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The Pioneers: Junya Nakano

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Junya NakanoJunya Nakano started out as a music composer for Konami's arcade titles and began composing for Square during the 16-bit era. Since then, he has contributed to such soundtracks as Final Fantasy X, Musashi Samurai Legend, and Project Sylpheed. Square Haven takes a look back at the music composer's career thus far, including samples from nine of his game soundtracks chosen by Totz of Square Enix Music Online.

Junya Nakano
One often overlooked core member of the Square Enix Music sound team is Junya Nakano, who has been creating music for diverse genres since the days of the Super Famicom. Though he has yet to be associated with a popular franchise the way Nobuo Uematsu is known for Final Fantasy or the music of Yoko Shimomura is linked to Kingdom Hearts, Nakano has been a core contributor to entries in the Front Mission and Musashi series of games, while also contributing to the Final Fantasy X original soundtrack.

Junya Nakano was born on February 28, 1971 in Tokyo, Japan. In his youth he joined a brass band, and by the age of 14, he was creating MIDI music files on his personal computer. In an interview with Rocketbaby, he said about his earliest experiences as a musician, "I took music courses in kindergarten, and it had to begin there. Perhaps I was inspired by playing in a brass band, but otherwise I was influenced by no one in particular."

In 1992, after completing a college program in piano theory and composition, Nakano moved to Kobe to join Konami's circle of of sound programmers known as the Kukeiha Club. In his two years with the company, he created music for such arcade titles as Asterix, Lethal Enforcers, X-Men: The Arcade Game, Hexion, Martial Champion, Mystic Warriors, Golfing Greats 2, and Polygonet Commanders. In the liner notes of Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack, he writes, "I started out with a company in Kobe producing music for arcade games. Because arcade games are played on machines situated inside entertainment centers, there are certain criteria that such soundtracks must meet. Firstly, sound projection is key. Secondly, the songs must be easy to remember. When I listened to this music I would think to myself, how was the presentation? Prioritizing such concerns I found to be highly effective, and hoping for a more dynamic sound sampling, I gradually experimented with various DJ-ing techniques to incorporate into my work."

Of Nakano's arcade titles, perhaps the sidescrolling action game X-Men is best known among Western players for its cooperative four-player battle mode. However, the realistic graphics of light-gun shooter Lethal Enforcers attracted a degree of notoriety in the United States, not so much for its gameplay as for its realistic depictions of gun wielding violence. While Nakano enjoyed his time working for Konami, and looked back fondly on those projects early on in his career, the composer recognizes a shift in his way of working coinciding with the decision in 1995 to transition from arcade titles to the music soundtracks for more narrative-driven home console titles. He notes certain reservations in the Final Fantasy X original soundtrack liner notes concerning the factors that make arcade music successful and explains the heightened challenge of composing for home consoles, where the distractions of the arcade atmosphere are removed and the player's full attention is given to the game.

"From the time I joined Square," he writes , "my way of thinking changed. Arcade music does indeed sound good on first listen. But on subsequent listenings, one tends to feel that the style of the music doesn't seem original, like it had been used before, and the meaning and expressions of the music differs with different opinions. There's bound to have someone out there who thinks they have a better idea and wants to 'challenge' the composer. With that in mind, I try to put myself into the shoes of these people and try to add a more original, upbeat rhythm and consider more factors that could contribute to the success of a song."

After being accepted into the Squaresoft sound team, Nakano would begin to develop his personal philosophy of console game music. Upon entering the company, he was assigned the soundtrack for the adventure game Treasure Conflix, which followed the exploits of a treasure hunter who excavates archaeological digs and explores the game world in an upgradeable airship. The title was released for the Super Famicom's Satellaview, a satellite modem add-on that went on sale in Japan in 1995. Billed as a shooter role-playing game, the title included shooting mini-games and thought puzzles. Hints on which locations to visit in order to progress further in the storyline were written out on treasure maps, allowing for a greater degree of interactivity by prompting players to immerse themselves in the circumstances of the game world.

That same year, Nakano joined the team working on the platforming adventure spin-off of the Front Mission series, entitled Gun Hazard. Headed by Chrono Trigger composers Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda, Gun Hazard's music team included an intern named Masashi Hamauzu, who had recently graduated as a vocalist and classical music studies scholar from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts. Matching the mood of the dystopic science fiction story, Nakano contributed four dark and brooding themes. "Evil Power," "Enemy Raid," and "Edel Ritter" create through the use of steadily beating percussion instruments an atmosphere of mounting tension, presaging the direct encounters with the enemy on the battlefield. The use of a synthesized male chorus, an unfamiliar choice for Super Famicom era game titles, lends the soundtrack an eerie atmosphere to match the cyberpunk-inspired character designs by Yoshitaka Amano. The starkly uncomplicated "Royce's Death" is a powerful elegy. Had an orchestrated version of the album been produced, the song may well have benefited from live piano and violin arrangements. The haunting theme would presage some of Nakano's work on later game titles, such as some of the more surreal passages in Another Mind and the ambient sounds of Final Fantasy X.

Soon after Front Mission: Gun Hazard, Square transitioned from Nintendo's cartridge-based 16-bit Super Famicom console to the compact disc software system used by the Sony Playstation. Mitsuda was in charge of producing the soundtrack to a fighting title developed by DreamFactory, starring a diverse assortment of interplanetary fighters, designed by Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball Z illustrator Akira Toriyama. The soundtrack producer sought to complement the colorful characters with a team of music composers and sound designers working at Square. Mitsuda assigned Nakano three tracks for for Tobal No.1, to appear alongside the works of such musicians as Kenji Ito, Masashi Hamauzu, Noriko Matsueda, Yoko Shimomura, and Ryuji Sasai. Experimenting with the improved quality of sound samples available on the new Playstation hardware, Nakano's "Hills of Jugon" offers a funky new-age melody, whose atmospheric approach departs from the normal intensity of fighting game scores. Nakano also came up with the quirky fusion theme for bendable robot Hom. When the title came stateside in September of 1996, it was the first exposure among Anglophone players to Nakano's music for Square. To this day, the songs remain unique entries in the brawler genre, fighting against the grain of the regular adrenaline-pumping fair.

Junya Nakano's next game for Square was an extremely experimental project for the game company. A dialog-based adventure where the protagonist is guided by an inner voice, Another Mind introduced players to 16-year old Hitomi Hayama. After surviving a car accident, Hitomi begins hearing voices--which happen to belong to whomever is holding the Playstation controller. The story progresses as you direct Hitomi, altering the course of events and your relationship with the on-screen character based on what you decide to tell her.

The soundtrack to Another Mind succeeds in making the player feel at home within the game. Development director Keizo Kokubo contended that "the adult sensibility that lies in the valley between the superficial experience and its subtext" is very important to understanding the world of Another Mind. He praises Nakano's music, which "possesses strength emerging from a core of stoicism." Another Mind was the starting point for the new Nakano, whose layering of different melodic and percussive lines created a soundscape that is unique among game compositions.

To match the supernatural premise of the game, and given only two months time, Nakano came up with a surreal and subtly disturbing game score. He explains in his liner notes to Another Mind Original Soundtrack that he attempted to write in a unique style. Rather than sampling sounds, the majority of the music for the game was produced through the Playstation's internal sound chip. Hidenori Iwasaski, the synthesizer programmer for the game, was able to provide quality sounds for the electronic instrumentation, making such an experiment a constructive endeavor. With introspective, dreamy compositions, Nakano creates "[a]n overpowering atmosphere...phrases with miraculous tonal balance," said Iwasaki. "The original songs provided by Junya Nakano were so well realized to begin with that all I did to optimize the sound for the Playstation was add compression to the original sounds. It's a defeat for manipulators everywhere".

The following year, Nakano would have the opportunity to make new inroads in developing his style on the action role-playing title Threads of Fate . The game's soundtrack departed from Another Mind in catering to the increased need for rhythm and drive required of an action title. The composer adapted to the challenging new circumstances by refining his composing style, creating delicate sounds and soothing melodies that were perhaps too subtle to survive the barrage of noise found in the arcades. Nor was the composer sacrificing any liveliness from such titles as X-Men: The Arcade Game. For the first time, he was finding a delicate balance between the demands of energetic and relaxed game music methods. "Passing Through the Forest" blends rhythmic percussion instruments with a mellow melody, while the fast-paced keyboard line, rocking guitars and militaristic drumbeat of "Roadblock," retain the energy of the Konami arcade soundtracks.

"As opposed to an arcade machine, you don't need to consider the audibility of the music for console games, since such games are enjoyed in the comforts of home," wrote Nakano, reflecting on his gradual transition from the Konami Kakeiha Club to Square's music department. "From the point of view of a game music composer, presentation along with the and shaping of the melody holds the utmost priority during the composing period. I have to listen to the track repeatedly to ensure that it still holds up after repeated loopings. Some of my ideas have changed through the years, but as far as my involvement in Square soundtracks is concerned, I still stick to my original principle: to create a vibrant and dynamic feel in the music."

In that respect, Threads of Fate, called Dewprism in Japan, was a turning point in Nakano's development as a composer. "If Dewprism had never existed," he told Rocketbaby, "the music of Final Fantasy X would have ended up completely different. Working on Dewprism gave me the experience to compose those songs."

Following the release of DewPrism in Japan, nothing was heard from Junya Nakano for another year. The reason being, he had been selected to join Gun Hazard collaborator Masashi Hamauzu in scoring the first canonical Final Fantasy title to include compositions by a musician other than Nobuo Uematsu. The Final Fantasy maestro told Rocketbaby that he chose to receive the help of his collaborators because they were capable of "creating types of music that I cannot compose. Each makes his own interesting and original works."

For months, the composers of Final Fantasy X communicated with one another through email from their separate studios, coming together at select times to work on specific tracks in tandem. Nakano ended up contributing 18 songs to the original soundtrack. With orchestral tracks arranged by Shiro Hamaguchi and synthesizer tracks programmed by Ryo Yamazaki, the quality of arrangement on the title was unsurpassed in quality. Hamauzu, in arranging the music for Final Fantasy X Piano Collections, said that the project was something of an intimidating task, but he was also intrigued by the idea of approaching songs like "Guadosalam." In speaking of Nakano's theme, Hamauzu remarked, "The arpeggios and the placement of the instruments are excellent."

Junya Nakano, Nobuo Uematsu & Masashi Hamauzu

"This year is my 10th year in the music business," wrote Junya Nakano in the liner notes of Final Fantasy X's original soundtrack. "This time, for the music of Final Fantasy X, I have gathered all my years of experience to compose for something as grand as the Final Fantasy series. I feel I have given my all. Not only is it an experience to play the game, I hope that a sense of contentment will come to listeners will be able to have a arrive at a feeling contentment simply by listening to the songs."

The ambient melodic tracks contributed by Nakano lend an atmosphere to Final Fantasy X that is dreamlike in quality. Songs like "Underwater Ruins" manage to submerge the listener in the aquatic in-game environment, perfectly matching the then state-of-the-art graphical achievements of the Playstation 2 console. The use of distant drumbeats, pulsing tones, and sonar blips are both carefully understated and effective in simulating the watery depths of the submerged game dungeons. Meanwhile, "Summoned Beast Battle" marshals all the composer's forces of intensity to create one of the most riveting battle tracks in the series' estimable history, organically weaving the prayer theme developed by all three composers into the midst of the action.

While Hamauzu was in charge of the Final Fantasy X Piano Collections, Nakano teamed up with Masayoshi Kikuchi to write the arrangement "Endless Love, Endless Road," sung by Yuna and Tidus, the romantic pair of the game. They sing about the future accompanied by a soothing acoustic guitar line. Following Final Fantasy X, Nakano left Square to develop a project for Asmik Ace Entertainment. The game, a flight sim called Sidewinder F, involved creating ten songs to accompany the fast-paced flight combat.

In 2005, Nakano joined Masashi Hamauzu once again to compose the music for Musashi Samurai Legend. The soundtrack would also feature pieces by rock band The Surf Coasters and Wavelink Zeal, composed of the married couple Takayuki and Yuki Iwai. Another significant contributor was synthesizer programmer Ryo Yamazaki, whose work on the soundtracks of Hamauzu brought a degree of authenticity to sampled instruments that are typically beyond compare. Refining his work as a composer once more, Nakano was able to create for listeners the atmosphere of fiery infernos with "Meltdown" and "Firewalker," perilous jungles on "Call of the Wild" and Jungle Journey," and the weathered remnants of ancient civilizations for "Temple of the Ancients." Infusing some light electronica into the mix, as with the aggressive "Dark Duel," not only broadened the scope of the composer's music, but also prepared him for the more action-oriented titles that he would undertake in the coming years.

Various tracks found in Musashi Samurai Legend are considerably more emblematic of Nakano's trademark atmospheric style than what was found on Final Fantasy X. "Miner's Woe" hearkens back to the composer's work on Tobal No. 1 and Threads of Fate by combining bizarre electronic samples like echoing tunnel effects and honking horns with resonating acoustic percussion instruments. The understated use of a rustling rattle on "Meltdown" and the minor chords issuing from the accompanying keyboard consciously stray from a coherent melody, creating a song that is both hypnotically engaging and subtly unsettling.

For his last outing on the Playstation 2 game console, Nakano made a small but notable contribution to the four-disc soundtrack Sanctuary, the original soundtrack for Seiken Densetsu 4: Dawn of Mana. Joining Tsuyoshi Sekito and Masayoshi Soken as remixers, he arranged two of Hiroki Kikuta's memorable songs. "Splash Hop" retains the vibrant energy of the Seiken Densetsu 3 theme of the giant sea-dwelling turtle Booskaboo, while "Weird Counterpoint" sets a mood of strangeness and intrigue for which there is little precedence elsewhere in the game's soundtrack. Finally Nakano created a remix of Sword of Mana's memorable theme "Endless Battlefield," considered by some to be one of Kenji Ito's most lasting contributions to game music.

Most recently, Junya Nakano joined Square composers Kenichiro Fukui and Kumi Tanioka, along with Game Arts sound designers Takahiro Nishi and Keigo Ozaki, in creating the Project Sylpheed original soundtrack. This time his compositions favored the inorganic electronic style more familiar to the shooter genre, mixing diffuse and otherworldly sound samples with rocking electronic beats. For instance, “Sneak to the Front Line" begins in dreamy a haze of ambient sounds, until a driving techno beat kicks in, lending the track some intensity and direction. Rising to the demands of the epic science fiction soundtrack, Nakano gets his groove on, creating an atmosphere of wonder and intrigue that perfectly complements the free-flying space travel of the in-game action.

While Junya Nakano's current projects are shrouded in mystery, he is currently employed as an in-house composer at Square Enix. Demonstrating his versatility in a variety of game genres and instrumental arrangements, one could argue that the musician could benefit just about any project. He has excelled as a remixer in Dawn of Mana, created subdued and involving themes for Final Fantasy, and high-intensity dramatic tracks for Project Sylpheed. With projects like Threads of Fate and Musashi Samurai Legend he has established his own unique voice. Wherever the future takes him, Nakano is likely to continue to provide a distinctive musical atmosphere that stands the test of time.


Wavelength1337 is Totz & Jeriaska

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