Saturday, June 18, 2011

Composer Spotlight: Yasunori Mitsuda

Yasunori Mitsuda was probably the first video game composer I became interested in (after Nobuo Uematsu), and he is most likely the reason I've become so interested in game composers at all. When I was in high school and was working at an independent bookstore, my boss's brother lent me the Yasunori Mitsuda tribute album, "Time and Space," along with a copy of Chrono Trigger (which, up to that point, I had not played). Hearing not only Chrono Trigger's original, infectious music, but also the brilliant orchestrations of that music on the tribute album, I knew that I had to learn more about the man behind this score. Mitsuda's been through quite a bit to deliver on these albums that we know and love today, and he certainly deserves these accolades.

Mitsuda, as he appears on his album "Colours of Light"

Yasunori Mitsuda was born on January 21, 1972, in Japan's Yamaguchi Prefecture, and he was raised in Kumage. He started taking piano lessons at age five and quit only a year afterwards, favoring athletic activities more than music. When he was in high school, he discovered a passion for music once again and, with the intention of becoming a film scorer, attended Tokyo Junior College of Music. Mitsuda started his career in 1992 as a sound designer for Square, working on sound effects for games such as Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy V. Although he was skilled at sound effect production, the pay that he was receiving for the job was not enough for him to pay his rent, and he wasn't able to compose music. He finally told his supervisor at Square, Hironobu Sakaguchi, that he would quit if he were not allowed to compose for the next game they produced. Sakaguchi agreed, saying that Mitsuda should compose the music for their upcoming project: Chrono Trigger.

Mitsuda poured his heart and soul into Chrono Trigger. He was assigned as the sole composer for the soundtrack, and he would frequently work late into the night in order to finish his compositions. Greatly influenced by jazz even from a young age, Mitsuda incorporated both jazz and Celtic elements into the music. In total, Mitsuda composed fifty-four tracks for the game before he had to be hospitalized due to stress-related ulcers. Composer Nobuo Uematsu helped by completing the final ten tracks needed for the game. Mitsuda was able to return to Square before the game was released, and he was incredibly proud of the finished product. As he should have been; Chrono Trigger has some of the most widely acclaimed music in role-playing games. Our first example is the main theme from Chrono Trigger. As you play it, try to listen to examples of syncopation in the song, characteristic of Mitsuda's jazz influences:

"Main Theme" - Chrono Trigger

The main theme is truly adventurous, with a focus on both snare drum and timpani effects and a staccato orchestral backbeat that accentuates the dominantly legato horn melody. It gives the sense that you're riding off into battle, ready to face whatever the world throws at you, where the B section explodes into a panorama of legato lines, when you burst out from the darkness of travel into the light of the beautiful landscape and endless world before you. It feels as though Mitsuda is trying to convey how expansive the game is by presenting a grandiose, triumphant main theme.

This next example, "The Brink of Time," plays in the area that acts as the interstice between time periods:

"The Brink of Time" - Chrono Trigger

This song begins as a simple chord progression, with each iteration adding more instruments to the mix. It's also characterized by a slower, 3/4 time signature and an "oom-pah-pah" backbeat. The initial building of the song and the indefinite mode help portray this as a place of uncertainty; the End of Time, as explained by the Chrono Wiki, "exists at both ends of the timeline, existing in a place outside the traditional flow of time in the keystone eras." It is both beginning and end, both old and new, and it is only fitting that its music portray that ambiguity.

Mitsuda worked for Square for a few years more, working on a few Japan-only releases and another of his most famous games, Xenogears in 1998. With more technology at his disposal, Mitsuda was able to incorporate a lot more into his compositions, such as a full orchestra, which would eventually influence his work on the later games in the Xeno series. After his work on this game, he left Square to pursue a career as a freelance composer. One of his first projects was Hudson's Mario Party:

"Eternal Star" - Mario Party

And, the following year, he was the head composer for Mario Party 2:

"Western Land" - Mario Party 2

These two songs are among my favorite Mario Party compositions; both perfectly fit the board for which they were composed, and they both have a certain musical complexity that makes them fun to listen to. For example, in "Eternal Star," near the 48 second mark, the time signature seamlessly shifts to 5/4, adding even more power to the already driving drumbeats and forceful tune. "Western Land," on the other hand, utilizes MIDI fiddle and banjo to give the board a down home, country feel, and the shift in the B section (starting around the 0:35 mark) provides an excellent resolution to the rest of the melody. Not only that, but it so far differs from anything that Mitsuda worked on for Square Enix that it acts as an example of his mastery of genre.

Also in 1999, Mitsuda composed for the spiritual sequel to Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross. As such, the music in Chrono Cross held some stylistic (and even leitmotiv) ties to Trigger; one of the nicer things about it is the wider freedom Mitsuda had when it came to instrumentation. Although the music is not fully orchestrated, MIDI technology had greatly evolved in the four years between the two games, leading to grander arrangements of his compositions.

Three years later, in 2002, he composed the music for the next game in the Xeno series, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht. This marks one of Mitsuda's first fully orchestral undertakings; according to an interview with PALGN, Mitsuda notes that in this process, he "achieved and lost many things." Certainly, making the transition from predominantly technological recordings to an orchestral soundtrack would be jarring, but it's clear that Mitsda's compositions only grew and flourished with the introduction of live instrumentation.

"Nephilim" - Xenosaga Episode I

I find this particular piece interesting for several reasons: firstly, it's beautiful; secondly, the first half is a solo piano piece, and considering Mitsuda's original abhorrence of piano as a child, I think it's neat that his later work would rely so heavily on classical piano underpinnings; thirdly, this song wonderfully portrays the innocence and sadness of the enigmatic Nephilim herself. The beautifully atmospheric compositions in Xenosaga Episode I are integral part of the game.

I was unable to find much information on Mitsuda's current projects. He recently finished composing the music for the (currently) Japan-only release, Xenoblade, along with the help of Yoko Shimomura. He is also working on a once-forgotten album of arrangements of Chrono Cross music. At a young thirty-nine years old, he still has quite a bit of time to continue creating these masterpieces for generations of gamers to come.

Please let me know if I've overlooked any of Mitsuda's major works. Do you have any suggestions for the next Composer Spotlight? Let me know in the comments!


  1. There are two albums that help to better understand Mitsuda's growth as a vgm composer.

    Firstly the Kirite album (2005) which is his first non-videogame album. Though it is based on a storybook devised in conjunction with Masato Kato, known for his work on Chrono Cross and Xenogears. This album allows us to see what Mitsuda is capable of when not restricted by any of the requirements a videogame score would put on his music.

    The second album of note is Soma Bringer OST (2008), his most recent completely independent jrpg video game work. This game is a Japan only DS release. The vgm for Soma Bringer is notable for it's scope and quality despite the relatively low capacity of the DS.

    Mitsuda has lately focused a lot of his attention on other projects such as the development of his music studio Procyon Studios and helping the other composers in his studio with delivering tracks for their respective video game projects.

  2. In a similar vein, I probably should have mentioned Lime Odyssey (2009), the first *game* after Xenosaga in which Mitsuda arranged the music for a full orchestra. It's interesting to note the evolution between the two games given the seven-year gap. Although it was a Korean MMO, he was able to convey a distinct Japanese influence in his compositions. Here's an example of a theme for one of the areas in the game:

    I apologize for these egregious errors. I most certainly should have mentioned at least Soma Bringer, as Mitsuda's music studio developed an entirely new, custom sound driver to improve the quality of the DS's somewhat lacking sound capacity. Please excuse me, and I'll try not to overlook these things next time.

  3. Thanks so much for the Lime Odyssey link! I'll finally be able to check out the work he did for that project. I'd given up on searching some time ago...

  4. No problem! Also, for folks who are interested in the Kirite album or the Soma Bring OST, I've found some links for those as well. I must say, they're really amazing.


    Soma Bringer:

    (The Soma Bringer download that I found is only partial, but it should be enough to give a good taste of the game's music.) Thanks to the commenter to pointing these albums out! :D

  5. Hey! I'm mentioned! I'm famous!

    Seriously though, Mitsuda's music is wonderful. I recently discovered that he released an orchestrated album of Xenogears music called MYTH, which I'm sorely tempted to buy on iTunes.

    Keep up the good work!