Keiichi Suzuki - 1997 Composer Interview
This interview with composer Keiichi Suzuki was sourced at the GSLA (it likely was originally featured in one of the many Japanese 32-bit magazines). The main focus is on his work on Kaze no Regret, Kenji Eno's innovative "no visuals" adventure game that is yet to be translated into English. Along the way, Suzuki reflects on the Mother games, his compositional approach, and what "Japanese" music means.
Kaze no Regret has no visuals, so I never even had any meetings with the staff. Once the script was complete, Eno gave me a few of his ideas for the music—he can write music himself too, you see. Originally he requested guitar, acoustic guitar. I mean, of all the things you can do with scoring game music… grand sweeping strings, piano pieces, synth-heavy techno… to chose acoustic guitar?! I was a little worried. I felt like Eno had given me a riddle to solve. Should it be solo acoustic…? Or acoustic guitar with other backing instruments…?
I decided I would try and use as little music as possible for this game. If you wanted to, there were plenty of places to add music, there being no visuals and all. But it's the dialogue that is most important to Kaze no Regret, of course. Without the dialogue you wouldn't even have a game after all. And I figured there would probably be a lot of environmental and incidental sounds, so I thought the music should play a more supporting role. That's why I figured it would be fine to have music just for certain points, like scene changes or lighting moments.
For Mother, my original goal for the first game was to write pop music. This was at Shigesato Itoi's request. He wanted me to make pop music with real vocals, and then use instrumental versions of those songs in the game. It was rare to see something like that in game music in those days. Mother was a Famicom game, and RPGs back then had to use arpeggiation to express chords and harmony, so the melodies in most games tended to sound rather classical. There was nothing like genuine pop music in Famicom games then.
For Mother 2, we did an about-face, from trying to make vocal-oriented pop music, to focusing on creating solid instrumentals. At the time, ambient music was very popular, so I wanted to try incorporating ambient, and also world music as my touchstones. Nevertheless, despite my thematic intentions, I ended up getting a lot of requests for specific types of songs for certain scenes. They wanted Arabian music for the desert area, or rock and roll for the scene where you enter a club and there's a band playing. And for the overworld where you're walking around, they wanted music that would feel like its spurring you onwards.
Which brings me back to Kaze no Regret. In that game, there's no deserts or other fictional locations where you walk around. Mother 2 has scenes in mountainous regions that look like Tibet, so a Tibetan-sounding song naturally creates a sense of synergy. The visuals and streetsides of the original Mother have an American-flavor, so that atmosphere was easy to write for. But Kaze no Regret is a love story, about a man and woman and their hometown—in other words, a story that you can only imagine happening in Japan. Limiting the music to a specific part of Japan, however, is exceedingly difficult. So I never entertained that approach, and instead tried to write music which would serve the same role as lighting, in a sense, illuminating the story beats.
In fact, I don't think it's very clear what constitutes "Japanese" music. Of course, there's gagaku, which is unmistakably Japanese, but it's not something you hear everyday. You really only hear it at wedding ceremonies and the like. I think it's better not to think too deeply about questions like that, about what real "Japanese" music is. Besides, when you look at what's popular today, at the music charts, it's strange isn't it? And it largely sounds like Western music too.
But the one very Japanese thing I can think of would be the choir songs that kids sing in elementary school. Even that isn't purely Japanese, you know, since a song like Hotaru no Hikari is based on a Scottish folk melody, after all. But it's very nostalgic for us. Eno asked directly for music that would evoke nostalgia, and that song immediately came to mind, though speaking for my generation, the tune that most evokes school bells and chimes would be Shinsekai (Dvorak's New World). Even today, when I hear that song I start to feel melancholy. So it's interesting, I thought, how the music that makes Japanese people feel nostalgic and wistful is Scottish or European or whatever. With that in mind, I started working on musical phrases, constructing and linking my songs one phrase at a time, until I had a demo tape to share with Eno. This cut-and-paste compositional approach is all thanks to working with computers.
The first thing we did on Kaze no Regret was decide where in the story music should be inserted, but without visuals, of course, that's all done through the script, through the written word alone. But with only the script, I was having a hard time envisioning what the music should be. Feeling lost, I decided to try having someone read the script out for me. The official performers had not been cast yet, so we got some skilled voice actors together and did a complete recording. I needed something to stimulate my imagination! Normally, visuals would do the trick, and that's what I had for Mother. But the composition process is completely different without visuals, I learned. In Mother 2, I didn't have concept art or character graphics, but the maps were drawn out, so I could tell where the key events were going to be. For Kaze no Regret, the voice actors' reading acted like a "map" for me.
When Eno first brought this job to me, I had some hesitation. (laughs) "There's no visuals at all!", he said, and I just blinked… huh? The structure and outline of the story hadn't been settled yet either, so I couldn't really imagine how this was going to be a "game". The idea itself, to be sure, was interesting and revolutionary, but how would it go in reality, I wondered. That said, the sheer novelty of the idea captured my interest and I said yes. At the time I figured it would turn out similar to a radio drama or something, I guess. However, I took great pains to distinguish game music from radio drama music here. In the radio dramas I'm familiar with, the music follows certain rules: there's always really emotional music during dramatic scenes, or spooky tension-building music in scary scenes. I didn't want to do that. If I just phoned the thing in, it would inevitably come out sounding like that, so I in my search for a way to avoid that outcome, I truly did end up crafting each song carefully, phrase-by-phrase.
On top of that, I didn't want the music to evoke any real, existing setting in the player's mind. The big premise of this game is that the scenery and images take place entirely in the player's imagination, so pedantic music that points out a certain place was the one thing I didn't want. I've actually never been so careful and methodical with making game music before. And since these songs would be played back at CD-quality sound, I also took care with selecting the instruments. Since there'd be no degradation in quality, it would be a good opportunity to use dynamic sounds like slide guitar, I thought.
In this way, I slowly created demos and shared those with everyone at the staff meetings. Well, it was mostly with Eno and Yuji Sakamoto actually. Eno would listen to certain songs over and over. (laughs) His expression seemed to be saying, "Is this really OK? Hmmm…" It wasn't very assuring. I think he was probably listening then as a director and producer foremost. I especially remember how he played the main theme song again and again. To be honest, that was the one I was felt most confident about. Of all the songs, it had come out effortlessly, and I personally felt it was the best thing I'd written in recent memory. But when Eno listened to it, he had no reaction. And yet he played it over and over…
Nowadays I do almost all of my writing on keyboard. In the past, I'd write more uptempo stuff on guitar, and the rest on keyboard, but now it's almost always keyboard, and only rarely guitar. That said, I still sometimes come up with melodies randomly when I'm out and about. When that happens I quickly call my home and record it on my answering machine. Sometimes I come home and listen to my messages, and forgetting that I called, it's like… who is this creepy person whistling and humming on my machine… oh wait, it's me. (laughs) For guitar, I play on an acoustic, and for keyboards, I have a number of synthesizers where I'll cycle through sounds until I find the ones that fit the image in my head.
The music for Kaze no Regret was recorded at Abbey Road Studio, at Eno's request. He had used them before for Enemy Zero, and I think he liked the natural reverb there. I'd never used a studio like that before.
For the ending credits song, "tenki yohou no uta" (Weather Report Song), I originally had not intended to sing on it, but that's how it worked out, so I devoted myself to it 100%. (laughs)
For Rokugatakeyama no Ruroi, I wanted to evoke an image of that place, and in that sense it's the most "RPG-ish" song on there. The scene is someone way back in the corner of an izakaya doing karaoke, so you can only faintly hear it in-game, but that's a good example of the level of detail I went to. When you think of someone singing loudly in a bar, you picture an oyaji (old man). And oyajis love their showa ballads, right? I don't know why but I put so much effort into hidden things like that. (laughs) By the way, the person singing is the President of the same talent company that manages Takashi Kawashibara, and I go back a long way with that President. When the Moonriders were the back-up band for Agnes Chan in 75-76, he was her manager. I hadn't seen him for 20 years, and then I met him unexpectedly at the reveal press release for Kaze no Regret.
Back in the days of Mother, there were all these hardware restrictions, and it was really fun trying to pull off things which, up to then, had been impossible. I mean things like trying to create a bass drum sound on the 8-bit Famicom, or finding a way to express reverb. Unfortunately, now that the technology for games has caught up to CDs, those kind of challenges no longer exist.
I feel like I used up my last brain cell for Kaze no Regret, like I dredged up everything I had… so much so that when I met up with my younger brother afterwards and tried to write music with him, nothing came out. Well, for several hours at least. In any event, Kaze no Regret was a truly interesting experience for me. (laughs)
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