Michiko Naruke's Wild Arms, From Console to Stage
by Jeriaska, with translation by Ryojiro Sato - 12/20/08

At this year's Press Start Symphony of Games concert in Tokyo, composer Michiko Naruke arranged a medley of music from Wild Arms and Wild Arms 2nd Ignition for the orchestra. Having just completed the score in collaboration with Hitoshi Sakimoto for the Oz-themed role-playing game RIZ-ZOAWD, the musician's recent and previous work is receiving a lot of attention this holiday season. One of the most energetic and spirited selections of a well-received concert, the orchestral Wild Arms rendition not only was the first of the evening, but also it included live whistling accompaniment, one of the motifs of the Western-styled RPG series.

When first composing the main theme back in 1996, the musician set out to keep the melody within a range that was not too wide to be whistled. Speaking with us shortly after the Press Start concert in a meeting with president Koji Suga and director Masako Suga of Harmonics International Co., Ltd., Naruke recalled the various musical concepts included in the initial creation of the song, among the most well known of the Playstation era. In composing for the introductory full-motion video, the musician says she was careful to avoid adding too much modulation. The intro theme had to be simple enough to serve as a recognizable motif, while fitting within a range that could be easily sung, though it turned out wide enough in the end to serve as a challenge to aspiring and vetted whistlers alike.

Whether a Wild Arms whistling solo was the kind of challenge that the organizers of the 2008 Press Start concert wished to begin the night on was the source of some concern at early rehearsals, says the composer. "The whistling solo was by the trombone player," she explains. "I was so surprised when I heard him during rehearsals. He performed his solo at the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in front of a hushed audience, and it was the first song in the program. I'm sure he was nervous, as I was, but he did really well. Everyone was impressed." The composer had written the arrangement herself, mostly by hand, and it was later entered into Finale, a score composing software program. Revising the sheet music late into the night, the composer would occasionally get stuck during difficult passages and seek the aid of Natsumi Kameoka, a musician living just up the street who has arranged Yasunori Mitsuda's music for the Eminence Symphony Orchestra.

"In addition to writing music, I am responsible for lyrics as well," the composer says. It is a dimension of her work that she regards as a significant motivation, even while receiving less notice outside of Japan. "First, I read through the game scenario and spend a lot of time selecting the right words for the song. This can sometimes prove challenging, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the storyline. When the game is localized, often the lyrics are rewritten in a way that does not reflect my intentions. The lyrics are very well written, but it causes me some disappointment. I hope that if given the chance listeners will seek out the Japanese-language lyrics, as the experience may offer a deeper appreciation for the game's narrative. Especially for Wild Arms, I would recommend that people find a way to listen to Kaori Asoh's Japanese-language vocals. Without the particular quality of her vocal performance style, it is difficult to capture the true spirit of Wild Arms."

When Naruke met with conductor Taizo Takemoto and the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra at the Press Start rehearsal, she had offered them the first orchestral score of her career. The idea for a medley had come from event planner Masahiro Sakurai, who suggested including several well-known songs from the series. "In a sense it was an homage to [Ennio] Morricone," the composer says, crediting such renowned film scores of Sergio Leone's 1960's Westerns as "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." "I had always had this one idea," she says, "and it was asking the entire orchestra to shout out in unison."

Michiko Naruke's music-writing experience began at a young age when she learned to play the electronic organ in music school. Finding some difficulty reading sheet music, she devised her own form of notation, adding changes here and there to help remind her how to interpret the notes. "I started changing things so that it reflected my own way of thinking," she says of her earliest days in music school. "The ability took hold, and I began to write my own compositions." She recalls that in the beginning her songs were derivative of other people's work, but that over time they gradually took on their own unique shape. In high school she joined a brass-band ensemble, playing tenor sax and percussion. The band was small enough that on occasion she was called on to conduct. Soon it became clear that she had a knack for arranging popular songs and writing the parts for all the individual performers. "In a sense, it's related to what I do now," says the composer.

After graduating, Naruke joined game publisher Telenet Japan, working with game designer Kenichi Nishi. The director has since gone on to build the Chibi-Robo series and, more recently, Captain Rainbow. For Tenshi no Uta, he had the idea of creating a game based on a Celtic myth, pointing to Enya as a reference point for the score. "I love Celtic music," the composer says. "I think it goes well with other media like film and videogames." For the following title, Psycho Dreams, the musician was given more freedom to explore. "The story of the game is very dark," she recalls. "It involved delving into a psychologically complex inner world, something that was a departure from my previous work and outside my comfort zone."

At the time, Naruke had been listening to varieties of minimalist music and decided to go with that approach for the game. While it is commonly thought that during this period she was involved in an electronic music series comprised of game developers called @MIDI, it turns out to be another example of inaccurate internet speculation. "I have an idea of who Hassy might be," says the composer, referring to the pseudonym attributed to her on Wikipedia. "I think we might have even worked together a long time ago."

Game composer Motoi Sakuraba also wrote music for Telenet Japan as part of the third development group, dubbed "Wolf Team." Naruke was part of the first team, and one of many employees who went on to forge lasting careers in videogames. "If you look at the large game companies like Square Enix and Konami, you will find a lot of former employees of Telenet Japan," notes the musician. "It was like a finishing school for the mainstream videogame industry." Akifumi Kaneko took over for Nishi on the second in the series of Tenshi no Uta games, later leaving Telenet Japan. Kaneko began his own company in order to produce Wild Arms for the Sony Playstation and offered the role of composer to Naruke. Media Vision developed the game, while the sound was by Sony Computer Entertainment, which hired the musician as a freelance artist.

The music style of the spaghetti Westerns, called "macaroni Westerns" in Japan, inspired the innovative approach to the Wild Arms original score. "These days we don't see them on TV that often," says the composer, "but I used to watch them when I was little." Nor was the force of the impact of the Italian film scores unique to her experience. Music composer Ennio Morricone was given the Honorary Academy Award in 2007, only the second composer to receive that distinction. "The Italian films were different than Hollywood Westerns; very unreal and absurd," Naruke recalls. "They were given Japanese-sounding titles like 'Kouya no Yojimbo,' [A Fist Full of Dollars] in Japan. Japanese samurai dramas incorporated many of the musical idioms from these Westerns, and I watched them both. I saw Kage no Gundan, Sanbiki ga Kiru, and the NHK 'Taiga Drama' series, Mito Komon, Zenigata Heiji... there are a lot."

At Telenet Japan, Naruke was a company employee and part of her time was spent sampling sound effects and programming. As a freelancer in the era of the Playstation, she was free to concentrate solely on writing music, something she cites as a significant step forward for her. Wild Arms marked the first time the musician wrote a vocal track, something that was made possible by the CD-quality sound of the new console. The ending theme was originally intended as an instrumental number, but toward the end of production it was decided to add lyrics, sung by Machiko Watanabe.

In addition to the end theme, Naruke included a number of memorable choral tracks, given expression by the Keio University chorus. "In the beginning I had the idea of including a hymn," she recalls. "The lyrics were all in Latin, so it was difficult to record. The arranger visited us at the studio and I gave notes through the microphone. Later I took home the recordings and worked on the mixing. There was a feeling of deep strength to the vocals that seemed more forceful in its way than any instrument." The chanted songs are an example of how the game included a number of darker, more somber elements, which the musician noticed was a facet of many Westerns as well.

Regarding the field music theme, the composer was interested in making it enjoyable enough that the player would not mind listening to the song often. It had an encouraging tone to revive the spirit during the game's various emotional ups and downs. Returning to these songs for the Press Start Symphony of Games, the composer found the greatest challenge was shifting the emphasis of the themes so that they complemented a larger ensemble. "Arranging the Wild Arms tracks and the Zelda songs for Smash Brothers were both very challenging, but in different ways," she says. "The themes by Koji Kondo were from Ocarina of Time. I had to preserve the various motifs while combining songs that differed in tempo and key signatures, while keeping it dramatic enough for an action game." While both medleys were orchestral in their style, the arrangement found in Super Smash Bros. Brawl was composed of sound samples instead of consisting of a single live performance.

This winter, Naruke's score to RIZ-ZOAWD, co-composed with Final Fantasy XII's Hitoshi Sakimoto, will debut on the Nintendo DS. While most people in the West are familiar with the story by way of the movie starring Judy Garland or the books by L. Frank Baum, the composer knows it from a televised drama that appeared on NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. "I remember being very impressed with the story when I watched it," she says. "The ending kind of shocked me, though. In Japan it's known as a 'Yume-Ochi' story, or dream ending. Otaku tend to think that way of escaping a complicated storyline is a cop out. I must say, I found it surprising." Both composers on the project are using streaming sound for the DS role-playing game. Naruke says that she admires Sakimoto's style and that its delicacy fits the fantasy feel of the title.

"Growing up, I didn't really play videogames," says the composer. "I only heard it in the background while my brother played Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest." These days she owns a DS, playing Zelda in her free time. "One thing I love about Wild Arms is that many female players enjoy it," she says. "I think that really good games are equally appealing to both boys and girls." One of her favorite parts of being a videogame musician is receiving warm wishes and thanks from listeners. Her personal website has recently undergone an impressive redesign and she receives many messages from listeners. "I really appreciate them," she says. "I want to write back to all of them, but there are so many. I always read them and am very moved. Thank you so much for your interest in my music."

Images courtesy of Press Start, Sony Computer Entertainment, and D3 Publisher.