Interview: Soshi Hosoi

How Steve Reich and jungle became key influences for the Japanese composer’s unprecedented video game soundtracks

If you listen to the Hyperdub compilation Diggin’ In The Carts, one of the most unique tracks featured is by a composer named Soshi Hosoi. “Mister Diviner” was created by Hosoi for a little-known mahjong game on the Super Famicon, AKA the Super Nintendo, and the track is a testament to the overarching ethos of the Diggin’ in the Carts project: The deeper you dig, the more dazzling treasures you’ll find.

For many video game fans growing up, there wasn’t necessarily an awareness that someone was behind the music in these games at all, let alone accomplished musicians. These were highly motivated men and women, listening to Japanese fusion or Yellow Magic Orchestra or techno and trying to put those influences into the tracks filling living rooms worldwide. In the case of Soshi Hosoi, it was the minimalist work of Steve Reich and earlier output by Joe Hisaishi that had a profound effect, spurring Hosoi to find his own unique voice in the pioneering sonic world of Japanese video game music. In this interview with Nick Dwyer, Hosoi reflects on his early obsession with games and his strong drive to make music that was different from anything else out there.


Can you tell us about your earliest musical influences? What was it that made you want to become a musician?

I think the first time I became aware of music set to imagery was probably with Star Wars. I saw it as a kid and was blown away as I noticed how the music was synced with the video. Speaking more in terms of music, my older brother had always been into music since I was little, so that was probably my closest connection or exposure to it. So my older brother played a big part. The music my brother made was extremely crazy, free jazz and noise and progressive. His songs had a lot of those elements. I probably picked up some weird tastes thanks to hearing all of that during my childhood.

From the late ’70s and the early ’80s, there was the birth of this incredible Japanese noise scene – there was a band called Hijokaidan, and there’s a wonderful history of noise music in Japan from the ’80s. Can you tell us a bit about your passion for noise?

The thing that really knocked my socks off was this tape cassette project released by this artist Otomo Yoshihide. It was pretty much all noise and way more out there than anything I had ever heard before. I heard it as a kid and it opened my eyes up to the fact that this kind of music was out there, and was indeed music. It left a lasting impression.

I’d like to talk to you about Japanese soundtracks. Throughout the ’80s, Joe Hisaishi’s output was phenomenal. Even before he started working with Miyazaki, Hisaishi had a project called Mkwaju Ensemble with Midori Takada, and it was just some of the most incredible music. Tell us about your love for Hisaishi.

The first time I heard his work was on Hayao Miyazaki’s anime productions at Ghibli, like Nausicaä or Laputa [Castle In The Sky]. That’s where I was first impressed with his music. I later became a fan of Hisaishi and started exploring his past works to see what else he had made. I listened to some collections of his early music and his solo albums, and found that he was more techno than I had expected. I was a fan of YMO and P-Model, so that kind of led to me liking Hisaishi’s early albums, too.

Joe‎ Hisaishi - α-Bet-City

I think one thing that Hisaishi pioneered is this idea of “techno” classical sound. With that in mind, are there particular Hisaishi soundtracks that are some of your favorites?

On my favorites of his is this early song he did called “α-Bet-City.” Another composer I like is Steve Reich. Hisaishi has said that Steve Reich had a profound influence on his earlier work in particular, so I could see a lot of connection there. In terms of his soundtracks, there’s Nausicaä and Laputa that I mentioned earlier that I like, but later he did the music this film My Neighbor Totoro. I remember being really impressed when I heard about the advanced techniques he used to sync the music with the visuals.

Before you ended up doing music for video games as a profession, what was your original intention?

I never studied music. When I decided to go into music it was with the intent of being a composer for games, so I taught myself everything with that as my goal. I never had a formal musical education. I didn’t go to a music-oriented high school or vocational school. I started from zero, just making music on my own. The first thing I wanted to be, though, was a manga artist. I did illustration for a while. In high school we had a choice between music and art, so I chose art. Music was pretty much just a hobby for me back then. I was set on doing art. But eventually I realized I wasn’t talented enough and set that path aside.

Music from Phozon

Was there a particular game soundtrack that really inspired you to make video game music yourself?

Back in the ’80s when I was a student was the height of arcade game music. Namco, Konami, Sega, Taito, Capcom – games by all of these companies were all the rage among my friends. I used to listen to the soundtracks for these and really thought they were cool, but my favorite was the one for this game Phozon. It had this really mysterious soundtrack where it was like the sound effects were merged with the music. It was completely different from movie music or that of anime or dramas, and it gave me this feeling that it was a newer, more interesting way to mix music and visuals, and that’s what set me on the path of game music.

I believe you’re also a fan of Koichi Sugiyama’s music for Dragon Quest. What do you think was particularly unique about the music that Koichi Sugiyama made?

Sugiyama-san is not just a first-rate musician, but also a huge fan of games himself. So he has a very deep understanding of how game music is made, its structure. So, while there are many titles that involved people who aren’t in the game field as creators, the music for the ones that Sugiyama-san had a hand in functioned extremely well as “game music,” and I think that’s part of what makes him so cool. The track he did for Alefgard, the overworld music in Dragon Quest, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s the only scene in the entire Dragon Quest series where the player is journeying entirely alone, so it’s overworld music, but it’s also melancholic. It’s still my favorite of his after all this time.

Dragon Warrior III - Alefgard Theme

You joined a company called Video System in 1992. Tell us about Video System, and how you got a job there.

I graduated from high school and I had to start job-hunting, but I dragged my feet and slacked off for about half a year. Actually, I was mostly playing Dragon Quest III and IV for those six months, so I wasn’t finding any work at all. Eventually my parents told me I had to get a job. My hometown is Kyoto, so I looked around for a place where I could help makes games in the area, and what I found was Video System. I got the job and that’s where I worked. I was born in Kyoto.

Out of all of the composers that I’ve been speaking to, there’s a particular refinement to your music, and I guess as a city Kyoto has a reputation for being somewhat refined. How do you think your upbringing in Kyoto comes through in your music?

The way the terrain is in Kyoto, the city is in a basin of sorts that separates it from the outside. I think this carries over into the people from there, too. Most people there tend to be introverts rather than extroverts. I think it’s almost like a dojo for producing otaku. Back then I think there were a lot of people who liked to stay holed up at home working on intricate things. I was probably one of them, sitting at home making my music like I did. And there’s Kyoto’s unique… I guess a sort of weird air to the place, like a ghostly atmosphere where you’d find spirits and tengu, things like that. If you go back over the history of Kyoto you can find that certain roads were planned as places for trapping spirits. I feel there’s a certain air there that isn’t quite like that found anywhere else.

Tell us about the atmosphere at Video System. How would the office environment have differed from other big games companies?

Video System wasn’t a very large-scale company at all. The staff was fairly small. That’s why I think we had a lot of freedom to make games as we wanted. Pretty much from the moment I joined the company, I was allowed to take charge of titles, to create the sound production environment, to bring in new equipment and so on. My superiors let me do all this. I think I was extremely lucky to be able to work in such a free setting.

And since there were only a few staff, did that mean you were handling all aspects of sound creation? Composing, programming, everything?

I didn’t handle the actual programming. I asked them to let me borrow one of the new programmers they brought on board and assigned that person to sound. Then I told them what sort of drivers I needed and had them make the system for me. I did composing and sound effects. I did give instructions to the programmer, though.

When I was young I had this strong drive to make music that was different from anything else out there.

The one thing I haven’t asked many of my interview subjects about is sound effects. How long would you spend making a certain sound effect? In the earlier days when the chips were more limited, what were the most difficult sound effects to create?

The time period we had differed by the project, but generally it took me around half a year to make the music and effects for a game. As for what I found difficult, I think the one I had the toughest time with was the sound of the boss exploding we used from Sonic Wings 2 onward. Also, the sound of the laser beam the character Hien shot. I struggled with those two, but I think I got good results in the end.

For the explosion and the laser beam, how would you make them in the end?

With the explosion I tried layering things from the different collections of sounds I had, equalizing them and so on to get the sound. The laser beam, however, was a sound that didn’t exist in reality, so I had to make it from scratch. My production environment was usually a computer called the Sharp X68000. I would make the effect using FM sounds, and then sample it playing through something and then put that onto the chip.

Video System were producing a lot of mahjong titles, even adult-themed mahjong titles. What was it about mahjong that Video System had a reputation for making those games?

I think it simply comes down to the fact that those erotic games brought in a lot of money at arcades. But eventually people came to think maybe those types of games weren’t very good, so arcades stopped buying them. So we had to change gears and make shooting games.

Did those games get banned in arcades?

They weren’t banned legally so much as the times just kind of changed, with people saying these games aren’t right. It was more of a self-imposed regulation that led to the decline.

Over the course of doing the Digging in the Carts project, I listened to the entire history of video game music: All the Famicom classics, PC-8801, every game, every soundtrack. Without a doubt, the biggest surprise for me was the music for Mahjong Touhaiden. How did this incredible soundtrack come to be?

The simplest answer is that no one wanted to throw that song away. That was probably the biggest reason I got to do what I wanted there. I was also young, and when I was young I had this strong drive to make music that was different from anything else out there. I wanted to make music that you would never imagine being for a mahjong game. Also, the Super Famicom had a lot of memory limitations that made a lot of sounds end up sounding similar. So this was kind of an experiment towards creating music that doesn’t sound like it came from the Super Famicom. I used strange instrument sets, sampled myself playing violin, tried mixing shamisen and taiko into Western-style songs, basically just had fun experimenting in lots of ways.

Mahjong Touhaiden OST

In the end, it’s very inspired by minimalism and minimalist music. How did you first start getting interested in and developed a passion for minimalism?

My first encounter was the music of Steve Reich. There was another sound creator that I worked with at Video System named Pirowo. Back when he was in middle school, like 14, he heard one of Steve Reich’s songs on the radio, one with six pianos, and recorded it on tape and brought it over to my place. The first time I heard it, I was shocked that people could accept it as music. I knew then that I wanted to make music like that, too. I still had this thought in my mind even after I started working. I felt this Steve Reich-style music, minimal sounds, would work well with games, so I tried to work it in where I could.

I knew Pirowo since I was in grade school. We’re still friends now. When I joined Video System he was already in college, but I got him to drop out and come join the company.

What was it that attracted you to the music of Steve Reich?

The way the repetitions uplift my feelings and work my mind into a kind of trance as I listen, and the way it’s catchy despite being avant-garde. I love experimental and modern music, but not so much stuff that is too difficult, or I guess I should say improvisational. Steve Reich’s music has a lot of personality, but also has clear melodies and just seemed really pop to me. I thought it was really cool how this catchiness coexisted with the more extreme elements in his music.

What’s interesting is there are a couple of very early Namco composers – Yuriko Keino for example – who were also familiar with minimalism. But considering the limitations of the chip, it’s surprising that not more composers were experimenting with minimalist ideas, because it seems that minimalism works perfectly with limited chip capabilities. Do you agree with that?

With old game music you definitely had the memory or hardware restrictions that prevented you from including a lot of sound elements. As a result, you ended up with minimalist music, avant-garde music. Hearing all of that was definitely an influencer for me in joining this industry. The people involved didn’t set out trying to make that kind of music, however. I think more than a few of them just ended up making that kind of music because they didn’t have any choice. I think, for this reason, a lot of them also didn’t see the coolness of this new genre of music they were pioneering. That’s why as game hardware evolved, you saw the music become more normal, or more boring in my eyes. I think it’s a bit sad or unfortunate that most of the people who were hearing those early retro game sounds and realizing, “Hey, this is new techno music!” were mostly, or maybe only, guys outside of the industry, like Haruomi Hosono or Kōji Ueno.

What I had the hardest time with was figuring out how to process jungle as best I could and turn it into a new style of game music.

What are your memories of composing the soundtrack for Mahjong Touhaiden?

I think the planner at the time wanted me to make normal mahjong game music, but I didn’t make music that went along with that, so he ended up giving up partway through the project. We put some pretty interesting gimmicks into the game, one of which that I personally like was – and this has to do with that Steve Reich-style song you said you like – it’s a really long track, and each time it loops, a single line is spoken. It was a lot of fun to be able to put goofy little things like that into the music people would be listening to over and over.

Also, in Sonic Wings, the France stage maybe, I see this motif of you putting some vocals low in the mix. Was that like a bit of a signature of yours?

Yeah, I like to throw in things that sound out of place, that will surprise the listener.

Did you realize that you’d composed a great soundtrack? Did anyone tell you that you’d done a good job at the time?

Not from within the company. One Super Famicom magazine that covered the game did say that the music was way more out there, that it had a lot of music that was pioneering and crazy for a SFC mahjong game. I was pretty happy when I read that article.

Sonic Wings 2 - France Stage (Arcade)

During the same time, you were also composing music for the Neo-Geo, and obviously a lot of people around the world know you for the music of Aero Fighters, AKA Sonic Wings. Tell us about composing music for Neo-Geo, and in particular how you came to compose the music for Sonic Wings.

Right when I came onboard at Video System was when they were mastering the music for Sonic Wings. At the time, they had another composer making their music. The job of us new guys was to manipulate the scores that composer would fax into the office. I was then allowed to debut as a composer on another title, but that music ended up being extremely well-received in the company. When it came time to make a sequel to Sonic Wings, they asked me to take charge of the sound. They also asked me to completely rebuild their sound production environment, so I replaced the entire system. That’s why I think the sound quality is much better in the later titles than it is in Sonic Wings 1.

Can you talk us through the differences in composing for the Neo-Geo compared with composing for the Super Famicom?

There were some big differences in the memory and number of sounds you could have, with the Neo-Geo being way more in the lead in both categories. The thing many were doing with the Neo-Geo was phrase sampling, or using that large capacity to just put in performances as-is. I was more fixated on sequencing using the built-in sound chips, so I don’t think a lot changed with how I was making music for the Neo-Geo than when I was making music for the Super Famicom.

I believe the sound chip was a Yamaha YM2610. Tell us about the personality of that particular sound chip. What could it do?

The biggest characteristic of it was the SSG element. The mainstream back then were FM sounds and PCM, but the SSG was like audio from the last generation. Listen to some of the Neo-Geo soundtracks and you can hear that there weren’t many out there that actively used SSG, but I wanted to use a lot of SSG for Sonic Wings. I used a lot of the unique PSG phrase sampling and noises and so on. I think that added flavor to my music there.

Around about ’94-’95, you also became a big fan of jungle. Tell us about your passion for jungle.

It was thanks to my friend I mentioned earlier, Pirowo. He was also into the cutting-edge of music. As I did more work on the Sonic Wings series, a big theme became having a different style of music for each installment. So when Sonic Wings 2 wrapped and we started developing 3, we had a bunch of meetings where it was like, “Let’s do something completely different.” “OK, like what?” As this went on Pirowo would be like, “What do you think of this music?” and show me different things. One of those was jungle. The time before was Rotterdam [gabba]. We said we wanted to do something Rotterdam before that, but when I heard the music I remarked that I didn’t think it was really suited for game music, and then the next genre he showed me was jungle. I didn’t really have any artist in particular that I liked; it was more just me listening to the music, analyzing just what this genre of jungle was and finding a way to put it into the world of Sonic Wings.

I think the first time in games that somebody made a soundtrack that was completely jungle was Sonic Wings 3. Did you realize at the time that it was the first time ever that someone had made a complete soundtrack of jungle in video game music?

Yes, of course. That was my aim when I made it. I made the soundtrack with the idea that no one else had done this in my head the whole time.

Sonic Wings 3 - Show Me What You’ve Got!

Was it a difficult process trying to make authentic-sounding jungle on a Neo-Geo?

In terms of memory, you can cram lots of breakbeats and loops like that into the Neo-Geo, so I didn’t really struggle there. But I did think that taking the jungle that was out there and just recreating exactly the same wouldn’t work as music for a shooting game. What I probably had the hardest time with was figuring out how to process jungle as best I could and turn it into a new style of game music.

Were you quite lucky that you worked for a smaller company like Video System? I get the feeling that you had a lot of creative freedom to be able to make minimalist mahjong music or the first-ever jungle soundtrack, which maybe if you’re working for a company like Konami or Capcom, definitely Nintendo, you wouldn’t have been able to experiment like you wished.

Oh yes, I think that’s quite clear. I think if I weren’t at Video System I would never have been able to make jungle or the music like I did for Touhaiden or what I did for Ta•o Taido. So in that sense I’m extremely grateful to that company and my direct superiors there to this very day.

Did it feel like a job, or was it just fun?

It was 100% playing around. Loads of fun.

Looking back over the ’90s and that era where you were still making music on chips, is there a particular soundtrack that you’re most proud of?

I think my favorite is my soundtrack for Touhaiden. I had so much freedom and fun making that that even at the time I knew that I would probably never get to do something like it ever again. I really love that project. I was also really proud of how ahead of the times I was with the jungle soundtrack for Sonic Wings 3, but when I listen over it now I realize that I was doing more innovative things with the soundtrack for 2 than I did for 3, so I actually prefer the sound of 2 these days. If I ever have the chance I’d like to do a remix album for it.

Do you find it strange that this weird guy in front of you from New Zealand is talking to you about music you made for a mahjong game more than 25 years ago, and it will be included on a compilation coming up? Is it crazy for you that 25 years later people are talking to you and discovering your music for the first time for very obscure games?

Most definitely. I love my track for Touhaiden, of course, but at the time I didn’t make it to impress anyone. All I was doing back then was what I wanted to do or what I thought was fun. I never would’ve dreamt that anyone, let alone someone from overseas, would find it interesting. I’m super happy.

How much has the world of video game music creation changed since you started so many years ago, for good and for bad?

I touched on this a bit earlier, but there was an era where people got some unexpectedly interesting results because of the limitations of the hardware. As the hardware progressed, the original composers could do more of what they wanted and things got a bit boring for a while. But now we’ve moved beyond that into a new era, where there are tons of technical and hardware advancements that are making it possible to make cool stuff again. Interactive music, or things that make it easier to take in experimental music, a lot of things like this are being made all the time now, so I’m really excited for younger people to discover ways of making new, never-before-seen forms of game music. I hope I can be one of these pioneers, too.

By Nick Dwyer on November 15, 2017

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