In this candid Yasunori Mitsuda interview from 2000, the lauded composer talks about his early days before joining Square, the pressure of Chrono Trigger, his favorite compositions, the influence of Russian trad music, and more. Featured in Nice Games magazine, it makes an excellent companion piece to his game hihyou magazine interview of three years later.

Yasunori Mitsuda interview (2003)
Chrono Trigger 94/95 interviews
Chrono Trigger 1995 interviews

Yasunori Mitsuda – 2000 Developer Interview

originally featured in volume 5 of Nice Games magazine

—How did you get started making video game music?

Mitsuda: I originally wanted to be an animator. In high school I watched a Making Of video for Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and thought “This is awesome, I want to be an animator!” But later, for some reason my interests suddenly shifted to music. Anyway, I’ve always loved movies, and my sole hobby for the longest time was watching movies. I was very impressed by the music for the movie Il Ferroviere (“The Railroad Man”), and in my last year in high school, I decided I wanted to do music. After high school, I enrolled in a Junior College of Music, and I joined Square immediately after graduating from there. But while I was in college, I did nothing but study. I would accompany my teacher, Norihiko Yamanuki, to the studio, and I also made music for my friends’ stage plays.

—Was the idea that you’d learn a lot more in hands-on environments like that?

Mitsuda: They’re totally different approaches. I mean, you can learn composition anytime. With the internet today, any question you might have, someone can answer it for you. It’s a wondrous age we’re living in now, isn’t it?

At those on-location trainings, I did more than just passively soak up information. I got real practical experience, and I’m very glad for that. When I was 19, the 1991 World Athletics Championship was held in Tokyo, with Ryuichi Sakamoto acting as the musical director. And the person who did the opening fanfare was my teacher, Yamanuki… anyway, it gave me an opportunity to study the way music is made to fit a specific event. Actually, at that time, my teacher made a huge fool of me…

—What happened?

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Yasunori Mitsuda, ca. 2000.

Mitsuda: We were out drinking with all these music teachers from big, famous music colleges around Japan. It was the way they were talking about me. “Forget this guy, he’s just some junior college student.” I was a second-year student at the time, and those words lit a big fire in me. “Just wait, I’ll show you! I’m gonna become way more famous than the lot of you!” (laughs) I re-doubled my efforts on my studies after that.

—You’re the type who gets emboldened by such provocations, I see.

Mitsuda: Yeah, I hate to lose, basically. And I don’t back down from a fight. I guess with games, I’ve had some success now, for what it’s worth. (laughs) But in other regards I’ve still got a long way to go, so I want to keep striving, keep pushing myself.

—After you graduated you joined Square. Does that mean you were wanting to compose game music…?

Mitsuda: I hadn’t planned on it, actually. (laughs) By January of my second year at the junior college, I still hadn’t decided on anything. I had talked about going to work over at Joe Hisaishi’s place, but I had heard that working as a sound engineer was very demanding and didn’t leave a lot of time for one’s own compositional aspirations, so I ultimately turned the offer down.

Unfortunately, there weren’t any places hiring fresh grads like me for music composition work—which is only natural, I guess. (laughs) Even more than my modest junior college school credentials, I simply had no career experience to speak of, so there was no way anyone was going to hire me. (laughs)

Right around that time, my teacher Yamanuki was doing some work for Enix,1 and I assisted him. My birthday is January 21st, and on that very day, Yamanuki said to me, “Today’s your birthday, right? Well, to celebrate your birthday, let’s get you a job.” So he pulls out this gaming magazine and there’s a job ad for Square printed there, and that’s how it all began. I quickly created a demo tape and sent it off, but I waited and waited and there was no response. Wondering if it had even arrived, I called Square up, and they told me “Uematsu would like to hear a few more songs, if you don’t mind.” So I went back and recorded some more and sent them off, and this time, I got a call the very next day to come in for an interview. (laughs) To be honest, the whole experience left me wondering what was up with this company. (laughs) I didn’t have some burning desire to write game music, so at the interview, when they asked about my future goals and if I wanted to do this work my whole life, my answer was “No, not particularly.” (laughs) My feeling then was more like, hey, if this will give me an opportunity to write music, I can use it for the experience.

—Was the interviewer surprised by your response?

Mitsuda: They probably thought I was some weirdo. (laughs) They also asked if I had played Square’s games, and I said I had a little, but the names I gave were older titles like Alpha and Cruise Chaser Blassty. The interviewer replied, “Oh, we don’t talk about those anymore.” (laughs) I think it went well overall.

Mitsuda’s early mentor Norihiko Yamanuki also composed the incredible (and underrated) music for the 7th Saga, aka Elnard in Japan. He didn’t continue writing video game music after this, and this is the only interview I’ve ever encountered that contains firsthand information about him.

—After getting hired, did they let you start composing right away?

Mitsuda: No, for about a year, I worked in a sound engineer capacity. I felt like, damnit, if this is all they’re going to let me do, I should have just gone to work at Joe Hisaishi’s studio. (laughs) That frustration continued for the longest time until I was completely fed up. I complained to the then-Vice President, Hironobu Sakaguchi, that I was going to quit, and he said, “There’s a project starting right now actually, that I was thinking of entrusting to you.”

—That was Chrono Trigger, wasn’t it.

Mitsuda: At first, they were talking about having Kenji Ito and Uematsu do it together. But then I intervened, and I think it was sort of like, “sure, give it a shot.” I was as nervous as you’d expect—and I’m sure Sakaguchi and the others were too. (laughs) I’m sure they were wondering if it was really a good idea to entrust a big title like this to a new hire. (laughs)

During the Chrono Trigger composing, I developed an extremely painful stomach ulcer. I knew this could quickly become dangerous for my mental health as well, so Uematsu supported me and wrote a few songs. Since it’s such a big title, people might think Uematsu was attached to the project for his name recognition, but my health issue was the real reason. He pitched in because of my stomach ulcer. (laughs)

—How was the response to your work on Chrono Trigger?

Mitsuda: In the feedback from the playtesters, a lot of them wrote that they liked the music, so I went into it thinking it might turn out ok after all, but we had been told this game was expected to sell 2 million copies… But 40 out of 2 million, you know? I didn’t know if those 40 playtesters’ praise was at all reflective of the general public. (laughs) But it turned out that people liked it, so I was very relieved.

—And I bet Uematsu was relieved too. (laughs)

Mitsuda: I imagine he was. (laughs) When I finished this work, Uematsu left a letter on my desk for me. It said, “Congratulations on your debut! I know it was hard, but you did a great job making it to the end.” At the end, he said “I can’t imitate your style, I’m afraid to say.” (laughs) When I read all that I was so glad I hadn’t quit.

—As a composer, you’re famous for continually revising your work up to the very last minute…

Mitsuda: I push it to the very edge, yeah. When I think a song is good I move on to the next one, but towards the end of the development, I make the mistake of listening to them again. Then I want to revise them and fix things—even though it’s stuff no listener would hear or care about. (laughs)

—I’ve heard stories of you doing that the day before the deadline.

Mitsuda: Our office is totally networked, so you know anytime someone updates a file. So when someone from another department is looking at the folder, they can see I’m at it again, and my shenanigans get exposed. (laughs)

But it’s true, I’m always working up to the end. It’s pride, I guess, and my own sense of dedication. I don’t care what anyone says—I’m fixing this part! That kind of thing. It’s not about gaining approval, so much as it’s a question of personal satisfaction. It actually leads to a lot of fights. As a composer, it’s pretty common to beat yourself over the head after the fact, for things you wish you would have changed when you had the time. (laughs) I think players notice those flaws, so I feel I have to fix them first. Of course, if I worked in a different part of the development, I couldn’t be so liberal with my updates, because it would cause bugs. But that’s not a big concern with the music.

The Radical Dreamers OST.

—How do you feel about Radical Dreamers? It’s become something of an obscurity now.

Mitsuda: Of all the games I’ve worked on, I think it’s the most accomplished. I don’t think Square has ever made a more interesting game, you know? Personally I find it far and away more interesting than the Final Fantasy games. (laughs) The whole thing only took me 3 weeks: 2 weeks for composing the music, and 1 week to make adjustments and revisions.

Being just a side project kind of thing, it didn’t make any money. Katou, who wrote the scenario, he said it was just for fun but he still took it very seriously. (laughs) Probably the fact that it was just for fun meant we were free to do whatever we wanted, so we gave it our best.

I was listening to a lot of traditional Russian music at the time. I thought it was so cool, so I felt inspired and excited to make Radical Dreamers then.

—Traditional Russian music? What’s that sound like?

Mitsuda: It’s kind of modern, kind of folk… it’s a mix of those, with really beautiful melodies. Under that influence, I composed Radical Dreamers in a very relaxed, laid-back state-of-mind. That’s the trick to getting good results. (laughs) When I overdo it, in contrast, the music tends to come out too stiff. When I listen to something like Xenogears now, I’m struck by how stiff it feels.

—Which is to say, you must have put a great deal of effort into Xenogears.

Mitsuda: It was decided that the recording would take place overseas, so I saw it as a chance to incorporate Bulgarian choirs, which I’d long wanted to use. I poured all my energy into that. The resulting overall sound was very rich and lavish, so when I hear it, I understand what people like about it, but yeah, it still feels a bit stiff to me. Chrono Cross, in fact, was really a reaction to that, as I tried to go in the exact opposite direction…

—Xenogears does indeed have a rather stiff atmosphere. When I first played Chrono Cross, I remember how excited I was for the opening when I put the CD in, but after listening it was like, “Wow, this is completely different.” (laughs)

Mitsuda: That was also influenced by Russian trad, actually. I arranged it in a slightly Japanese style though, so it’s a bit easier to listen to. When I first sequenced that opening song on synthesizer, it felt kind of lame and weak to me. It’s a bit rare for me, I think, for a song to change that much from the initial demo to the finished version. With the music of Chrono Cross, I think you may hear it a little differently as an adult. Though unfortunately the kids in Junior High now may have thrown away all their Playstation cds by their mid 20s. (laughs) But I would encourage players to hang on to it and re-listen to it later. I expect you’ll discover new things, things you couldn’t feel as a high school student.

At the time (2000), this was Mitsuda’s favorite thing he’d written. The Russian trad influence can be heard in the vocal/choir segments.

—What is your favorite song you’ve written so far?

Mitsuda: The one I enjoy coming back to again and again is the opening theme for Xenogears. It doesn’t feel like something I wrote, like creating something like that should have been beyond me. I think some mischievous little dwarf created it while I slept. (laughs) And in that same sense I find myself listening to it again and again, to study and steal this little dwarf’s techniques. (laughs) 

When it comes to game music, I have a lot of fun writing music to accompany specific events, scenes, and movies. No doubt it’s got something to do with the fact that my love of film music was the thing that got me wanting to write video game music in the first place.

—What are your plans for the future?

Mitsuda: I want to do more “artist” stuff like solo albums and live shows. To be honest with you, in a way I’d like to wash my hands of the game music I’ve written up to now. Of course I know that isn’t really possible. You know, every project I’ve done up to now has been an RPG. (laughs) That means lots of songs, and long songs, which all takes a lot of time. Right now I’m working on a re-mix (“arrange version”) of songwriter Junko Kudo’s solo album. I’m doing half the songs, and Nobuo Nakahara is doing the other half. It’ll be the quickest project I’ve worked on to date. I haven’t started yet though. (laughs)

—I look forward to hearing it! Thank you for your time today.