Harumi Fujita – 2011 Composer Interview

Harumi Fujita – 2011 Composer Interview

This composer interview with Harumi Fujita from 2011 first appeared in issue #2 of STG Gameside. Although the games she made at SNK were not commercially successful, Fujita’s music at Capcom helped define the company’s sound during its first golden age in the mid to late 1980s. In the next decade, she juggled being a mother and working freelance on a number of games, most notably Pulstar and Blazing Star.

(header: the Capcom Sound Team circa 1987-1988. L-R: Kumi Yamaga, Manami Matsumae, Tamayo Kawamoto, Harumi Fujita, and Junko Tamiya)

—I understand you were originally a game designer. How did you make that transition to music?

Fujita: I had graduated from a graphic design technical college, so I was hired by SNK to work on design (graphics and sprite art). On my resume, in the “Hobbies” section, I wrote that I had been composing music since I was 17 years old. I had submitted music for the Yamaha Popular Song Contest, had a number of auditions, and by that time my musical abilities were at a pretty good place. For that contest, actually, the first song I ever wrote made it into the top 20, out of about 1200 songs. And when I was 19, I actually got called in by Fuji Television for the qualifying finals.

As it turned out, SNK didn’t have a dedicated person creating music for their games yet, so before long I switched over to doing sound for them. Back then I used a YHP (Hewlett Packard) and programmed the music in hexadecimal, on a PSG sound chip.

—I’m curious, what kind of musical activities were you involved in before joining SNK?

Fujita: I was in a pop band, where I wrote the music and played keyboards and sang. My keyboard was a Korg CX-3, an organ. I just loved its sound, so even though it was very expensive I got a part-time job and saved up enough money to buy it.

—It sounds like you hadn’t had any exposure to electronic music or “computer music” before joining SNK, then.

Fujita: Yeah, but I quickly fell in love with the sound of game music. I was taken aback—I had no idea there was this wonderful world out there! I think a big part of the appeal for me was that very few people were doing this kind of work—it was undiscovered country, where you had to explore and research everything yourself.

Harumi Fujita circa 2011.

I remember spending my entire spring vacation glued to my computer screen, gnawing on a piece of bread for sustenance. There was no one to teach you anything, nor were there any manuals. But Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote for an electronic music column for Keyboard Magazine, and I made clippings of all of them, filed them, and studied them closely. Unfortunately, though, the games I made while at SNK all ended up bombing.

—Was that when you decided to move to Capcom?

Fujita: I was employed at SNK for a year, but I started hearing that the company was having administrative difficulties and might be in danger of going bankrupt, so I sent a demo tape of my music to Nintendo. I didn’t get hired, but the sound people there really liked it, and even asked me about striking out and starting an independent business of our own together.

It was right around that time, that completely by chance, I met Capcom composer Ayako Mori (who I’d never seen before in my life) on the train. I mentioned to her that I’d just quit my job, and she suggested I come work at her company. That’s how I ended up at Capcom. At the time, capcom only had about 30 employees, but I was given an interview right away, and the President was there, and on the spot he asked me “Can you start tomorrow?” (laughs)

—The first work you did at Capcom was the sound effects and FM sound programming1 for Makaimura (Ghosts n’Goblins). Can you tell us how you got assigned to work on that game?

Fujita: At SNK I had created both music and sound effects, but Capcom didn’t have anyone working on sound effects and sound creation itself—plus Ayako Mori and Tamayo Kawamoto were already doing composition, so I volunteered for it. I had spent a year dabbling in sound design at SNK, but the other composers at Capcom had zero experience there. Sometime later Yoshihiro Sakaguchi was hired, and then it was the four of us working on sound and music at Capcom for awhile.

—FM sound synthesis is very complicated. How did you learn the ins and outs?

Fujita: It was naked intuition. (laughs) Trial and error. I’ve always been like that—with my instruments too, I don’t really read the manuals and prefer to dive right in. Sakaguchi created a software tool with a visual OSD that allowed me to directly manipulate the arcade sound chip parameters, and I used that to create the sounds.

—Starting with Bionic Commando (JP: Top Secret), you shifted back to composing music again. I’ve always felt your music had a certain mysterious style to it that’s hard to qualify. What were some of the genres and artists who influenced you?

Fujita: No one in particular. During my hiring interview at Capcom, I was asked a similar question: “Who are you a fan of?” and I replied, “I’m a fan of Harumi Fujita.” (laughs) When I write music, I rely only on the feelings and thoughts that arise naturally within me. I admit that I did study piano for 2 years in elementary school, but after that, I was entirely self-taught. I compose according to my own original methods too; I simply let me hands go where they will and feel the song out. That said, on Tiger Road, I was consciously trying to create songs and arrangements that a band might be able to play.

Fujita’s first work at Capcom was sound effects for Makaimura; she wrote the iconic “dying” sound effect/jingle which can be heard in this compilation of Arthur deaths.

—Bionic Commando still has a lot of fans today, especially overseas, with a number of official remakes coming out in 2008 and after. The music is all arrangements of your original OST, and the 3D remake has a very “hollywood” feel to it. Have you heard it?

Fujita: I don’t know the new games. I’m afraid I’ve grown very distant from the game industry, you see… If those songs are still out there being enjoyed though, as the original composer I’d like to hear where they’ve taken them.

—Here, shall I play a small sample for you? (plays new Bionic Commando music)

Fujita: Amazing. Hearing it now after so long, it was like, did I really write that…?

—You originally worked on Capcom’s early arcade games, but from 1988 to 1990 you switched over to Famicom development.

Fujita: Capcom began making Famicom games around 1985, I believe. After that the company started expanding, and Kawamoto and I were promoted to senior staff. Kawamoto was stronger with arcade games, so she went there, and I was better with the PSG chips, so I went to the Famicom.

—A number of sound people joined Capcom around then, like Manami Matsumae (née Gotou) and Junko Tamiya.

Fujita: And shortly thereafter, they were joined by Hiroshige Tonomura, Takashi Tateishi, and Yoko Shimomura.

—It seems you worked together with Junko Tamiya a lot. On Bionic Commando, for instance, Tamiya handled the Famicom port. While on Strider, Tamiya did the original arcade version, while you did the Famicom port.

Fujita: It wasn’t any special arrangement we had. Whoever had free time would get assigned to work on things, so it just worked out that way by chance, basically. She handled the Famicom port of Bionic Commando entirely on her own, and arranged the music according to her own sensibilities, I think. Likewise, with Strider, I didn’t really pay much mind to the arcade version, so it’s like a completely different entity to me.

—Was it difficult transitioning from the arcade to the Famicom, considering the smaller memory and the more limited hardware?

Fujita: Well, I had originally started out on PSG, so it was quite the opposite and I felt rather at home. “PSG, that’s my thing!” (laughs) I had studied PSG sound quite thoroughly during my time at SNK, and I was confident in my depth of knowledge for it. Makaijima was probably the game that shows that off the most, where all those skills came together. I became obsessed with the challenge of trying to create an “orchestral” sound using only three channels. Doing this work, I really felt like I had found my vocation, my calling.

—From 1994 to 1995, you helped out on a number of Ukiyotei developments like Skyblazer and Spawn, but how did you get involved with that work?

Fujita: The last game I worked on at Capcom was Gargoyle’s Quest for the Game Boy. The planner for that game, Kenshi Naruse, went on to found Ukiyotei and served as its director. He came to me one day and told me he had started his own game company, and asked if I’d like to write music for them. It was mainly work for the SFC and Game Boy.

—You worked on a lot of different games in a short period then.

Fujita: Yeah, it was like I’d work on one game in the morning, one game at night, and another game in the evening… thus writing about three songs a day, all in tandem. Those days really were a flurry of activity.

—I believe you also started working together more with Yasuaki Fujita at this time, too…

Fujita: He had just quit Capcom, and was looking around for work. Then I asked if he wanted to work with me. Most of the time I wrote the music, and he wrote the sound effects.

“Nockmaar Castle” from Willow, which shows off Fujita’s skillful baroque arrangements. Fujita spoke about Willow in 2019 on twitter: “I put a lot of energy into the music for Willow. The producer of Willow was the same producer who made Mega Man. He was an extremely talented individual and I was elated to have the chance to write music for his game, so I put my all into it. I’m not sure how well the game itself was received, but it was fun.”

—After weathering the storm of Super Famicom developments, you returned to the world of arcade shooting with Pulstar and Blazing Star. The music was done entirely via sampling2 and PCM streaming, which was rare for the time. Was sampling yours and Yasuaki’s idea?

Fujita: Yeah. We were given total freedom with that game, so we talked it over between the two of us and it seemed like an interesting challenge. Not having to program in all the sound data manually (like we had done with dedicated sound chips) was a huge burden off our shoulders.

—Pulstar was released in both cartridge and CD-ROM form, and the latter includes a high-quality version of the soundtrack. CD quality sound is great of course, but personally, I kind of liked the low-sample rate of the cartridge; it has a rough charm all its own.

Fujita: That was something that gave Yasuaki a lot of trouble. He spent a great deal of time researching how to raise the sound quality as high as possible on the cart.

—Sadly, a Neo-Geo CD version of Blazing Star was never released, but was there also a high-quality version of that OST recorded somewhere…?

Fujita: There was. We still have the files.

—Whoa! By the way, I wanted to ask—you composed Blazing Star with Seisuke Ito. What was he like?

Fujita: He was a kid from Osaka who had been looking for work. I heard later he went to Tokyo and had a good go at it there. I haven’t kept in touch with him, so I don’t know what he’s been up to lately, unfortunately.

—You also did the music for Whoopee Camp’s first Tomba! game. I’m guessing that work came to you because of your connection with Tokuro Fujiwara when you were at Capcom?

Fujita: I heard about him starting his company, so I approached him myself and said “Please use me somehow!” (laughs) We had worked on Famicom games together when we were at Capcom.

—You’ve written music for so many games, I imagine there must be some “hidden” games you’ve worked on that we don’t have listed above here.

Fujita: Yeah, I think so. My music may be in there but unfortunately I don’t remember the names of those games. I was so busy I didn’t have time to think about that then. Plus, I had a kid. (laughs) I was raising a newborn baby while doing all that work. I was working right up to the point I gave birth, actually—right after I finished sending my completed song to the devs, I rushed to the hospital and gave birth. I spent five days in the hospital, came home and slept for two days, and then got right back to work.

I also worked on a few large-form factor arcade machines. I’ve forgotten the titles, but it was one of Taihei Kigen Kogyou’s medal game cabinets. But I stopped composing for games around this time, I think.  

Dark Road from Gargoyle’s Quest, one of the songs Fujita wrote for the game. Earlier in March, she remarked on twitter: “Shimomura had just joined so I only wrote 1 or 2 songs while learning how to use the Game Boy PSG. I was a pretty strict teacher so I think Yoko was nervous. I had many junior colleagues at Capcom, but never anyone above me (senpai).”

—What kind of work have you been up to lately?

Fujita: The people at Subaru Hall in Tondabayashi asked me to write songs for kids’ musicals there. The kids dance and sing the songs I write for them, and put on little performances. They’re having one this August! I’m in the middle of writing songs for it right now.

I’ve also been doing soundstage work for theatre. I wanted to study it, so 12 years ago I joined the staff at Ibaraki City Hall. Now I’m the main sound person for concerts and performances there. I sometimes get other gigs as audio tech now too.

—I’d like to ask about a few different games you’ve worked on. What can you tell us about 1943: The Battle of Midway?

Fujita: The first songs I wrote for it got rejected, and all of them had to be abandoned. At this pace, we realized it wouldn’t make it in time for release if I worked alone, so all of the composers at Capcom pitched in to finish it. Ultimately it sold very well, and everyone who worked on it got to go to Hawaii. (laughs)

—How about Gargoyle’s Quest for the Game Boy?

Fujita: This work began right when Yoko Shimomura joined Capcom. I wrote about 2 songs for it, and I composed a couple songs for it while also getting a handle on the Game Boy hardware and sound chip. I think Dark Road was one of mine. Tamayo Kawamoto also wrote music for it, maybe one or two songs? The boss theme is a very Kawamoto-ish tune.

—And what about the cancelled Titan Warriors, the planned Famicom port of Capcom’s arcade debut Vulgus?

Fujita: I liked those songs a lot. Sadly the game was never released, but I remembered it fondly, and when I was working freelance I re-arranged one of the songs and used it in another STG… which unfortunately also got cancelled. (laughs)

—That game was yumekobo’s THEY, right? I heard it was worked on between Pulstar and Blazing Star but never got released, despite being almost complete. Anyway, of all the music work you’ve done for games, which has been the most memorable for you?

Fujita: That would have to be Pulstar. Of all the game music I’ve written, it’s my favorite. I think I must have put 120% into it, and I really love the song Ankoku Seiun (Dark Nebula).

—Was anything especially challenging about writing the music for Pulstar?

Fujita: During the development, the great Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake struck. All my cabinets toppled over, and my desk broke… thankfully my music equipment was ok, but there was no power, and I couldn’t write anything for some time. Despite this, the development was still proceeding apace in Tokyo, so I couldn’t just drop everything. I saw the city of Kobe burning on the news, and that became my mental image for the music of the fire stage in Pulstar (stage 3).

I remember the thought popped into my head back then, “Why am I making music…?” Wasn’t it the kind of work that would immediately disappear in the face of a natural disaster or war? “Why didn’t I become a nurse”, I asked myself, and at the time I was very depressed.

—Wow, that’s a heavy story… were you not able to get an extension of the deadline for Pulstar, then?

Fujita: It didn’t budge an inch. And shortly after the earthquake, there was the Sarin Gas attack, which I drew inspiration from for stage 6, which has an Indian sound to it…

With everything that was happening in the world then, it really affected me as a composer, and if for no other reason than that, Pulstar became a game that I’ll always remember.

—Thank you for your time today. To close, could you give a final word to all the fans of your music out there!

Fujita: I’m alive and well. (laughs) I’m 50 now and still releasing music… I’m hoping for my major debut when I’m 60. (laughs) I will keep composing, so thank you for all your continued kindness and encouragement.

Stage 3 from Pulstar (Neo Geo CD). The music was inspired by the fiery landscape of Kobe following the Great Hanshin earthquake that occurred on January 17, 1995.

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  1. This would have entailed creating what we call “patches” on synthesizers today—that is, specific recognizable sounds like flute, lead lines, pads, percussion, etc—for other composers to use. It was the kind of work that naturally lent itself to sound effects creation, too, since any “weirder” sounds Fujita made could be used for fx.

  2. Mostly with a Roland JV synth.

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