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Where Angels Fear to Tread: A Conversation with Hiroki Kikuta

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Hiroki Kikuta is the music composer behind Squaresoft action RPG's Secret of Mana and Seiken Denstesu 3. Just as his electronic music for Square left a lasting impression on the era of 16-bit games, his live orchestral tracks found in Soukaigi and Koudelka are among the most original songs created for the Playstation console. Today Square Haven talks with the composer and game designer about his latest album, Lost Files, and the future of Hiroki Kikuta.
This interview is available in Japanese. 日本語で...

Hiroki Kikuta's dream of becoming a songwriter were inspired at age ten by the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In other realms, his creativity as an artist has been remarkably diverse. He graduated from the University of Kansai, Osaka with an interdisciplinary degree in Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Cultural Anthropology. He began his career as a manga illustrator and soundtrack composer for televised anime. In the field of musical composition, where he is best known, he is a full-fledged autodidact.

In 1991, seeking work in the nascent field of videogame design, he interviewed with Squaresoft composers Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito, presenting an audition reel of his music, now available on the self-published soundtrack entitled Lost Files. At age 27, he started work at Square debugging Final Fantasy IV and designing sound effects for Romancing SaGa. Before long, he was composing music for Secret of Mana and its sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3.

Mixing stylistically distinctive melodies with turbulent and uncertain chord progressions, Kikuta's themes deftly convey the extremes of darkness and light. Soukaigi, Kikuta's last soundtrack for Square, was his most distinctive and innovative, involving both live instruments and unique synthesized sounds. Forming his own company, Sacnoth, he served as scenario writer, producer, and composer for the gothic horror RPG Koudelka.

Today, Square Haven talks with the composer about his latest album, Lost Files, which includes some of his earliest work for videogames, along with brand-new tracks.

Square Haven: Hiroki Kikuta, thank you for joining us today. You are an independent thinker. What kind of things inspire you? Do you find aspects of the corporate environment that stifle artistic freedom?

Hiroki Kikuta: The function of the artist is, of course, to create art. Fundamentally, these activities are separate from concerns of business or commerce. In Japan, especially, the value of the artist is insufficiently recognized. Therefore, if one wanted to pursue art purely, it would be the worst possible environment for that. When I compose music for videogames or animation, I don't consider myself performing purely as an artist. My primary goal is to entertain the audience. If I want to work for a company, I need to satisfy that purpose. After that aim has been achieved, I can try for an artistic experiment or challenge.

Seiken Densetsu 3, "Where Angels Fear to Tread," music sample

Haven: For Koudelka, you started your own company, Sacnoth. For Lost Files, you are distributing the music yourself, through Norstrilia Limited. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of doing things your own way?

Hiroki Kikuta: In Japanese society, which is structured bureaucratically, an independent spirit frequently comes under attack. Tradition teaches us to hide each other's mistakes, and cover up who is responsible for the group's failures. However, this way does not encourage development or progress. Though recognizing one's own mistakes can be painful, accepting the consequences of one's actions is essential to gaining experience. What's more, on creative projects, one needs to be able to work alone, without depending on outside opinions. Therefore, I think it is important to be able to proceed on projects independently, without being tied to the concerns of others.

Haven: Even though Seiken Densetsu 3 never went on sale outside the country, that has not stopped your music from developing a following outside of Japan. The Mana music is cherished among many RPG fans.

Hiroki Kikuta: That might be owing to the fact that I spent an absurd amount of time on those soundtracks. Many hours were devoted to re-writing and polishing each song until I was finally satisfied with the end result. Outside of those occasions when I had a synthesizer programmer for support, for those albums I did almost all the work myself, including working on the sound selection, editing, effect design, and final data encoding. During the two year production period, I spent almost 24 hours a day in the office, alternating between composing and editing. The fact that I could spend such a luxurious amount of time on the project led directly to the high music quality of Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3.

To go into further deatil, in order to create the sense of a fully immersive sound, I would use two tracks of the same instrument, and give only one side vibrato to create the sense of three-dimensional sound. I chose the placement of each instrument, and its melody, after a long process of trial and error. The best of what I discovered is in there. I believe the end product is something that people can enjoy listening to, hopefully for a long time to come.

Haven: Your music for Soukaigi is breathtaking. The soundtrack expresses a rich mixture of darkness and light. What were some of the positive sides of working on this difficult project?

Hiroki Kikuta: From the beginning of the Soukaigi project, music was arranged for live performances. Since we had a more than sufficient financial budget, we reserved spaces in various studios and found musicians who would be willing to focus on experimentation. I wanted to see how transforming sounds from live recordings through the use of computers could add some effect to the musician's performance. But, unfortunately, since my style of composition is a stone's throw away from standard theory, that made some things difficult for the musicians to understand. It happened quite often that they would play in the wrong way, which caused some unpleasant mix-ups during the recording process. Sometimes the performers would request the chords be written down ont the sheet music, but the chord progressions I preferred would be too ambiguous to notate that way. If I wanted to make the musical tone enigmatic, or attempt to vary the chords between several instruments, it tended to cause complaints. Fortunately, when I explained my case, the musicians responded warmly, and they were proficient enough to handle the musical ideas well, so we managed to finish the recording, though it was touch and go for awhile there.

On that note, I have a story about Tomohito Aoki, who performed bass guitar on Soukaigi. He showed up to the studio one day and just from the look on his face, I could tell he was suffering from a terrible hangover. We were all busy setting up the recording instruments and getting everything ready for the musicians, but I caught him looking over the sheet music with a look of focused concentration on his face. I was a little worried because it was a particularly difficult piece called "Fire Wire" that we were asking him to play that day, and I wasn't certain he was in the right condition to even attempt it. After looking over those difficult phrases, he called over an assistant and asked him to run over to the local combini and pick up some bottles of mineral water. As soon as the assistant returned with two bottles of mineral water, he drank both of them, one after the other. And then he began to play. Let me tell you, he performed beautifully. At that moment, I realized what it is to be a true musician. Unfortunately, Mr. Aoki passed away last year. His spirit still lives on in his music.

Soukaigi, "Labyrinth," music sample

Haven: On Koudelka, you served as producer, writer, and composer. What were some of the goals you accomplished in taking on these various responsibilities? Were there ways in which the project could have been better realized?

Hiroki Kikuta: Let me begin by saying, whenever you divide up responsibilities among a group of people concerning the judgments that get made on a project, the end quality is bound to suffer as a result. To keep the quality high and the schedule organized on a project, it's better for as few people as possible to be making key decisions, and for them to be communicating within the group with as few conflicts as possible. The ideal situation would be for but one director to be delegated the responsibility of expressing his or her creative vision. That said, for Koudelka, I was pursuing that degree of creative control.

To prepare, in gaining an understanding of the game's setting, I read about one hundred books on English history, touching on periods from the Medieval era to around 1900. It proved useful in discovering relevant episodes which could be incorporated into the story. Having several events to ground the plot in a kind of historical reality, I then started building on that foundation with some fictional events. For example, the character of Edward is based on an actual Irish dramatist named Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, while the woman who writes a letter for Charlotte is based on Sophie Dorothea of W├╝rttemberg. Roger Bacon is, of course, a historically famous philosopher. Also, the incident on the Queen Alice really occurred and is recorded in the captain's log of the vessel. By filling out the gaps in those historical events with fictional incidents, such as the Emigre Document and reincarnation ritual, I aimed at providing a realistic basis to the imaginary aspects of the story.

Before production, some members of our staff went on a trip to Whales to gather information and capture the genuine atmosphere of the place with our own eyes. We demanded extreme accuracy in providing the background details, and we even used motion capture technology to provide culturally appropriate body language for the characters, techniques advanced enough to compete with the standards of the Hollywood industry at that time. Those challenges, which were provided by the passion motivating that project, were the real essence of Koudelka.

Koudelka, "Patience," music sample

I remember that I was reading the critical biography of James Cameron, who was making Titanic at that time, on the airplane to England. I was overwhelmed by his tremendous efforts to capture those startling images. At that time, I realized that it is necessary for creative work to have a degree of obsessive passion involved. I hope that some degree of that conviction had a positive result on the end product.

Haven: Lost Files is a compilation of musical pieces encompassing your personal history as a composer. How does the album reflect your evolution as an artist since the early 1990s?

Hiroki Kikuta: To be honest, I don't think I've "evolved." One human being lives a limited time, experiences various things, acquires something and loses something. The reason I can publish music I composed nearly twenty years ago without flinching is that at that time I was not an inferior musician to who I am now. Then, I had my own honest way of expressing my emotions. And now, I have my own present tastes. What Lost Files demonstrates is a consistency to my approach to creative work over the years. What has changed over time is the society around me, and my expressions have adapted as a result. That said, as my surroundings have altered, my sense of self has remained somehow unchanged. This is what allowed me to embark upon a concept like Lost Files, where I can situate the compositions of twenty years ago right beside my present work. My aim was in making music that will remain fresh twenty years from now.

Haven: You have perhaps the most diverse educational background of any musician working in videogames. How has your interdisciplinary college education in philosophy and cultural anthropology informed your creative work in game design?

Hiroki Kikuta: One positive aspect of my personal history, something that fills me with joy, is thinking back on the teachers I encountered in college. In large part, my life's purpose has been to search after, through experimentation and research, the various intellectual themes these people first introduced me to. More specifically, British anthropologist Gregory Bateson's book Mind and Nature turned out to have an influence on my mental life. Bateson has planted the seeds of future research in a variety of fields, including the humanities, sociology, linguistics, and psychology. He's even conducted research on the way dolphins communicate, working with his renowned colleague John Cunningham Lilly.

Whenever I start out on a new creative project, I consider the question of just what is this activity called "communication" that appears to emerge from our primal instincts. Communication comes into existence when we acknowledge the difference between ourselves and the other, and attempt to measure its distance. Without communication, there is no self and no world. There are various ways to form connections with others, and music is highly effective. Through a single musical phrase, it's actually possible to influence the creation of a kind of world in the imagination of the listener. It's analogous to the way one's sense of smell can link up with emotionally resonant memories and elicit a sense of nostalgia. Music also connects to one's emotions and visual sense. Therefore, to connect images with music in the most careful way, to challenge oneself to complete an artistic product in the purest form, and to develop sophisticated techniques for such purposes would be my objective as a cultural anthropology scholar in an outside field.

Seiken Densetsu 2 "Into the Thick of It," music sample

Haven: It seems like you must have been creative from a young age. Do you have distinct memories of your earliest artistic discoveries?

Hiroki Kikuta: I was a sensitive child. Unfortunately, I wasn't the most creative one. Since my late father was well known as an expert in ceramics, he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Yet, when I was in elementary school, I found no interest in struggling with clay and flames. I did enjoy having lots of opportunities to go to museums and temples to observe sophisticated works of art. Those experiences might have established a foundation for my creative activities later on.

The clearest memory I have of my creative spirit being awakened is of the World Expo held in Osaka in 1970. I was eight-years old then. I still remember how quickly my heart raced standing in front of the innovative architecture that seemed to have materialized from out of the future. Later in my adolescence, I grew interested in the presentation of popular manga and anime. At a club in college, I created amateur anime films, and they played at a few Sci Fi conventions. Those are good memories. After college, I entered the manga industry, and I spent a few years as an illustrator. But that's a different story, entirely.

Haven: Can you tell us about your experiences outside of Japan and if you feel it's useful for young people to travel?

Hiroki Kikuta: I really don't know all that much about other countries, except for what I learned from going to China and England on projects. I've been lucky enough to visit the island of Fiji in the South Pacific on five separate occasions. This was around the time I finished working on Secret of Mana. I heard there's this place called Mana Island, and I wanted to go there. It was a shot in the dark, but it turned out to be such an amazing place! They have since built an airport on Mana Island, so you can fly there on a Cessna airplane, but I first arrived there by sea. I remember my heart beat faster and faster as the island appeared on the horizon. How remarkable that sight was! Afterwards, we went to this island called Gamea, two hours by air from the mainland, then an hour by car, then thirty minutes by boat after that. It was a paradise of coral reefs. During the day we ate local food, went to the ocean, and brought our books with us. At night, we slept under shooting stars. Though simple, it was a complete experience. While my home has its own miraculous qualities, such as the changing colors of the seasons, it would be a limited existence were it impossible to experience the world outside of Japan.

Haven: Some tracks on Lost Files are named after the novels of William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. What are some of your other favorite sci fi novels?

Hiroki Kikuta: Well, the first science fiction I ever encountered was a was a copy of Hugo Gernsback's novel Ralph 124C41+ in my elementary school library. My favorite science fiction novelist is Alfred Elton van Vogt, and I was greatly impressed by his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which inspired the Alien movies. I've read so much sci fi, but the abiding spirit of Philip K. Dick and Orson Scott Card still captivates me. I recently heard that Ender's Game, which I have a certain attachment to, is being made into a movie. I'm a bit worried about how that will turn out.

There's also a wonderful science fiction novel in Japan called No Life King, which focuses on children and videogames. It hasn't been translated into English, yet. I'm looking forward to this story being read by other cultures. And, as you may have noticed, the name of my company is "Norstrilia," and it came from the name of a novel by Cordwainer Smith, known for his Instrumentality of Mankind series.

Lost Files, "Crossdemo," music sample

Haven: What is next for Hiroki Kikuta?

Hiroki Kikuta: A goal of mine in recent years has been to create more music and produce more CDs. However, I also have this simple dream that I've been wanting to make happen for awhile, so I'll tell you about that here. I love the Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire musicals produced in 1950's Hollywood. After watching Singin' in the Rain, somehow I feel like singing. I believe that effect is the most fascinating thing about entertainment. So, I have the dream of creating a musical. The media can be anything, maybe a videogame. It would be a fun and bittersweet story, with singing and dancing, along with wonderful melodies.

Haven: Videogames are changing rapidly. In what direction would you like to see the medium go in the coming years?

Hiroki Kikuta: Although it's oft repeated that videogames are the interactive media, I don't believe they hold a monopoly on interactivity. The traditional theater, even magic acts, involve communication between the stage and audience, which is the essence of interactivity. Games show originality when they construct a believable fictional world, then prompt the involvement of the user within that world. Therefore, I think it's only natural that the current of game software development increasingly favor online games. I just helped design an online game myself, called Tyou Bukyo Taisen, and realized in the process that game design for MMOs is fundamentally different from offline titles. Rather than relying upon an event that the game designers construct, online titles require a design based on the spontaneity and interaction between players. The reason why a lot of recent online games won't last long is that they are designed around all the conventional methods, without any innovation. We need to be careful not to keep perpetuating this lack of vision.

Game media hasn't fully matured, yet. Greater varieties of interactivity should be well researched, analyzed and implemented in detail. When it finally comes time for people to live in a fictional game world with all the nuances as of reality, share feelings with others who they meet there, and engage in journeys to unknown realms... if my music can fuel their imagination, I can't think of any other happiness that can top that.

Interview conducted by jeriaska with Japanese translation by Taka Yamamoto. For more info on Hiroki Kikuta, visit his international BBS Angel's Fear.


David Houghton, Destructoid: "New interview with legendary Secret Of Mana composer Hiroki Kikuta"

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Forums / News / Where Angels Fear to Tread: A Conversation with Hiroki Kikuta

Awesome interview; it's great to see some more information on Kikuta, and even better to hear that he's committed to pumping out some more awesome tunes (quite possibly for video games). I have to say I'm really digging his hairstyle in that photo, too.

*goes off to listen to Soukaigi again*
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