Nobuo Uematsu is the composer responsible for much of the Final Fantasy series. Inspired by his youth in Kōchi – a verdant island in the south of Japan – his work perfectly soundtracked the game’s forests, rivers and castles. In this interview, taken from the sessions conducted for our Diggin’ In The Carts video series, Uematsu talks at length about his beginnings as a composer and the series that made him famous.
Where did you grow up?
I was born towards the south of Japan in Kochi Prefecture, which is in Shikoku. There isn’t a whole lot there, but there are mountains and rivers, and lots of beautiful nature. I love it.
How is Shikoku different to the rest of Japan?
I think the biggest thing about Shikoku is, since it’s an island, it’s separated from Honshu, where Tokyo is, so the culture is maybe a little behind... or maybe not. Now there’s the train, maybe it’s not true... But I think it was especially hard to travel to other prefectures from Kochi, because the Shikoku Mountains are in the way. When I was little, my elementary school teacher took me to the sea in Kochi and told me that America and Australia were over the other side, so I wanted to go abroad from a very young age.
I’ve seen a lot of strange things since I was little. I still like that kind of supernatural world.
How did being raised in Shikoku influence your music?
When you’re born and raised in the countryside, you fall in love with it. So, even now, I’m still not used to the city lifestyle. In terms of spiritualness, I really believe Shikoku is a mysterious place like that. A great monk put up a spiritual barrier long ago. And I’ve seen a lot of strange things since I was little. I still like that kind of supernatural world.
What was your first experience with the supernatural world?
The first time I witnessed something supernatural was in elementary school. When I was lying down, there was a strange old man next to me, or a strange girl standing at the doorway. When I realized it, I was floating little above my bed. That kind of thing happened to me a lot when was little. The scariest time was when I was sleeping once and was dragged around the room by my legs.
When you make music for Final Fantasy with beautiful river and forest scenes, do you think of Kochi while you do it?
When making a fantasy world for a game, The Lord of the Rings or Celtic culture are the kind of themes that are common as the basis of many RPGs. So, Japanese RPGs end up being based on foreign ideas of fantasy too, and what you see in those is ultimately beautiful forests, rivers, castles, fairies and so on. So, they’re quite similar to the things I loved when I was in Kochi.
Where did you acquire your classical music background?
I’ve never studied music. I’ve never studied composition or learned an instrument. I simply wanted to make music by myself, so I started playing around with it.
Elton John’s Honky Château had a big impact on my life.
Do you have a musical hero?
There are many people. At the start of the ’70s, I was in junior high school and probably at my most impressionable. Back then, the popular bands were Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and other progressive rock outfits. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Elton John, The Carpenters, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder were some others. I think they all influenced me to a similar extent.
Why did you want to be Elton John in 1972?
The reason I wanted to be Elton John in 1972 was probably because the first record that I ever bought was Elton John’s album Honky Château. It gave me a great shock as a young man. I thought about how wonderful it would be to do that kind of thing as a job. Honky Château had a big impact on my life.
Can you tell us how you started working for the video game company Square?
At the time, I was 24 or 25, and I wanted to work in music, but the world wasn’t forgiving enough to allow someone with no connections, ability, or experience to get a job like that. I knew I wanted to do something, so I made demo tapes every day and sent them to record companies, but I couldn’t get near a job. My home was just a small room, but every night people with different dreams would get together there and drink. People who wanted to be painters, writers, calligraphers, and such. That kind of thing was happening every night at my place. And one day there was a girl who said she was making games. Before long, she asked me if I could make tracks to be used in games, and the place she ended up taking me to was Square. Back then, Square was based really close to where I was living, so I ended up visiting there a lot. That was when I was about 25.
Game music didn’t exist as a job back then as far as most people knew, so I thought I’d just do game music for a couple of years and then move onto something more proper, though maybe that isn’t the best word. Something like film music, or writing popular music. I thought about getting a job like that. So, I intended to join Square as a temporary job, but I’ve ended up staying at the company for about 25 years.
What do you remember about the first track on Final Fantasy, “Prelude”?
Around the time I worked on that, I’d just finished making all the music and thought everything was complete. Then my boss Hironobu Sakaguchi suddenly came into the room and told me to make one more song for the opening screen. He gave me 30 minutes. I remember rushing to make it right there. I never dreamed that song would continue to be used in the Final Fantasy series.
What’s special about the music production for Final Fantasy compared to other games?
The difference between the music made for Final Fantasy and the music I made for other games, for me, isn’t that big. But up until that point, I hadn’t made anything for an RPG, and with RPGs you can add just about any type of music. For example, you can add grandiose, movie-style music with a sense of openness, you can add cute music for cute characters, and you can add something like progressive rock to battle scenes. In that sense my music is really... Well, I’m an omnivore, so I like variety in music, so in that sense, I think RPGs are a genre that’s really suited to me.
Was it tough to make music for the NES?
The NES days were tough. I had to type in every little thing by myself, like for an 8th note in C, C8, for a 16th note in E, E16 and so on. I used a goto statement to repeat and such, and had to do that endlessly, so it was really tough.
I think that the more limited people are, the more ingenious they begin to get.
Was it difficult to express the feeling of RPGs under the limitations of the machine?
People often say that the NES or SNES must’ve been so hard to create music on with so few sounds available, but I didn’t really feel that myself. I think that the more limited people are, the more ingenious they begin to get, so maybe I actually enjoyed thinking about how I could make rock music with three sounds, or how I could make classical-sounding music. It was like a game to me.
What kind of tools and gadgets did you use during the NES days?
I think the machine I used during the NES days was an MSX. I’d say I was using it up until Final Fantasy III.
I prefer to write love themes or a magnificent main theme.
Did you discover any tricks for overcoming the limitations of the hardware?
When making music for the NES, they were all electronic sounds. It only made sounds like “peee,” “booo,” “paaa,” so expressing emotions was definitely tough. So, instead of just having “paaa,” I’d do a “pwaoo” sound by changing the way it faded in and out. For example, for playing a melody, I’d play one sound at a proper frequency, and another sound with the same melody. But I’d shift the frequency a little for that one, and the timing of it. By doing that, even though they were electronic sounds, it created kind of shimmer, and a sound that was full of emotion. I tested various things like that day after day.
You need to express various emotions in games through music. Are there any emotions that are easier to express than others?
Emotions that are easy to express through music are, for me, I like a peaceful feeling. When it comes to making aggressive music, if I’m told to, then I will, because it’s my job, but I’m not that keen on making battle music. I prefer to write love themes or a magnificent main theme and that kind of music.
What was the change from the NES to the SNES like for you?
When we moved from the NES to the SNES, the biggest change was that we moved from three electronic sounds to eight sampling sounds. The thing that was most different from the NES, that I thought was best, was being able to use drum sounds. Being able to use drums meant being able to lead the rhythm forward with the sound of beats.
How long did it take you to get accustomed to the new working environment when the SNES was introduced?
When we switched to the SNES, I don’t think there was any time to study before starting work for real. So, they put a sound programmer with me, and together with him, we made music every day while sampling tones and testing them out. But even then there wasn’t enough time. I wouldn’t have been able to make it even working at the pace of a regular person. So, we went to work at 6 AM, and tried out what we could before people arrived.
You made a lot of classical music that didn’t sound classical on the SNES, so when did you feel like the sound chips evolved enough to create a true classical sound?
The first time I was able to have the kind of orchestral music I wanted actually play in the game was from about Final Fantasy VIII. For the opening and ending, I actually got an orchestra and choir involved, and was able to record them live. So, it was from around that time.
Now there are acts like Final Symphony and Distant Worlds performing your music live. When did you first hear your music performed by a symphony?
The first time my music was performed by an orchestra was maybe after Final Fantasy I and II. I did a Final Fantasy orchestra concert once around that time. So, I think it must’ve been in the late ’80s or around 1990. I was really happy, but scared. The reason for that was because I’d never had a musical education, and I’m still not great at reading musical scores. I’m bad at writing and reading them. I was surrounded by 70 to 80 people who’d studied music since they were about three or four years old. I couldn’t get over the inferiority complex, and it’s actually still something I haven’t overcome today. When I do Distant Worlds, I go up on stage too, but I end up thinking about how they’ve studied music for decades, whereas I just can’t compare. I still can’t get past that complex.
Can you tell us about Distant Worlds?
It’s different to other symphonies. There are big-screen monitors and such. I think Distant Worlds’ concerts allow me to do exactly the kind of orchestral music I’d like to do myself. Anything goes. It’s a concert of orchestral music, but it’s okay to laugh, it’s okay to go “Yay!” and cheer them on. We can have an electric guitar in there, and a vocalist in there. It’s a very free kind of orchestral music that hadn’t been done before, and it feels like they let me do whatever I want. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing where we go from here. Arnie Roth, who conducts the orchestra, is always saying my rock band should play together with the orchestra. That day might come at some point.
How did Arnie come to conduct this orchestra?
The first time I met Arnie, I thought he’d be a very serious and stiff kind of person, but he was actually frank, gentle, fun, and liked to drink. Of course, he’s someone who does classical music, but not only classical. He also conducts popular music and performances with orchestras together with rock bands. I thought if he were like that, maybe he wouldn’t look at game music in a funny way, and instead see it as just another form of music. So I asked him to work with me, and it became the start of a long relationship, which is going well now.
How does it feel to perform before such a big audience?
When it comes to performing before an audience, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Japan or abroad, I feel nervous either way. It’s the same wherever I do it. But people abroad are better at expressing their joy, and respond with cheers, so when they get into it, I feel really happy.
Have you been moved to tears listening to orchestras perform your music?
When my music is performed at Distant Worlds and such, there are times when I feel it’s great and tear up. But there are a lot of fans sitting around me, so I wipe my tears so nobody catches me.
There are times when I feel it’s great and tear up. But there are a lot of fans sitting around me, so I wipe my tears so nobody catches me.
What are you most proud of, looking back?
What I’m proud of... I haven’t thought about it, so it’s a little difficult to say... What I was conscious of when making music 27 years ago hasn’t changed now. What that is exactly is harmony. Using several sounds to create harmony. While there are various sounds, they’re mixed to create a single sound. What I always think is that there are many kinds of people. People with different personalities, different interests, different religions and languages. Countries differ and nationalities differ, and there are many variations. If all those people got together, is there any way they could create harmony?
I thought about that 27 years ago, and I still think about it now, and I’m conscious of it when I work. I feel really happy myself that I’ve been able to keep that awareness with me over those 27 years. For example, it could’ve happened that I ended up somewhere making a certain kind of music for the sake of money, but I didn’t want that. I want to keep on trying to create harmony with various different kinds of music. If everyone could have that awareness, maybe worldwide harmony on earth could be possible. It may be naive of me, but, through music, I wish for this and try to express it.