Interview: Yoko Shimomura

Yoko Shimomura is one of the most acclaimed Japanese video game music composers with classics such as Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts and Legend of Mana on her track record. Just recently she walked into the spotlight as the composer of Final Fantasy XV. On August 4th 2009, she made a visit to Stockholm to attend the Sinfonia Drammatica concert. It was a two-part concert, where one part was fully dedicated to Yoko Shimomura and the other to German composer Chris Huelsbeck (Turrican, The Great Giana Sisters).

This is a previously unpublished interview I did with Yoko Shimomura a few hours prior to the concert. We talked about life as a freelance composer, about memories of the first day at Capcom, big projects at Square and quite a few other things.

How is your daily life nowadays when you are working as a freelance composer?

I am working around the clock. I have always something to work on. But I at least try to spend some time with my family, as I have a son to take care of. I live in an apartment quite in the middle of Tokyo, but at the same time on the borderline between the city center and the suburb.

Composers Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) both have stated that one of their favorite hobbies is cooking. Do you like it too?

No, certainly not! I like to travel. As I am a woman and a mother, it is more like work to cook food. I never thought that it could be a hobby!

When you got the opportunity to start working for Capcom, your friends, family and piano teacher didn’t think it was the best way to go. Was the choice obvious for you?

First of all, I really love video games and I felt that it was one of the big chances to compose my own music and get a living out of it. So yes, it was quite an obvious choice for me.

So, what do your friends and family say to you nowadays when you are attending game music concerts all over the world and have released many beloved soundtracks?

My parents are very happy, especially when they see the CDs that are released. My friends also have a lot of respect for what I’m doing.

Do you remember the first day as a professional game music composer, when walking in through the entrance at Capcom?

I remember that I was wearing a very formal suit and absolutely not wearing jeans like today. I was introducing myself to a lot of senior staff and had a lot of meetings that first day. The day went by really fast since many things happened.

What was the first task you got assigned to at Capcom?

My first project was actually not a video game, but an arcade game. In Japan we have a type of arcade game that is quite similar to a game where you can earn money, but in these games you don’t actually earn anything. I composed the music for such a game.

How much music did you compose for it?

Hmm, there was for example one tune for winning, one for when losing and then there was one tune made to attract players to the machine. All in all, it was ten compositions.

How were the days in the beginning of your career, when you composed music for NES games at Capcom?

I was always told by many people that it was very hard to cope with that the NES only has three channels, but I didn’t have any big problems with this. Though, the storage limitation on the NES cartridges was indeed an issue.

Photo: Emma Berglund. Chris Huelsbeck, Yoko Shimomura and Arnie Roth (conductor).

Later on, you participated in Capcom’s own band, Alph Lyla. Do you have any fond memories you want to share with us?

There were many game companies that had their own game music bands, for example Sega’s S.S.T. Band and Konami’s Kukeiha Club. Therefore, it was decided that we at Capcom should also start a band. We in the music team already had the name Alph Lyla, but later on it got more known as the name of our band. Unfortunately we had a limited amount of time to spend on the band, since the requirement was that we first finished our daily tasks before we were allowed to play together. I found it quite hard to concentrate on the band since I, and probably everyone else, was quite exhausted after a long working day.

It is well-known that you were one of the composers of the legendary music to Street Fighter II, but what everyone doesn’t know is that you in fact composed almost all music for the game. So, to make it easier for you, can you reveal which songs you did NOT compose?

Isao Abe composed Sagat’s Theme, when somebody can join in the middle of the fight and the music that is played before you start a fight. The rest was all done by me!

A few years later, you went to Square and your first project there was Live a Live. What were your thoughts when you got such a prestige project already at start?

It was really an honor and exactly what I wanted. I didn’t really think that I was going to get such an assignment that fast after having started at Square!

Another soundtrack that I guess you have fond memories of is Super Mario RPG. How did the cooperation with Nintendo work?

I remember being so grateful for getting the chance to be involved in that project. All the staff was very passionate about it, we helped each other all the way. I got a lot of artwork when composing the music for the game, which helped me a lot.

Did you cooperate with Koji Kondo?

No, not really. But he was probably the one who controlled and approved the Nintendo remixes I made.

Considering you being the sole composer of the original Parasite Eve game, how did it feel to return to the series with Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday?

I was very honored that I got the chance to return to the series.

What would you say about composing music for other horror games in the future?

I never intended to be limited to a specific genre of music or games. As long as a game is interesting enough I am always open to new challenges.

I consider Legend of Mana one of your greatest works. Can you say tell us about your experience of composing the music?

I really enjoyed working on that soundtrack. When first approaching the task, one thing I was quite surprised with was when I was told by the director to compose a boss battle theme in metal style.

Photo: Emma Berglund. Yoko Shimomura at the meet and greet after Sinfonia Drammatica.

Since the “Song of Mana” from Legend of Mana has Swedish lyrics, I am of course curious how it was decided to use Swedish lyrics for this song.

When I first got introduced to the concept and story of Legend of Mana and I saw the artwork, I instantly come to think of countryside in a Scandinavian country, even if I at that time had not visited any of those countries. Also, this time I did not want to use a more common language such as English for the lyrics. We found a contact in Sweden which introduced us to the Swedish singer Annika Ljungberg (former member of the band Rednex) and then it was settled. I met her for the recording of the song, but later on lost her contact information so I have not been in contact with her since then.

The album Drammatica was released to celebrate your 20 years in the game industry. How come it was recorded in Germany?

When working on the project, I and some staff at Square Enix had several different options for the recording, what orchestra to use and so on. After a good offer from Thomas Böcker, producer of several big game music concerts, we decided to go to Cologne in Germany for the recording. Japanese orchestras are also very good, but I think there is an overall higher standard of European orchestras and also a richer history, so it was really nice to get the chance to go to Europe to make the recording.

How was it to meet Chris Huelsbeck prior to the concert?

Chris is a very nice person. It is of course unfortunate that I can’t really speak directly to him since I can’t speak English and he can’t speak Japanese. But at the same time, since both of us are composers we can understand each other in some way just by listening to each other’s music!

Wouldn’t it be interesting with a collaboration between the two of you?

Yes, it would definitely be possible.

Talking about collaborations, since you are good friends with Yasunori Mitsuda, what would you say about a collaboration with him?

Since we were colleagues when working at Square, sometimes I go to his studio and we work together. Regarding a collaboration on a game no, nothing has been settled on but I am actually always trying and I hope something can be arranged in the future..

It would certainly be interesting, since at least I think that your styles would fit perfectly together even though they are quite different.

Haha, maybe Mitsuda-san would not like if he heard that his style of music would fit together with music composed by me!

Photo: Emma Berglund. Yoko Shimomura after the concert.

Can you say some final words about the Sinfonia Drammatica concert?

I am very grateful to everyone involved in this concert, the orchestra and everyone else. 20 years ago, I could have never believed that I would be here in Stockholm to experience a concert dedicated to my music.

BONUS: Yoko Shimomura’s choices

Latest book
I like Japanese novels so it would be difficult for the readers to recognize it, but the latest one was a typical mystery story.

Latest music album
Hmm, I am trying to remember. The last three months I didn’t buy any CDs, but I can remember that I did buy a CD with easy listening music though I can’t remember the title.

Latest movie
It was the Japanese Ghibli anime Ponyo.

Latest game
When I was on the flight to Sweden, I played Dragon Quest IX. I actually finished it just before I arrived in Stockholm!