Saturday, September 10, 2011

Composer Spotlight: Motoi Sakuraba

With some of gaming's most famous RPG series under his belt, Motoi Sakuraba is one of the finest and most prolific video game composers in the field today. He's composed the music for the Tales series, the Star Ocean series, the Baten Kaitos games, the Golden Sun series, both Mario Tennis and Mario Golf, and a host of others. He transcends not only genre boundaries, mixing pastoral, orchestral sounds with a rock fusion sound, but also company boundaries, as he has worked for as many as ten different developers thus far. But what is it that makes his music so great?

Motoi Sakuraba

Motoi Sakuraba was born on August 5, 1965 in the Akita Prefecture in Japan. Very musical from a young age, Sakuraba started piano lessons when he was in preschool. He briefly quit practicing piano when he had to get a new teacher (who was considerably meaner and more strict than his previous instructor), but he eventually returned to the piano and developed a fascination with synthesized sound. By the time he graduated high school, he was a popular solo artist in his community. He entered the University of Meiji in 1983 and performed locally while he studied for his degree. Although he participated in many rock band projects after he graduated in 1985, he eventually found the need for stable employment. So, in 1989, he joined a subsidiary of Telenet Japan called "Wolfteam," the group responsible for the induction of the Tales series with their game, Tales of Phantasia.

"Fighting of the Spirit" - Tales of Phantasia

This music is played when fighting a Summon Spirit, powerful spirits that can be tamed and used to fight alongside you. This piece accurately depicts Sakuraba's early mixing of both orchestral and synthesized music (although at this point the orchestral sound was, itself, synthesized). The polyphonic string line underneath the main synthesizer melody adds a more elegant and legato quality to the piece. However, the driving drums give the melody a frantic, determined character, fitting for such a battle.

During the massive exodus from Wolfteam that occured after the release of Tales of Phantasia, Sakuraba became a freelance composer. During this time, he worked mostly with three different developers: Namco Tales Studio (a subsidiary of Namco and Telenet), tri-Ace (a company resulting from the departure of Yoshiharu Gotanda, Masaki Norimoto, and Joe Asanuma from Telenet), and Camelot. It was with Camelot that Sakuraba started his freelance work in 1995 with the game, "Beyond the Beyond." However, his more famous work with Camelot occurred later in his career.

At tri-Ace, Sakuraba began work on their first major project, Star Ocean. The game's setting broke from RPG convention at the time; instead of taking place in a pseudo-medieval time period, it was set in the far future on distant planets. Similarly, Sakuraba's composition reflected this modern period, focusing more heavily on the rock elements of his music. In 2004, the third title of the series, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, contains some of Sakuraba's finest work. It is also notable that this is the first of Sakuraba's soundtracks to be recorded by a live orchestra and rock band.

"Moody Goddess" - Star Ocean: Till the End of Time

I chose this piece to illustrate Sakuraba's ability to break from convention. This plays during the final boss battle in the game, and the discordant, free form jazz style reflects the chaos that the main antagonist, Luther, represents. With as few spoilers as possible, the mere presence of the protagonists in his realm defies all logic, and it slowly drives Luther insane. When he decides that the annihilation of the protagonists will restore order, the battle begins. The music shows the irony of his plight; while he may think that this act of violence will reestablish lawfulness, his descent into madness is already complete. Although this piece is not typical of Sakuraba's style, it effectively displays the malleability of his compositions.

In addition, Sakuraba provided the soundtrack for tri-Crescendo (a subsidiary of tri-Ace founded in 1999) games Eternal Sonata and Baten Kaitos. The battle theme for Baten Kaitos can be considered an the archetype of Sakuraba's style.

"The True Mirror" - Baten Kaitos

On the Tales front, Sakuraba has composed the music for every title in the series thus far. One of his most significant productions was the work he did with Shinji Tamura on Tales of Symphonia (2003). The fifth mothership title in the series (and the third to be released in the states), Tales of Symphonia was the first game of the Tales series to be produced by the Namco Tales Studio, a subsidiary of both Namco and Telenet. The creation of this studio actually marked the end of the original Wolfteam, while the production of Tales of Symphonia proved that this new studio had the moxie to carry on where Wolfteam left off.

"Water Symphony" - Tales of Symphonia

"Water Symphony" is composed entirely around four chords: Fmaj7, E7, D7, Cmaj7 (a chord structure that, surprisingly, many Sonic pieces have. But I digress). This is a fairly simple progression, but it captures the feeling of the town of Luin. When Luin meets its demise at the hands of the enemy, the music evolves to reflect the despair of the few townspeople who remain. Although not as technically astounding as Star Ocean's soundtrack, it denotes an important shift in Sakuraba's compositions.

Finally, Sakuraba has also worked closely with Camelot Software Planning, starting with the Sega Saturn game, Shining Force III. His contributions also include the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis series...

"Toad Highlands" - Mario Golf

... and the Golden Sun series for the Gameboy Advance and DS.

"Venus Lighthouse" - Golden Sun

Mario Golf's soundtrack is bouncy, sweet, and melodic, but it's also unobtrusive; the MIDI tracks used to flesh out this example are all softer instruments, and while there is a sense of percussive timing, cymbal clashes are few and far between, and a majority of the driving rhythm comes not from drums but from jingle bells and the bass line. Sakuraba had the right idea to keep it mellow with the soundtrack for a golfing game. His normal brand of rock and orchestra fusion might have made players lose concentration.

Subsequently leading to swings that look like this.

All jokes aside, to commemorate the releases of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour and Mario Power Tennis for the Gamecube, they also released a CD compilation of the best songs from both titles, named Mario Sports CD: The Best.

Golden Sun is a terrific example of Sakuraba's handheld work. While the hardware capabilities are severely hindered by the minimal technology of the Gameboy Advance (at least when compared to its console equivalent at the time, the Gamecube), Sakuraba found a way to make the music as epic as what would be found in console RPGs. The Venus Lighthouse, for example, is the final dungeon in the game. While the chorus in the background exemplify the grandeur and mysticism of the construction, the persistent drum beat embodies the protagonists' drive to protect the lighthouse at all costs.

Motoi Sakuraba is known as one of the best video game composers of all time, and he certainly lives up to this title. With four major publishing companies and several successful series to work with, hopefully Sakuraba will continue composing for years to come.


  1. This is a fantastic post on Sakuraba. I honestly wasn't familiar with his work before reading this. Now I think I may be buying games specifically because he's worked on them. "Moody Goddess" in particular is mind-blowing. I love it.

    Do you have any future composer spotlights planned? I'd love to see one on Michiru Yamane. She's definitely one of my favorite composers. Her work on the Castlevania series is particularly awesome. Anyway, thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks for the comment! To answer your question, yes, I do plan on doing quite a few more Composer Spotlights, and I think I'll take your suggestion! I really love the Castlevania music, and I'd love to research Yamane a bit more.

    Sorry that there haven't been many posts lately; life became a little crazy these past few months. Everything should level back out this week, though, so be on the lookout for a few new posts in the near future!