The Pioneers: Yoko Shimomura
|Yoko Shimomura's parents wept with sadness when the young composer decided to take a job at Capcom following her college graduation. Today she is one of the most prominent composers of game music, and her songs from the Kingdom Hearts series have been performed by live orchestras in Japan, Australia, and the United States. Here, Square Haven takes a look at the musician's influential career thus far, supplemented by selections from her soundtracks.|
The composer received training in music at Osaka University. Though she had gone through the effort of securing a living as a piano instructor, Shimomura had the secret desire to compose for games, a dream that invited some conflict upon her graduation. "'I've been playing videogames since before my career in this business," she explained in an interview, "but what happened is several videogame companies were recruiting students back then and I applied with barely any hope of getting accepted. However, I got accepted! Although my path was already set to become a piano instructor, I chose the path of videogames instead. My parents cried, my friends were worried, and my teacher was stunned. We're talking about the days way back when no one considered making videogame music a legitimate profession."
Interestingly enough, one of the musician's first projects for Capcom was a Disney game called Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, which bears some coincidental similarities to Kingdom Hearts. The composer was also involved in the sidescrolling brawler Final Fight and one of the key contributors to the iconic Street Fighter II soundtrack, whose themes most game fans know by heart. Because it was a convention of the company to credit the music on many projects as "Capcom Sound Team," it is difficult to know which tracks were composed primarily by Shimomura. The composer also contributed a single song to the RPG Breath of Fire, later localized by Ted Woolsey and published in North America by Squaresoft.
In 1994, Shimomura got together with three other female musicians working for Capcom and formed a band called "ALPH LYLA." They performed live renditions of songs from Street Fighter II incorporating styles from jazz to soft rock and easy listening. Other artists who performed for the band included vocalist Mai Yamane of Cowboy Bebop fame and Mega Man sound programmer Manami Gotoh. Later that same year, Shimomura left Capcom and Alph Lyla to work for Square on an RPG that would challenge the composer to create the most diverse array of game music a person could hope to accomplish on the 16-bit Super Famicom.
Yoko Shimomura's first project for Square was Live A Live, envisioned by director Takashi Tokita as an amalgamation of numerous far-flung genres. Segments included tales as diverse as the spaghetti Western, sci-fi space opera, post-apocalyptic manga, caveman story, and medieval knight adventure. All these stories were rolled into one bizarre, yet impressively coherent RPG with the courage not to back off from taking a satirical view of the game industry's own traditions. Shimomura came through with flying colors, creating one of the most innovative, catchy, and energetic game soundtracks of the 16-bit era. Already, in her first year at Square, the sound designer had carved out a niche in at least ten different musical genres.
The composer's next project for Square was the futuristic strategy title Front Mission. "I worked on Front Mission with just one other person [Noriko Matsueda] so it was very exciting," the composer said. "We were under a very tight schedule and worked on it with fighting spirit, wanting to express heated battles and angst." The soundtrack laid the groundwork for a popular series with four sequels and three side stories. The original soundtrack itself was later arranged for the Playstation and Nintendo DS by series composer Hidenori Iwasaki. The remixed version of "Coaxial Town" demonstrates just how innovative Shimomura was in setting a futuristic atmosphere with few tethers to previously defined genres. Even without considering the time constraints allotted to the game designers, the soundtrack remains distinctive and entirely memorable. The results of the collaboration between Shimomura, Matsueda, and Iwasaki could hardly have been more fortuitous.
Shimomura's last soundtrack for the Super Famicom would invite her to create a musical hybrid of two classic game series. The title was Super Mario RPG, which included tracks inspired by the compositions of Nintendo game legend Koji Kondo and Final Fantasy maestro Nobuo Uematsu. Shimomura captures the essence of both these distinctive musical styles while putting together her own unique and energetic pieces. Listening to "Happy Adventure, Delightful Adventure" one gets the sense that the musician came to the daunting project with ample gusto for the task. Never before has the use of a traffic whistle for a theme song been handled more ingeniously. Super Mario RPG remains a favorite among fans in no small part due to the playful spirit the composer brought to two franchises already weighted with a wealth of musical ideas.
Shimomura was later introduced to the Sony Playstation's sound capabilities by contributing two tracks to the Tobal No. 1 soundtrack produced by Yasunori Mitsuda. For her first full game score for the Playstation, she teamed up again with director Takashi Tokita for the memorable creep-out RPG Parasite Eve. A departure from the light-hearted game she had been working on just previously, the cinematic role playing title would require live music for the piano and operatic vocal tracks with a strikingly omenous quality. "I tried to write music that was inorganic," the composer said of the project, "something unique to Square. It was a project loaded with hardships. It was really tough... I'm the type of person that tries until I can't go any more. If I can't do it, then I think of another way. I hate to give up..."
For her next soundtrack for Square, Legend of Mana, the composer was required to turn 180 degrees from the thematic material of Parasite Eve. "I kept saying I wanted to work on a fantasy and this title finally came around," the composer said of the game. "I really had fun with it. I tried hard to make it fit the style of the game and to express myself." Something of a departure from the previous Seiken scores produced by Hiroki Kikuta and Kenji Ito for the series, Shimomura's entry took advantage of the Playstation's sound capabilities to introduce voice tracks and sound samples from acoustic instruments. In tune with the eclectic style of the game itself, the original score features delicate melodies, quirky flights of fancy, even hardcore rock battle themes.
"A lot of different things give me inspiration," the composer said in an interview. "I tend to come up with tunes when I do things that are not part of my daily routine, like traveling. But even during my everyday life, I come up with tunes when I'm emotionally moved: by looking at a beautiful picture, scenery, scents that bring back memories, happy and sad things--anything that moves me emotionally gives me inspiration... Whenever I come across a phrase that I like, both singing and playing the piano, I record that particular phrase on song composing software. If I happen to come up with a new phrase at the hot springs... well, that can be a problem."
Considering Shimomura's facility at assimilating diverse genres on the Live A Live project, and her success in bringing Mario and Final Fantasy together for Super Mario RPG, it is easy to understand how when Square began discussing the idea of a Disney RPG, the composer would be a clear choice for the challenging project. However, Shimomura's initial reaction upon hearing the idea was skepticism and sheer bewilderment. "At first I was like 'Oh, please don't make me do it. I'm sorry, but I can't do it.' I could not imagine what kind of world Kingdom Hearts would end up being. So, I had no idea what type of music I should write. This game has the Square style story, but then Donald is thrown into battle with that distinct voice, and "Winnie the Pooh" was listed as a preferred musical reference... it was like, What kind of game is this? Honestly, that was my first reaction."
When it came time to work on the project, the composer experimented with various approaches to get the right aural quality for the game. "Since the game is an action game," she said, "I wanted to create songs that would make the players feel really in tune with the music while they are playing the game. So I played the game over and over and recorded gameplay to see how it would feel as a viewer. I used scripts and illustrations as reference and gathered rough ideas. That way, through trial and error, I gradually came up with songs. Once I captured an image or a picture of what I thought would work, we would talk it over with the director and the planners and have them listen to the demo of the song. Of course, we had different opinions almost all the time."
In 2003, Shimomura became a freelance artist, allowing her more control and greater choice over the projects she could enter. The decision allowed her to participate in the Nintendo titles Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, light-hearted spiritual successors to Super Mario RPG. She also contributed impressive arrangements of Sega composer Tomohito Nishiura's music for Dark Chronicle, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II, and Rogue Galaxy Premium Arrange albums. It was during this period, participating in anime titles and tribute albums, that Shimomura's music began to gain international recognition.
The growing popularity of her music, both in Japan and abroad, following the success of the Square/Disney hybrid continued with the GameBoy Advance title Chain of Memories and the epic Kingdom Hearts II. "When the soundtrack was completed and I listened to it in its entirety, it almost made me cry," the composer said. "Please, someone, tell me it's really that good! This title features dark music, cheerful music, sorrowful music... I was able to write a variety of songs, so although it was a massive project, at the same time, I enjoyed working on it very much. I am very proud of the work on Kingdom Hearts and if everyone can count it among their favorites, I will be very happy." In 2007 Toshiba-EMI published a box set featuring a nine-disc collection of music from the three series titles, including remixed versions of the Game Boy game for its new incarnation on the Playstation 2 as the "Re: Chain of Memories" component of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+.
Heroes of Mana. The game takes place in the same universe and timeline as the Super Famicom game Seiken Densetsu 3. The composer's track "Beast Kingdom" manages to convey the fantasy elements that made Hiroki Kikuta's original score a timeless classic among fans, while also infusing her own personal stylistic touches. The quality of the wind instruments and tribal drum samples is of unprecedented quality for a portable game soundtrack and recalls memories of the inspiringly energetic scores that have been a hallmark of her career thus far.
Hitoshi Sakimoto, Yoko Shimomura was distinguished as a guest of honor. Her next project for Square Enix is the soundtrack for director Tetsuya Nomura's Fabula Nova Crystallis action RPG title, Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
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