King's Field, Full Metal Yakuza, FromSoftware and Takashi Miike, Koji Endo and.... Chu Ishikawa

Music and FromSoftware

 

The annals of video game music are full of borrowed (and in many cases stolen) melodies. There are countless examples of this happening, but it’s also interesting to give a listen to video game songs born of honest collaboration with already established composers and producers. One that’s always stuck out to me is the unlikely crossover of talent between FromSoftware and director Takashi Miike. Industrial maestros like Chu Ishikawa or bizarre thriller flick composers like Koji Endo may seem like odd names to bring up when talking about video game music, but both had a massive influence over the direction of FromSoftware’s games (and in Ishikawa’s case, over Japanese video game music in general throughout the 90s).

Chu Ishikawa is probably most famous for creating the soundtrack for Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989. By doing sound design work for several movies, he (and his percussion group Der Eisenrost) ended up also having a major influence on video game music in Japan. What’s less obvious, however, is the long term influence his work ended up having on FromSoftware’s King’s Field series. To find it we have to first look at some of Ishikawa’s less famous work: He worked on the soundtracks for every Takashi Miike film in the 90s except for ONE, Full Metal Yakuza (1997). This film’s soundtrack is credited to a contract group called Sound Kid’s Corp. (often shortened to SoundKids). However, Full Metal Yakuza‘s soundtrack sounds pretty much the same as any other Ishikawa soundtrack for a Miike movie. If not for the credit it would be indistinguishable. What is SoundKids?

SoundKids is an audio production studio that’s been around for some time, yet their last credited work is for sound effects in the racing game Burnout in 2001. Where it gets interesting is that until around 2002 their main three members were also FromSoftware regulars by the names of Koji Endo (SoundKids was his company), Tsukasa Saitoh and Kaoru Kono.

SoundKids’ only credited sound design and soundtrack works are for the first three King’s Field games, Full Metal Yakuza, a DTV softporn film titled Injû Chôkyô, and those sound effects in Burnout – not a lot of work for seven years. However, Koji Endo has had a long career doing music for numerous movies, anime series and tv shows since. Tsukasa Saitoh has done both composition and sound design for FromSoftware ever since. Kaoru Kono however seems to have dropped out from film and game music completely. Not coincidentally, Koji Endo also composed a lot of music for later Takashi Miike movies, starting with Audition in 1999. The musical similarities and timeline imply he was also involved with both Chu Ishikawa and Miike as early as the mid nineties. Just before SoundKids’ final job on Burnout in 1999, Miike and Ishikawa even collaborated officially on another Takashi Miike film, a frenetic Yakuza romp called Dead or Alive.

If we listen to some selections of Chu Ishikawa’s work from the late 80s through the 90s, it’s not an exaggeration to say that what Ishikawa has is very close the sound of games from the 90s where the player crawls through dungeons. This isn’t surprising, as in Japan at least one could say he was almost as influential on video game music as Yellow Magic Orchestra. Similarities to his work can be heard in many Japanese game soundtracks from the 90s be they from then popular developers like SNK (Last Resort, 1992) or cult outliers like Genki (Kileak series, 1994-97). Der Eisenrost even has a song featured in the Genki’s 2002 mech dueling game Phantom Crash.

The clearest connection though, is when one listens to music from the original King’s Field and compares it to some of Full Metal Yakuza‘s soundtrack. It’s extremely similar to SoundKids’ work on King’s Field from 1994, almost to the point of being interchangeable. Full Metal Yakuza is the single 90s Miike film for which Ishikawa is not listed as the sole composer despite his officially working on each one produced between 1990 and 1999 – right before Koji Endo became Miike’s regular composer. It’s also impressive that Ishikawa and Endo both gave birth to a sound that’s equally appropriate in both a high fantasy adventure game and a contemporary sci-fi Yakuza revenge flick.

The similarity also implies, however, that perhaps Chu Ishikawa was actually involved in sound design for the early King’s Field series. This makes sense as while music of the first three King’s Field games was produced mainly by Koji Endo and Kaoru Kono with Tsukasa Saitoh, the fourth installment, King’s Field: The Ancient City, was handled by just Tsukasa Saitoh. With this gradual change from SoundKids as a whole becoming less involved as Saitoh became a more prominent composer for FromSoftware’s fantasy games, we can hear a gradual shift in each newer installment of the series.

Fitting for being greatly influenced by (and possibly working directly with) Chu Ishikawa, the first three King’s Field installments emphasize heavy percussion. While the series is in a purely fantastical setting complete with elves, magical swords, and ancient dungeons to explore, the music has a much more industrial drive to it more typical of Ishikawa’s work – in defiance of a period where many game composers were using new sound drivers and technology to try to imitate actual instruments accurately. FromSoftware instead embraced the limitations of the hardware of the time, creating several moody tracks that are a perfect match for exploring the series’ typical vast labyrinths and decrepit tombs:

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“Floor 2-2” – SoundKids – King’s Field (KING’S FIELD Original Best Track, 2001)

A song more suitable for a dystopian sci-fi shooter than a dark fantasy adventure.

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Once Tsukasa Saitoh takes the reins, however, we see a very clear shift happen, with the metallic percussion gradually giving way to something more ambient. Eventually, FromSoftware’s adventure games would only even use background music during climatic battles or when meeting very important characters. We also see a shift away from electronic composition in general, with some tracks being more stereotypical of FromSoftware’s pastiche dark fantasy worlds.

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“Egg Field” – Tsukasa Saitoh – King’s Field: The Ancient City (Unreleased, 2001)

Saitoh’s music shifts away from industrial as one goes further into the game, but the strong percussive drive remains even in its most whimsical tracks.

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Saitoh’s influence on King’s Field‘s music can be felt even in the earlier installments, and thanks to extensive keyboard work many of the songs in The Ancient City and onward carries a more melancholy, forlorn tone that maintain the urgency of previous installments’ driving sound even as his style would make FromSoftware’s most popular games focus more on strings and dramatic choirs. This change can be partially credited to working with higher quality sound hardware and, in the case of FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, an actual orchestra with a thirty-two person choir that has made that game’s soundtrack ripe for live performance. But in general we can hear this change in direction just by listening to come tracks from the games:

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“Demo” – SoundKids – King’s Field II (Unreleased, 1996)

A desperate demo song conveys how much more is at stake compared to previous King’s Field games.

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“Passage of Thieves” – SoundKids – King’s Field II (Unreleased, 1996)

Dissonant industrial ambiance is a surprisingly good fit for a seemingly abandoned network of caves. “Treasure ahead, therefore beware of skeleton!”

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“Ruins” – Tsukasa Saitoh – King’s Field: The Ancient City (Unreleased, 2001)

In his first solo soundtrack, Saitoh gives a sombering sound to a long dead civilization.

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“Darkbeast” – Tsukasa Saitoh – Bloodborne (2015, Please purchase the entire outstanding Bloodborne soundtrack here.)

This track is a perfect fit for Bloodborne‘s profaned blood drunk world. An almost total atmospheric departure from FromSoftware’s previous games.

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Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne, were all designed as spiritual successors and improvements upon the settings and atmosphere FromSoftware handled so well in the King’s Field series, and it’s impressive that their shift in sound design is equally calculated. As background music came to be used only at the end of each area in Demon’s Souls, each track is even more evocative not just of the enemy being confronted, but of the unique tone each area’s design and atmosphere builds up on the way to these dramatic confrontations. The music serves not just as a signal that one has reached the end, but as a cathartic outburst of the different emotional responses FromSoftware pulls out of the player with each area.

We see this same level of dedication with the music in FromSoftware’s other fantasy games too. The Otogi games stand out in particular. At a glance Otogi: Myth of Demons appears to be a typical action game based on Japanese mythology, but like King’s Field and Demon’s Souls, quickly delves into more horror oriented designs and presentation. This is impressive with how action packed both Otogi games are, in their levels we see the implied massive world and mysterious nature FromSoftware would come to perfect in their Souls games.

This is understandable as Tsukasa Saitoh was a driving force in the music for both games. In a bold move, however, despite the use of more traditional instruments the music in the Otogi games is often much closer in tone to what one would expect to hear from one of FromSoftware’s more industrial influenced soundtracks. Both Otogi and its sequel are light on story but dripping with a foreboding dread which is effectively executed thanks to its oppressive, percussion driven soundtrack. When playing the game, it becomes obvious that this was not a random experiment. Otogi‘s protagonist, Raikoh, is a ghost that is only able to remain in the physical world for so long. One alleviates this timer in the game by purifying (the game’s term for unleashing massive amounts of destruction on every creature and building) the land. The driven, desperate soundtrack is a perfect complement for a game where every aspect of the story and the very structure of the game are based on discrete but frantic bursts of total obliteration.

We see a similar sense of musical urgency in FromSoftware’s 2004 horror game Kuon. Kuon models itself after Resident Evil 2, but uses some of the same personalities and concepts of Heian era mythology that we see in Otogi (most interestingly, these games might be the only pop culture instances where historical figure Abe no Seimei is portrayed as a woman instead of a man). However, even though the game relies mostly on a strong ambient soundscape like Demon’s Souls and FromSoftware’s later games, when music is used it takes the same approach that we see in the Otogi games.

Given the structure of the game, it would have been very easy, and very acceptable, to make a more sensationalist filler soundtrack. FromSoftware again proves themselves better than that, realizing how the approach seen in Otogi would be a good complement for the elements we associate with classic “survival horror” games like having a limited view of the action and a minimal amount of resources to work with. Kuon‘s dissonant, violent sounding percussion tracks suit it perfectly.

Two big contributors to Kuon‘s sound are Yuji Kanda and Yūki Ichiki. Their earlier works for FromSoftware includes sound design in both the Otogi games and King’s Field: The Ancient City, and it’s great to see that while they had a cult following until the release of Demon’s Souls in 2009, FromSoftware’s creative teams have consistently developed a unique feel for many of their games without forgetting design sensibilities that go all the way back to the release of their first video game in 1994. The game industry went through some massive changes in the mid 90s, but musically, even very highly regarded developers like BioWare were more than content to start out with using outright stolen musical content for their soundtracks. FromSoftware’s various composers consistently being inspired by the aural aesthetic of popular and cult film music while still having the insight to apply that aesthetic in unique ways across games of disparate genre and settings is one of the things that sets their adventure games apart from all others.

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Chris Rasa
Chris’ only known functions are learning about video games, watching movies, and writing about both. Much of his published work can be found on Hardcore Gaming 101, where he has worked as a contributing editor since 2004 and, more recently contributed to HG101’s ever growing selection of books.