those games? Was it as close, or was it more of a... Did you take a different approach to composing for those games?
MY: With the other titles I worked on, I also worked very closely with the dev teams. Like Elder Gate and Gungage. When I worked on those titles, I would be very close to the team. I'd go to the team members and ask them to show me their visuals, and then I'd create tracks based on those. Also, with Suikoden III and IV, I was more like a part of the team helping out. I was pretty close to the dev team when I was helping with those.
1UP: I'd like to talk more about Castlevania, since that seems to be what you're best known for. How did you first become involved with the Castlevania series?
MY: I moved to the Tokyo office, and the first title I worked on was Vampire Killer [Castlevania Bloodlines], for the Mega Drive.
1UP: Specifically, how did you become involved with that game? Was it assigned to you, or is it something where you said, "That seems interesting, I'd like to work on it"?
MY: Back when I was in Kobe for three years, I made music for Goemon and Twinbee and some other series they had on the MSX. Maezawa-san was creating the Castlevania series, and there were other composers there as well working on Castlevania back then. After I moved to Tokyo... As far as I can remember, that's when they first created a Castlevania title in the Tokyo studio. So one of my bosses said, "Okay, she'd be perfect to create Castlevania music." Of course, I wasn't going to turn that down.
1UP: How familiar were you with the Castlevania series at that point? Obviously you worked for the company that produced it, but did you spend a lot of time playing the games or talking to the people who worked on them?
MY: I already knew a lot about the series when I started working on it. When I was learning how to program and all that after I first entered the company, we were using tracks that the older generation created, which were like "Vampire Killer" and "Bloody Tears." We used those songs to practice how to program, and I'd admire those tracks while we were working on it. So the pressure was on. When they decided that they wanted me to create tracks for the new game, I was in the elevator one time. A guy from the sales division who I didn't even know came up to me and said, "This series is known for great music, so make sure you keep that up." There was a lot of pressure.
1UP: Were you given really strict guidance when you were composing for Bloodlines, or were you given more or less free rein?
MY: I don't remember there being strict guidelines, but there was a lot of unspoken pressure. You know what kind of music Castlevania requires, so you have to make sure to create that kind of catchy, great action music. That kind of silent pressure was on me. There weren't specific guidelines, but... I listened to all the songs from the previous game, and I was studying a lot on my own so I wouldn't fail everybody's expectations.
1UP: Do you feel relieved knowing that some of the tracks, like "Iron Blue Intention," are kind of considered standards now?
MY: Yes, I'm very happy. "Iron Blue Intention," I originally created that for the Mega Drive, but after that the team was asking me to create a sort of self-arranged version of it. Because of that, I started to notice that the song was starting to stick with people. I was really happy to see that.
1UP: I know Konami has put out a lot of Castlevania arrange albums and live performances and Perfect Battle collections and things like that. Did you ever perform on any of those?
MY: I performed at the GDC show twice. In 2006, I played the timbales, and in 2007 I played the pipe organ. Both times, I played a song there along with a professional orchestra. After I left Konami, a fan organized a Castlevania concert, so I played the piano and the timbales at that event as well. The people who organized the concert got approval from Konami. That was also with a youth orchestra.
1UP: Back to Vampire Killer... I feel like the sound of that game was very different from the one that had come before it, Super Castlevania IV for Super NES. Can you talk about that? Or did that previous game not really factor into your considerations?
MY: All I can say is that that was the result of my own composing, putting my best into the compositions. Before I worked on Vampire Killer, I was involved in titles that had a strong rock flavor to them. But personally, I enjoyed classical music as well. That's the kind of music I was familiar with. I did listen to rock music, but it wasn't my favorite thing to listen to all the time. So when I composed the tracks for Vampire Killer, I probably wasn't able to give that full-on rock flavor to it, which might be why it ended up having a different tone. But that tone came from my own personality, so that's part of what led to the style on Symphony of the Night.
1UP: Vampire Killer was... It was very different for the series, because it was the first Castlevania game that didn't take place in the castle or around the castle. It was set all around the world. How did the international flavor of the game shape your approach to the music?
MY: I'm trying to dig up the memories of when I was creating those tracks... I remember really clearly that the stage for "Iron Blue" and the stage for "Sanctuary" were very unique. I was trying to catch the uniqueness of those locations and put that into the compositions.
1UP: You said that the style of Vampire Killer helped you develop your style for Symphony of the Night. Can you talk more about that?
MY: Castlevania is a series that has a very strong atmosphere. And also, it's a series that, before I got involved with it, there were very famous songs that even now could be considered some of the best in gaming history. So I'm not sure if I was thinking, "Okay, I have this great thing going on that I have to carry on and follow in the footsteps of history." I'm not sure if I was thinking about that much. But what I always tried to do and I always thought was important is to observe what's in each stage and bring that into the essence of the music. Maybe the reason why the sound changed a lot is because the hardware had evolved, and the graphics had evolved as well. Being able to see so much more going on in the stage gave me more inspiration to create better music. That might be one of the reasons why the music had changed.
1UP: Was Symphony of the Night the first game you'd worked on that had yellowbook [streaming] audio instead of having to be broken down for a sound chip?
MY: Yes, Symphony of the Night was my first experience with the PSX, which used yellowbook audio. Up until the PSX, like when I was using the Mega Drive, to compose tracks I had to do what I was talking about earlier, bringing the track into the hardware, which required real programming skills. But for the PSX, you could almost perfectly replicate whatever you recorded. If you did an orchestra recording, you could just pull that into the game. Or if you were just humming a tune to yourself, you could pull that into the game as well. You could almost perfectly bring in whatever you made. During those times, recording orchestrated music and putting that in your game became a very popular thing to do.
1UP: Did working in that format impose different kinds of challenges to working with the older, more limited systems?
MY: Before the PSX, with the Mega Drive and all that, it was an effort to bring the song into the hardware. But because of that, I was able to learn a lot about how sound works. It was a very useful experience for me.
1UP: It seems like there's a very eclectic sound to Symphony of the Night. You have intense heavy metal in places like the area leading up to the clock tower, but then in the Long Library, it's almost like chamber music, with the harpsichord and violin. Can you talk about the influences you drew on, and the thinking behind creating such a varied soundtrack?
MY: For the heavy metal part, that's kind of the basics of Castlevania. I already knew I was going to do that for things like the boss fights. I knew I was going to make some hard rock and heavy metal tracks for those kinds of stages. But then there's the library and the church, where the graphics were so beautiful that I wanted to have some different kinds of music that matched what I saw. The most important thing for me was to catch that atmosphere of each stage, and fit it into the music I composed. That's how the music turned out to have that kind of variety.
After I'd compose a track, I would go to the team and have them listen to it. Some people would say, "Well, it doesn't match the Castlevania series..." But I remember that Igarashi-san said, "Okay, this might be a little different, but a difference might be a good thing. Why don't we just try it out?"
Also, when I saw the illustrations Ayami Kojima had made, it was just so beautiful. I felt like I wanted to add some variation like that into the game. Those illustrations were really inspiring. And because of the hardware changing, the graphics that we could display were very different and very beautiful. When you combine that with how I didn't have to work with so few channels anymore... I felt like I wanted to create a lot of different kinds of music. That's how Symphony of the Night became what it is.
1UP: This isn't necessarily related specifically to the music, but I'd heard that Symphony of the Night was regarded as a kind of side-story to the Castlevania series, and that Konami was really more interested in exploring the 3D game for the Nintendo 64. Is there any truth to that? And if so, was that something that affected the direction of the game and how you created music for it?
MY: Yeah, I do remember this title being kind of viewed as a side-story. That's why you were also able to use a sword, not just the whip. During the development, everybody wanted to try something new with it. Now that I think about it, there were some people who were against the idea of changing things so much. They were worried about core fans leaving the series and all that. But since this title was being made in Tokyo, while the other games were being made down in Kobe... There was this sense of, "Well, is the Tokyo office going to be able to do it?" There was that kind of a concern within the company, and that was why they decided to make it a sort of side project.
During development, there were a lot of people that weren't sure about the game. When they first released it, Igarashi-san and everybody else who was involved didn't think it would become something that everyone remembers so much. When we first created the game, in fact, we were only planning to release it in Japan. We only had Japanese voices and all that. So we were able to complete and release the game, and then I took some time off. When I came back to the office, all of a sudden the company had already made the decision to translate it into English. So they had Japanese voice actors recording the English voices, without proper direction or anything. Even until now, people aren't so sure about the quality of the English... [Laughs] But then I'll bet you're already familiar with what I'm talking about.
1UP: [Laughs] It's considered a classic, but maybe not necessarily for the right reasons.
MY: Yeah, I'm starting to remember... [Laughs] Everybody already put their all into it, and they were finished. When the company came back and said, "We want an English version," they were all like, "...Really?" It seems like the company wanted it to come out really quickly, so they had to hurry. I remember going to an agency for Japanese voice actors and rushing through the whole job. Also, in addition to the voices for all the cinematics, we had to record battle voices and weapon names and things like that. I remember that being a very rushed process.
1UP: When the Dracula X Chronicles came out for PSP, they re-recorded the voices, and people were actually disappointed, because they took away the originals. I guess people had really grown fond of them over time.
MY: That's very interesting...
1UP: You continued to work on Castlevania games after that. Not all of them, but a lot of the ones that had that same feel and style as Symphony of the Night. Did you find it difficult to go back and reprise a lot of themes and concepts in those games without your music becoming repetitive?
MY: I listened to a variety of music in those days. I'd listen to ethnic music, or local music from a lot of different countries. Especially percussion. I'd try to use special kinds of percussion. Or I'd listen to different movies and see if I could refer back to any of those. I tried to study a lot of kinds of music, so the music I created myself wouldn't become simple or too repetitive.
1UP: What made you decide to go independent and leave Konami?
MY: After 20 years, I decided to quit Konami and become an independent. My reasons were... Well, one reason was I wanted to create music for other media, not just for games. I also wanted a freer lifestyle. The hours we worked were pretty long, and commuting wasn't that easy here in Tokyo. I was also considering my age... I felt like that kind of lifestyle was getting to be a pain. Also, I felt like as a creator, having a freer way of life would be better for me. When you're creating something, sitting at a desk in front of your keyboard at a specific time isn't usually the right atmosphere. I felt like could find a greater range in my music that way. I did the math, and I realized I was in my 20th year at Konami. So I said, "20's a good round number" and I decided to go independent. But I've always been a creator inside Konami, so even if I'm no longer an employee, part of the in-house staff, I can still be a contractor. I'm sort of a day-to-day temp worker now... [Laughs] Also, I wanted to stay close at home with my cat. He's super cute.
1UP: It seems like around the time you left Konami, the Castlevania series started to go through a lot of upheavals. I know Mr. Igarashi teased an Alucard sequel that never came to light. Are you able to offer any insight to what happened with the series and the direction it's taken since then?
MY: Yeah, I'd like to know what happened myself. As an individual, I felt like... I had been working on the series for a long time, and I felt like I might enjoy trying something else. As a company, too, that might have been how the thought process went — "Maybe we should use some new people to work on the series." Maybe the company's experimenting now as well. But it seems like there's a lot of fans out there who want a Castlevania from Igarashi-san with Ayami Kojima's illustrations, and my music. If that ever happens, of course I'd want to be a part of it. I'd love to create a different... something in the Castlevania world and atmosphere, but with a different kind of taste. I'd love to provide the fans with a different flavor of music.
1UP: Besides Skullgirls, what have you been working on lately? What kind of projects have you had?
MY: I've been doing music for a lot of commercials, internationally. One of them was... Do you know what Pocari Sweat is? It's a drink. I worked on their Chinese commercials, and also for the Middle East. A gas company image commercial for Qatar. I worked on some movie music, too, a Japanese movie called "Koi no Tsumi." It's a kind of erotic action movie. I wasn't in charge of the whole thing, but I was a part of a team. There were other people composing music for it. I did music for Otomedius, another game. And an iPhone application.
1UP: Do you find composing for non-game media is different from composing for games? Is it something you enjoy more than games, or would you like to do more work in games again?
MY: Of course, I love creating music for games, so I want to keep on doing that. But the most recent work I did was creating music for a French TV series. What I did is, I created the opening theme and the ending theme for this show, and I had a lot of fun doing it. It'd be great if I could continue doing that kind of work as well.
1UP: How did you get involved in the Skullgirls project?
MY: That was through 8-4. [Note: this interview was coordinated by 8-4 Ltd. and conducted at their offices]
1UP: OK, I know those guys. [Laughs]
MY: 8-4 got in touch with me and asked if I'd be willing to create tracks for this fighting game.
1UP: Are you interested in working with more independent studios like that, or do you prefer working with more established companies like Konami?
MY: I'm open to both, of course. As a creator, it's the same process. The business part, signing papers and all that, might be different, but when I'm working on the music it's all the same.
1UP: Is there any particular work, when you look back over the past 20 or 25 years of game composition and other work that you've done, is there any one thing you look back on and say, "This is a really spectacular thing that I did, and I hope that everything I do can be that good"?
MY: Are you looking for a title name, or...?
1UP: Well, anything you look back on and think, "This is the essence of what I want to do as a creator."
MY: If I were to say it in one word, I want to create music that leaves a memory inside of people, alongside the visuals. So it doesn't have to be games. It could be movies, commercials, TV, whatever. That's what I want to do.
If I were to look back and think of something I did in the past that had that feel to it, I'd pick Symphony of the Night.