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!