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Tascar avatar 11:23 PM on 07.12.2010
Koichi Sugiyama: My Love-Hate Relationship with the "Big Boss of Game Music"



In honor of the release of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (spelling it out in full because I absolutely love that subtitle), I wanted to share some thoughts and pay a little tribute to video game music composer Koichi Sugiyama, described by Nobuo Uematsu as the "big boss of game music," whose work and name is sadly not well known in the United States.



Years before I would know his name, Koichi Sugiyama's work in the original Dragon Quest had planted in me the seeds of my life-long appreciation of video game music. Like many gamers of my generation, I was introduced to Dragon Quest, then known as Dragon Warrior, through a promotion with Nintendo in which players who paid for a three-year subscription to Nintendo Power magazine would get the game for free. Dragon Quest was probably one of the harder games I had played up to that point in time and I know for a fact that I never beat it.

Sugiyama's work in Dragon Quest quickly taught me that video game music could function as far more than simply sonic wallpaper: it could produce feelings and create a sense of atmosphere that transformed 8-bit NES sprites into heroic warriors, a devastated land, and an evil dragon lord. One musical track that deeply affected me was the overworld theme, entitled "Unknown World." I was particularly moved by the way in which that piece of music managed to combine both a sense of curiosity and high adventure as well as a sense of loneliness for the game's lone hero, alone in his quest.



Fans of video game music outside of Japan have until recently been left salivating at the state of video game music in Japan where video game concerts seem to occur with some regularity and video game soundtrack CDs are sold alongside the latest pop songs. It may be possible to claim that without Koichi Sugiyama, video game music would not have taken off in the way that it did in Japan.

Koichi Sugiyama had a successful music career outside of video games. He had composed the music for many years in all sorts of media ranging from anime to musicals to TV series. The following Japanese trailer for the 1981 anime film The Legend of Sirius, also known as The Sea Prince and the Fire Child, prominently features Koichi Sugiyama's incredibly grand, beautiful, romantic, and passionate score to the film, which includes one of my favorite romantic themes of all time. I highly recommend that anyone who is a fan of Sugiyama watch this trailer and listen to the music.



Many will be surprised to know that Sugiyama is a video game fan himself. In fact, Enix's decision to ask Sugiyama to compose the music for Dragon Quest came as the result of a fan letter that they received from Sugiyama about a PC shogi game that they had developed. Until that letter came and Enix confirmed that it was indeed written by the composer Koichi Sugiyama, they did not think that a composer of such stature would be interested in video games.

Sugiyama not only composed the music to Dragon Quest, he also recorded his compositions with a live orchestra, becoming the first video game composer to do so. A recording of this orchestral performance was released for sale on October 5, 1986, becoming one of the first video game soundtracks to be sold. A year later on August 20, 1987, Sugiyama conducted a concert featuring his scores to Dragon Quest as well as Dragon Quest II.



In many ways, Sugiyama's entry into video game music may have played a role in establishing video game music as a legitimate art form in Japan in a similar but much greater way as Danny Elfman's work in Fable and Michael Giacchino's work in the Medal of Honor games began the process of legitimizing video game music in the United States. Unlike Danny Elfman however, who seemingly dipped his toe into video game music for just a quick moment before returning to Tim Burton's films, Sugiyama was fully-committed to the now blossoming world of video game music. In 1991, Sugiyama introduced the Orchestral Game Concert series in which he featured video game music from a variety of composers ranging from Nobuo Uematsu to Koji Kondo performed by an orchestra. It is hard to believe that video game music would have flourished as it did without Sugiyama's assistance and work.

I have always found it interesting that while Koichi Sugiyama has obviously played an enormous role in video game music, his approach to video game music seems to be the most different from many contemporary video game composers. When I listen to the works of Koji Kondo and Hip Tanaka, two of the prominent music composers at Nintendo, I feel as though both composers worked by looking at and carefully examining the technical specifications of the NES hardware and then composed specifically for that hardware, carefully treading around any limitations. I cannot imagine, for example, that the music that accompanies the opening titles to Metroid was composed in a "traditional" fashion. I'd argue that musical soundtracks such as Metroid , in particular the way in which the music seems to emerge from and play with strange alien-sounding ambient noises that blur the lines between music and sound effects, could not have been done by anyone who was not intimately familiar with the NES sound hardware.

In contrast, I feel that Koichi Sugiyama composed his music largely ignorant of the hardware that the music would ultimately come out of. I am inclined to think that Sugiyama composed for Dragon Quest as he would have any of his other projects, at the end of the day delivering a stack of sheet music to Enix for their sound engineers to be reduced to chiptune format. I do not mean to suggest that chiptunes are inferior to fully orchestrated music. I simply suggest that the music in Sugiyama's mind is that which we hear in his orchestrated CDs not the synthesized versions heard in the game. In contrast, I believe that the music in the minds of Koji Kondo and Hip Tanaka is exactly what we the gamer hear in the games. For me, when I hear most video game music in an orchestral setting, I feel as though the original music is being vastly expanded upon beyond its original composition whereas with Sugiyama's orchestral Dragon Quest music, the music sounds just right.

At this point, some people might argue that Sugiyama's approach to video game music, seemingly divorced from the specifics and details of video game hardware, is inferior to that of other composers such as Uematsu or Tanaka. However, I would argue that Sugiyama furthered the language of video game music by bringing in the established musical language of classical music, theatrical music, and TV/film scoring and showing that such techniques could not only be used but improved on through video games. Given how far audio technology and storage capacity is now, I imagine that many composers of video game music are now composing without being tied to a specific hardware environment.

As CD-ROM and DVD-ROM technology enabled composers such as Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda to bring fully orchestral music into games themselves, I came to realize that even years after Koichi Sugiyama's work was overshadowed by others, his influence remained and still towered over video game music. The following is a powerful piece of music entitled "Cantata Orbis" from the 1982 anime film The Ideon: Be Invoked. Given how big of a deal this film was and its subsequent impact on the development of anime, I wonder if Uematsu and Mitsuda were at the very least subtlely influnced by this powerful composition when they composed "One Winged Angel" and the orchestral and choral elements of the soundtrack to Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht respectively. At the very least, it can be said that both "One Winged Angel" and "Cantata Orbis" share the same roots in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.



For me, Koichi Sugiyama was not only critical to my discovery of video game music, he played an enormous role in my understanding and appreciation of music itself. Ever since I saw clips of Fantasia at a very young age, I fell in love with classical music. I suspect that the fact that Sugiyama's music style is rooted in classical music played a role in how his music affected me so strongly and paved the way for my discovering additional game music down the line such as the soundtracks to Far East of Eden II: Manji Maru and Ys: Book I and II. The orchestral soundtrack to the original Dragon Quest was one of the first video game soundtracks I bought and I know that shortly after listening to the CD a billion times and discovering the soundtrack to Final Fantasy IV, I had resolved to become a music composer myself, despite having neither the musical knowledge nor talent to do so. Coincidentally enough, I share the same birthday as Koichi Sugiyama, born exactly 50 years after he was born on April 11, 1931. I discovered this fact relatively early and I imagine that in a superstitious way, I may have imagined that it fueled my confidence in my musical compositional abilities. Ultimately, I gave up on my ambitions of becoming a composer (a great decision in retrospect) to focus on other academic goals and around that same time, though unrelated, newer composers such as Hiroki Kikuta and Yasunori Mitsuda began to replace Koichi Sugiyama in my playlist.

I rediscovered my love for Koichi Sugiyama in late 2008 when, out of a combination of love for Destructoid and an urge to rekindle the creative spirit, I volunteered to write the music for randombulleye's Bonerquest. The game that Bonerquest most parodies is the original Dragon Quest and I remember many hours of sitting in front of my computer listening to Sugiyama's Dragon Quest music on YouTube, both trying to inspire my talentless self as well as admiring once more the work of this music master. In an age where video game music (and my other big musical passion, film music) has become increasingly dominated Hans Zimmer-style electronic elements, it was refreshing to hear a composer who worked with such a command of the entire symphony orchestra. I know that there were many times when I listened in awe of Sugiyama's ability to conjure up so many different emotions into a single piece of music. If there is any quality to my work on Bonerquest, a huge amount of the credit is due to my the inspiration I received from Sugiyama's music.



It was around this same time that I discovered something that I did not want to know. In his spare time, Koichi Sugiyama is one of the leading historical revisionists of Japanese World War II history. He denies the existence of the Rape of Nanking, a six-week period after the Japanese capture of the city of Nanking, China in which thousands of civilians were murdered and several tens of thousands of women were raped. Sugiyama also denies that the Japanese military forced captured women to serve as "comfort women," sex slaves, for their soldiers. As a prominent member of the "Committee for Historical Facts," Sugiyama and others work to push their revision of history in both Japan and the rest of the world. The following link is to an advertisement that the Committee for Historical Facts paid for and placed in The Washington Post several years ago.

As a person of Chinese descent who had grandparents that were alive and in China during Japan's invasion of China, I was disturbed to read about this side of Sugiyama. As I imagine many fellow gamers did when they discovered about the link between Shadow Complex and homophobe Orson Scott Card, I had to reexamine my relationship with Sugiyama and his work. After all, just as Orson Scott Card's royalties from Shadow Complex play a role in undermining efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, Koichi Sugiyama's royalties from Dragon Quest play a role in undermining the historical record of World War II.

Ultimately, I decided against boycotting Sugiyama's work, having since purchased Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. At the time of World War II, Sugiyama was still learning to count numbers (he would have been 14 at the time that World War II ended) and there was nothing that he himself did that hurt either myself or my race. I recognize that World War II historical revisionism and the issue of Japan's wartime guilt is still a very big and controversial issue in Japan that is larger than the opinions of an old man: it is the struggle of an entire country in defining and understanding its role in the world. At the very least, the vast majority of the world, particularly the country I live in, does acknowledge the existence of comfort women and the Rape of Nanking. Admittedly, it also helped ease my mind knowing that my relatives were not a part of the horrors of the comfort women and the Rape of Nanking.

In retrospect, I should not be surprised that an individual of such enormous talent would, as with many other individuals with enormous talent, also possess equally enormous flaws. Having looked up to Sugiyama for so many years, I admit to being highly disappointed that such a great man could harbor such disgusting views and I wonder if my deep connection with his work prevented me from boycotting and kicking out Sugiyama from my life. However, I have to concede that if I were to dig out the likes and dislikes of every single artist I care about, I suspect that there would be no one that did not believe strongly in something that I strongly disagree with. Perhaps it is only fair that we judge artists by the art that they create. In the case of Sugiyama, I hear in his music only the power of human expression: there is nothing in either his musical work or the works to which his music accompanies that expresses contempt for the historical experience of my people.

If I ever have the opportunity to meet Koichi Sugiyama in person, I would probably have some very negative things to say to him. However, prior to that, I would have to at the very least first thank him for playing an enormous role in shaping both my appreciation of music and my artistic drive and spirit. It is perhaps ironic that Nobuo Uematsu called Sugiyama the "big boss of game music." As with Snake's relationship with the Big Boss of Metal Gear Solid, my relationship with Big Boss Sugiyama is a conflicted one of both love and hate.


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