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Hiroki Kikuta: Lost Files Regained

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Hiroki Kikuta is the composer of such game music soundtracks as Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Soukaigi. Square Haven spent an afternoon with the game creator to hear about his experiences working for Squaresoft during the 16-bit era as a debugger, sound designer, and game music composer.
Hiroki Kikuta has just finished contributing to the original soundtrack for Square Enix MMORPG Concerto Gate and is in the process of publishing two albums to follow Lost Files, the debut release for his music publishing company, Norstrilia. Square Haven met with the musician at his office near Shibuya recently, and the composer's friend Masaki Koshida, who organizes the SakuraCon anime convention, offered to lend a hand with the English-Japanese interpretation. What follows is a written account of the audio-recorded conversation on the subject of Kikuta-san's early days at Square as a music composer.

At 26, following his degree in religious studies and cultural anthropology at Kansai University in Osaka, Kikuta-san started out in popular media not as a composer, but as an image illustrator for manga. Like many young Japanese artists, he took on a pseudonym. The pen name of 'Yuuki Ni Juu Roku' was meant as an homage to the novelist Naoki San Juu Go, who wrote books in the setting of Osaka, shortly after the Kasai earthquake of 1923. As Yuuki Ni Juu Roku, Kikuta penned the manga "Raven" in a burst creativity, practically overnight. When asked about the circumstances underlying the biographical details about him found on the web, these were his replies.

Square Haven: What was the meaning behind your pseudonym?
Hiroki Kikuta: Until I started composing music, I used to make my living by drawing. My name during that time was 'Yuuki 26.' You see, technically my real name is Yuuki Kikuta, but people would spell my name 'Yuki' all the time. Yuki is a woman's name, and the mix-up caused lots of trouble. For instance, this one time I needed to stay at a hotel with a friend of mine, but since my name sounded female, a double bed was prepared instead of two single beds. So, I thought, I'll just have to go by 'Hiroki.'

A self-taught musician, Kikuta-san was hired to compose music for a televised anime version of Snow White. The project allowed him to write music for a fully orchestrated symphony, and today he owns the rights to the recordings of over one hundred songs, which he plans to publish on the Norstrilia label. The experience writing music for television led to his seeking work in the videogame industry as a composer, but his first choice, Falcom, passed him by. The composer reports that he was somewhat surprised when it turned out that after sending a demo tape to Squaresoft, he received an immediate invitation to interview with the directors of the game company's music department. He had never touched a Final Fantasy game before, or any other console RPG, for that matter. So he showed up to their office in Asakusa with no expectation of being hired.

Hiroki Kikuta: I applied to Falcom, but was not accepted. Then I heard that Square was looking for a staff member, and I sent them a demo tape. I wasn't familiar with Square, at all. I'd never played one of their games before. But they called me in, so I put on a suit and took the subway over to their office. At the interview, there was this man there, Mr. Uematsu, and he asked me, "So, you like progressive rock, huh? That song on your demo reel reminds me of Allan Holdsworth." Somehow, we had a shared bond through our love of progressive rock. The conversation turned out so unexpectedly positive, so I thought there's no way I'm getting the job. They want to leave a good impression with me to smooth over the disappointment of being rejected. But wouldn't you know it, I got the job. At first, I was debugging Final Fantasy IV. That was when Square was still based in Asakasa. I guess the number of workers was somewhere around fifty, and everyone could comfortably occupy a single storey in one building. I used to wear suit, even though mostly I was playing videogames and looking for glitches. When the game froze up on me, I would raise my voice and say, "Um... there's this bug here!" That was how it started out.

Square had interviewed a hundred other musicians, but Kikuta alone was accepted. There were three main producers who alternated in publishing titles for their particular game series. Hironobu Sakaguchi headed the Final Fantasy division, Akitoshi Kawazu was in charge of the SaGa series, and Hiromichi Tanaka handled Seiken Densetsu. Following the completion of Final Fantasy IV, Kikuta was put to work making sound effects for Kawazu's first Super Famicom title, Romancing SaGa. As the composer describes the situation at Square, he had complete freedom and zero direction in going about his work.

Hiroki Kikuta: They were hiring people at the time, but the product line was not moving forward fast enough to employ everyone on important jobs. So, they asked me to help out Ito-Ken with sound effects. I was given absolutely no direction. If I created something interesting, they'd use it. Square basically functioned in that capacity. You did what you liked, and the best of what was created by the group was hand picked and combined together to make the end product. The company was almost more like a college club in its atmosphere, as if a group of hobbyists had taken over a corporation.

Kenji Ito was the composer on Romancing SaGa. His original intention had been to create the score for the following game in the company's pipeline, Seiken Densetsu 2. However, realizing that this was an unrealistic goal, it was decided that the project would be assigned to the newest recruit, and Kikuta was given the task of composing his first videogame soundtrack. He refers to those days as the sleeping bag era, because, faced with the challenges involved with creating his first videogame score, the composer would bring a sleeping bag to the office to work late hours.

The major obstacle in developing music for the Super Famicom was the problem of the size limitations for data files required by the 8 voice PCM. Kikuta had used a Yamaha SY77 for his demo reel. For Seiken Densetsu 2, he had to consider the Super Famicom's 16-bit sound card. He started out by sampling the game system's instruments on his own synthesizer so that he could have greater control over manipulating them. He found that while putting everything in hi-fi required more memory than the game hardware could handle, there were tricks you could use to maximize sound quality. Instruments used for low notes, like the bass drum, did not need to be hi-fi, while cymbals and high hats, if you wanted the sound to be crisp and sharp, required a higher quality conversion. So, he found you could strike a balance between optimizing the quality of the sound and fitting the data requirements of the Super Famicom, so long as you brought a sleeping bag to work.

The composers at Square were asked to start writing music even before the image illustrators, event planners and programmers had begun their work. To that extent, he was flying blind at first. The musician had to do some detective work, walking around the office to strike up conversations with his team members. He ate out with them and joined them for drinks after work, both to relax and gather info. Everyone was doing their own thing, while drawing inspiration and understanding from each other's process. So the music ended up having as much influence on the game design as the other way around.

The intro to Seiken Densetsu 2



Hiroki Kikuta: Nobuo Uematsu had as much authority as Hiromichi Tanaka and Hironobu Sakaguchi. Basically, music had its own independent division working alongside the project development team, so there was never the problem of a director interfering with a composer's artistic preferences. That laid back atmosphere remained even after Square moved from Akasaka to Ebisu. For instance, when we found there was far too much room for us in the new building, we brought air guns to work and tacked some bullseyes to the wall, taking target practice whenever we got frustrated or bored.

Kikuta's next project, Seiken Densetsu 3 was more expansive, to match the roomier surroundings at the new office in Ebisu. This time he had the help of a gifted 18 year-old synthesizer programmer named Hidenori Suzuki, greatly alleviating his responsibilities for the score. He was able to compose three times the music and with a greater degree of freedom and confidence than before. The third Seiken Densetsu, while regarded by fans as one of Square's landmark achievements, failed to sell a million copies, however, and the series was put on hold indefinitely.

A lag followed with the breakdown of the dependable Sakaguchi-Kawazu-Tanaka cycle. It was an uncertain time for the company, with the Super Famicom nearing the end of its life cycle, and Kikuta was left without a project for over a year. The lag ended suddenly when a game developer called Yuke's appeared with funding for a game to be published by Square. The director approached Kikuta with the idea of a post-apocalyptic action game taking place in Japan in 1998, the year of the game's development. It was currently the height of the bubble economy, and the music budget allotted for the project was an extravagant 30 million yen. The improved sound card of the Sony Playstation would also allow the composer to create a score with live, streaming music. Naturally, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The trailer for Soukaigi



Hiroki Kikuta: Lots of things inspire me. Images and songs, all sorts of things. For instance, as I listen to a certain sound sample, I can feel that it could be used in a certain way. The music follows rather naturally, I just need to coax it along. A synthesizer, I think, feels to me like painting with watercolors. Sampling, on the other hand, works like a collage. Watercolors can express anything you want: solid objects like architecture, or flexible objects. Collages are altogether different. You need to combine a variety of different materials. So, if you don't know the essence of each sound sample, bringing them together won't amount to anything.

There were think references behind the world of Soukaigi, and it was different from the typical Square style, inviting Kikuta to be experimental in his creative choices. 80% of the score ended up being live music. One of the most distinctive tracks was called "Quake" and featured lyrics in Thai and Malaysian. The composer was inspired by Buddhist chants, which are comforting to people spiritually, without needing to be fully intelligible. He decided that "Quake" would involve Japanese singers chanting authentic Malaysian lyrics phonetically, giving aesthetic priority to the rhythm, beat, and melody over the meaning of the words themselves.

Ultimately, while the designers at Yuke's had a strong vision of the story, history, world, and character of Soukaigi, the gameplay was the title's Achilles heel. Kikuta decided he needed greater control over his next project. While Yuke's went on to make popular wrestling games, Kikuta departed from Square to form his own company. With Sacnoth's Koudelka, Kikuta attempted to express the themes he had considered while majoring in religious studies in college. Druid and Celtic cultural heritage were be combined with Christian choir music and monastic architecture to express a theme that transcended the particularities of religious precepts: love's significance to the human condition.

The intro to Koudelka





Hiroki Kikuta: After Koudelka, I had not been involved in any game projects for a long time, so I was eager to work on one again. I visited Enix's office, as they were interested in designing an online title. They said they wanted to develop an MMO that spoke to the Asian market. So, very rapidly, I worked up a prospectus on a story based in China, featuring Hong Kong-style swordplay. I titled it "Super Bukyou Taisen." When I showed them the report, instantly they said, "This is just what we've been looking for!"

Chou Bukyo Taisen was developed by Enix, together with a game developer based in Taiwan. The production lasted nearly two years before a falling out took place between the game company and their partners in China. The project was abruptly canceled during its beta testing phase. Kikuta shares the rights to the music he wrote during that time with several other companies, and it remains to be seen whether those songs will ever appear in a self-produced album.

When asked about the tracks from his Seiken Densetsu albums that were arranged by Junya Nakano and Masayoshi Soken for the Dawn of Mana original soundtrack, Kikuta says he enjoys them, but he was not informed of the remixing project either beforehand or afterward. He feels he might embark upon such a project himself, if the new arrangements were totally redone, from the ground up.

Hiroki Kikuta: How would I feel about my older music bing remixed for remakes? It's a difficult question. In the past, when I've heard new arrangements on OverClocked Remix, it's been so fun. Often I find something cooler than what I did. But songs that will be released as part of a game, it had better not be a rush job. The songs created for the Super Famicon I created as precisely as I could. So if someone else tampers with them haphazardly, their structure might just fall apart. If fans asked to hear a new version of the past music, then I might arrange them.

The trailer for Chou Bukyo Taisen



Hiroki Kikuta recently finished his contribution to the Concerto Gate score, and is planning the release of the soundtrack. Several of the designers working on the game happen to have been a part of the original staff of Seiken Densetsu 2. As with his earliest days creating music for the company, the composer remains independent. When the Concerto Gate soundtrack premieres, it will be as two separate items: a Square Enix publication released by the company, and a separate CD containing just Kikuta's themes. The latter soundtrack will be the first published by Norstrilia following Lost Files.

These were our impressions following an afternoon with Hiroki Kikuta. Find out more about the artist by visiting his website Angel's Fear, or leave fan mail at Angel's Fear BBS. This interview was conducted by Jeriaska with interpretation by Masaki Koshida and translation by Taka Yamamoto.

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Chris Kohler, Wired Blogs, "Today's Game Soundtrack: Seiken Densetsu 2"




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