This is an interview with Masami Ueda regarding the music of the video game Ōkami. Ueda was the lead composer for Ōkami along with Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Rei Kondoh and Akari Groves. Ōkami is often regarded as having a unique style of music evocative of traditional Japanese styles, but how exactly did the composers achieve this? I wanted to know about the composition and the creative process behind the music, so I asked the man himself.
You mentioned (in the liner notes translated by Game-OST) that you had difficulty making pure Japanese melodies which had a soothing, healing feeling and yet retained their Japaneseness. Eventually you compromised with something that would sound Japanese-styled but have the soothing feeling you wanted. From a compositional standpoint, how do you compose melodies which are not purely Japanese but still sound distinctly Japanese-styled? How do you portray a range of emotions and styles, as the soundtrack of Ōkami does, without losing that Japanese sound? Do you often use Japanese pentatonic scales (if so, which in particular?) or do you more often use Western major and minor scales? Do you use pentatonic scales combined with Western-style harmonization, and if so, how do you make them match up?
Gagaku has a lot of history, but I think it’s hard to say if it’s familiar. On the New Year you have the opportunity to hear this music, and I get the impression that it’s atmospheric music. It feels elegant, but it’s difficult for it to cover all emotions.
When it comes to familiar Japanese music, other than things like Gagaku, you could probably say we’re more familiar with nursery rhymes and folk songs that we learn in school when we’re young, as well as festival music. Since Ōkami was also something like a collection of various legends, the music took on a great variety forms along with it.
At first we had to do melodies like Onimusha, a little melancholy, and I imagined it would be very difficult to make. For me such melodies are not simple to make, it’s difficult if you don’t study.
The music of Prototype 3 of Ōkami was in a Japanese style, it had prestige and sorrow, but it had become very dark music. As we gradually revealed our vision of Ōkami‘s world, I realized I could write more familiar melodies. There are situations like an endgame scenario where you go to the moon (no longer in the game), or there are spacecraft (the Ark of Yamato), so in anticipation of those, we gradually added serviceable instruments as necessary to make the music.
Early on I hesitated to use even a violin, but we gradually increased the scope of the project. Harp and piano, then analog synth, and for the final boss I even used a pipe organ. Regarding the musical scales we used, at first we also had to be conscious of Japanese-style scales, but “Shinshu Plains” is rather Western-style. However, I think it somehow sounds like Japanese style.
Some of the folk songs aren’t from Japan. These became influence for further composing. Regarding harmony and musical scales, chord progression is Western-style, and I realized that by paying attention to melody, tone, and the way I used grace notes, I could make something that wasn’t quite Japanese-style but sounded like it. It was easier not being bound by Japanese instruments. That said, we used Japanese instruments that play melodies as much as we could, and for percussion we used Japanese percussion instruments.
Only a few songs in Ōkami are in true traditional Japanese styles. For example, the songs for when the Brush Gods appear and when the player saves the game. Those things were very difficult for us. I didn’t understand the musical scales or the melodies, and the sounds which use rises and falls were different from what I was used to, but I knew the sensations, and once I studied it started to make sense. I felt rather restricted. I thought it might get boring if we did it too strictly, there’s not much to do in the way of theory. I studied the scales, but then just used them for inspiration (laugh). It’s very difficult to communicate this part specifically.
Did you draw from a number of traditional Japanese music styles? Did you often take into account the settings these styles were traditionally used in and apply that to the game settings, or were you more concerned with how the sound of these styles would affect gamers emotionally?
I honestly didn’t consider the emotional response. I think it’s good to do, but I believe those feelings are mainly our own. Sometimes I was worried, but when you’re going for a unique style that’s inevitable. What do you think? Is it cool? (is what I’m thinking.) Once I propose it, some people may not accept it in some cases. For example contrast the stage and battle music of Devil May Cry, with the battle music and melody and such of Bayonetta, I had to ask the company, “What’s this about? Is this good?”
You could say that games and game music made by Japanese people are old-style. We get the impression that things from overseas are incredibly high quality, but we feel like it’s all the same. We studied high-quality titles from overseas, but if we imitated those completely, I don’t think there would be much meaning in what we made. After thinking again and again about what I want to do, what is thought of as good and referred to as old-style, and what we’re doing, we’re working with the feelings which broke through.
Could you tell me a bit about the instruments you make use of? Again, did you take into account what settings these instruments were traditionally used in, or did you mainly care about their sound? Did you completely limit yourself to traditional instruments, or did you incorporate Western instruments? I notice some recurring percussion sounds, most notably the one that occurs in “Title Call.” What sorts of percussion instruments did you use? When writing drum tracks, how did you choose which of the many drums to use?
I usually use Japanese percussion instruments. For the battle music I also used African percussion instruments. Since African percussion instruments give an impression of the earth, it fits Amaterasu who runs on the earth and the atmosphere of the battles.
I mainly used shime-daiko and tsuzumi. Rapid rimshots are a feature of Japanese music. Metal instruments are called konchiki. They’re used in festivals. Since real ones have a surprisingly simple sound, in “Playing with Ushiwaka,” in addition to genuine konchiki, we added the sound of a train crossing bell. At the time (and now as well?) we had trouble collecting material because the library of traditional Japanese instruments is small. A number of taiko have appeared, but this is an exception to the usual.
I also notice some recurring vocal sounds, such as throughout “Spirit Extermination,” at the beginning of “Confronting Ushiwaka,” and near the beginning of “The Sun Rises.” Could you tell me about these sounds, and what inspired you to use them? Were they recorded in-house or sampled from other recordings?
It’s like a shout that is more properly used in Gagaku. We figured if we used the shout, it would sound more like a Japanese style. A long shout plays a role like the crescendo of a suspended cymbal. We used recordings from a library.
I noticed at least a couple recurring themes throughout the soundtrack used in a variety of ways. The most notable one, I think, occurs in tracks such as “Competition With Idaten,” with slight variation in “Princess Sakuya’s Theme,” “Cherry Blossom Storm,” and several others, seemingly culminating, again, in “The Sun Rises.” A recurring theme played in a variety of ways creates an interesting effect for me in a game, as it gives the game itself a sort of identity and musical center. Since this theme in particular is quite interesting to me, can you tell me a little about its composition? What scale does it use, does it draw from a particular Japanese style, when was it first written and which track was it first used in? Can you tell me about the rationale behind using recurring themes such as this?
It’s Ōkami‘s theme melody, isn’t it. It was the first thing I made. It was already present in the Prototype. This melody often appeared in the promotional video and so forth. I made it on the assumption that it would be used mainly in Sakuya’s entry scene, and scenarios like very important scenes.
Regarding “Competition With Idaten” which you cited, it doesn’t have much significance. I did that song in an 8-bit style beforehand, arranged it in a Zelda style, and used it in a coin-collecting game that’s played on the web. It was fitting to be properly used here in Ōkami‘s style. (Did you know there’s a Retro Version?) I’ve played brass music, and I’ve composed for it as well. I like to compose for tuba and clarinet.
The theme melody was also made in the beginning, I was somewhat conscious of Japanese instruments, but there isn’t too much harmonization in the chord progression.
At first the melody was only five notes and I avoided modifying it as much as I could. Usually a ten-note melody sounds almost the same. If I didn’t make it simple, it would have been difficult to play repeatedly. I think it’s all right to play a tune repeatedly, and I like the feel of a theme melody which appears in different forms.
What other ways, besides recurring tunes, did you create a sense of cohesion throughout the soundtrack, particularly while working with three other composers?
We all used the same library of Japanese instruments. The mix-downs and the plug-ins we used on occasion were also the same. Focusing on whether the reverberation extends cleanly, when it was time to make a decision we selected the TrueVerb software from Waves. It was a point to stick to particular reverb parameters. It became our form to use 3 seconds, 6 seconds or 9 seconds (which might be a little long). Bells and claps, shakuhachi and shinobue were extraordinary 9 second long features of Ōkami. Since we didn’t want to give up the digital impression, we did not use a chorus. That’s because we could do the same thing by layering instruments upon instruments.
When I listen to the music I think there might be an impression that it’s very soppy, but since the graphics are always filtered like Japanese paper, I think they combine nicely.
What sorts of inspirations did you draw upon besides traditional Japanese music? Did you draw on the music of other video games?
Since I listen to various other music when I’m feeling troubled, a lot of it doesn’t quite fit the purpose of the scene, I think that’s because every time it’s a unique challenge. The nursery rhymes, folk songs and festival music I mentioned became references only for Ōkami. After that, when I was playing brass music I was greatly influenced by Gustav Holst, who I liked a lot. Holst’s compositions overlap melodies many times with various features, it does not get tired even after listening many times. That part is just lovely. Whether people who hear such music are motivated by it … I think about that sort of thing often.
What’s your favorite track in Ōkami that you wrote? What’s your favorite track that another composer wrote?
It’s hard to focus on one, but if I did I would probably say “Playing with Ushiwaka.” There’s also “Cursed Shinshu Plains” and “Harami Lake” and such. Even now I listen to “Cursed Shinshu Plains” when I nap.
I (and Hiroshi Yamaguchi as well) only really like our own songs, because we listen to them so many times, we don’t really like anyone else’s songs (laugh).
I know they’re very good songs, but that’s how I feel.
Among players, “The Sun Rises” is the obvious choice (laugh).
Is there anything else that my questions have brought to mind that you would like to tell me?
It’s not related to your questions, but I worked hard on Bayonetta 2, so check it out if you get the chance (laugh).
Thank you once again for your time.
Thank you as well! I appreciate your correspondence.
Interview conducted and translated by Parker Chapin on April 18, 2015. This text is free to view, share, and adapt under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.