Yasunori Mitsuda – My Favorite Japanese Composer

Disclaimers:

*1. I claim no expertise on Yasunori Mitsuda’s life story or anything of the sort. I am simply just a fan of his music.

*2. I have some knowledge of music theory and have been trained in instrumental conducting, and I was once proficient in musical performance–but that is all a story from long ago and I have since forgotten much. While I do have some musical background, my intention is not to make this an article strictly analyzing Mitsuda’s music from that perspective.

It’s no secret that Yasunori Mitsuda is my favorite Japanese composer and has been for a very long time. Like many, I was introduced to his music through Chrono Trigger and since then his soundtracks have continued to resonate with me on a personal level. What I like about Mitsuda:

  • he’s known for being inspired by Celtic, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and sub-continental music and sounds, and as a result his music is often very diverse in its choice of instrumentation. A Mitsuda soundtrack doesn’t get old or repetitive or stale to me–they age well.
  • he has the amazing ability to create music that’s very representative of the precise feelings the game’s world and characters are trying to convey. I feel this skill comes from his study of and exposure to world cultures and religions. He also happens to be good friends with some of the directors he’s worked with (like Takahashi or Kato, for example), and that closeness undoubtedly helps him create an extra layer of emotional attachment.
  • he has a strong grasp of musical theory and structure; tempo changes, tonality (major v minor stimulation), chord structure, rhythm manipulation, melody & harmony v countermelody, motif building, etc. His compositions can also range from being multi-layered and complex to being simple and bare bone.
  • he’s a master of melody. I can name composers I feel are musically “stronger” than he is (Koichi Sugiyama comes to mind), but Mitsuda has a knack for creating unforgettable melodies along with being an impressive musical force.

To put my passion into example: when I was younger, in my middle and high school days, I’d transcribe and print sheet music of various Chrono Trigger tracks using Finale (a music notation software) with some friends, and we’d then get together on a weekend and have a blast playing them. It sounds like an extremely nerdy and embarrassing pastime, but it was a lot of fun. Being able to recreate the sounds you’ve loved for years with others who share that same passion is a wonderful feeling. I look back at those days with great nostalgia.

In the remainder of this post I’m going to touch on some of my favorite tracks composed by Yasunori Mitsuda. My intention is not to aggressively analyze them but rather to simply explain why I find them special. To keep things simple, I’m only considering non-vocal tracks from video games.

5. “Corridors of Time” / “Schala’s Theme”Chrono Trigger (SNES)

Yes, I’m cheating and lumping these two together–for good reason; they’re sister tracks, essentially. “Corridors of Time” is probably the most famous track from Chrono Trigger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the most remixed track from the game. It serves as the background music to the Kingdom of Zeal, an ancient floating city rich with art, culture, technology, and magic. The Zeal story segment is my favorite in the game and is at the core of Chrono Trigger‘s plot. I remember just walking around the cities and being fascinated by all the mystique and culture and magic of the kingdom. They say it’s also the only bit in the game that’s scripted by an unfiltered Masato Kato (the main scriptwriter to the game). “Corridors of Time” is a minimalist percussion track that is very easy to absorb and remember. It’s a memorable part of a memorable game, so the background music attributed to that act is etched into my mind. “Schala’s Theme” draws on the same repetitive chord structure but slows down the tempo and adds in a more pronounced melodic line. It personifies the tragic Zeal princess’s despondency. I’m a big fan of Schala’s theme because she’s basically the most pivotal character in both Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, so as a piece of music I feel it symbolizes a lot of what the games represent. A remix I really like is from the 20th anniversary Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross Arrangement Album.

4. “Faraway Promise”Xenogears (PSX)

“Music is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it makes people remember things they do not expect. Many thoughts, feelings, memories… things almost forgotten… Regardless of whether the listener desires to remember or not.” – Citan Uzuki, Xenogears

These are the first lines Dr. Citan Uzuki says to protagonist Fei Fong Wong as he hands him a music box with this track playing. I find it a powerful quote. I analyze it as a live commentary on the some of the themes the game’s trying to convey to the player, with the music being used as a vehicle to help facilitate that. It establishes the game’s main musical melody and running motif. Like many composers, Mitsuda incorporates leitmotif into his soundtracks, and Xenogears is no exception. The mmelody introduced in “Faraway Promise” is repeated in several tracks throughout the game, and the final ending theme is even a beautiful vocal version of the tune. I also find this scene and quote self-aware and reflective — initially, Xenogears‘s director, Tetsuya Takahashi, was not convinced that music had an important role in shaping the course of a JRPG. However, during the game’s production, Takahashi felt that something was missing or felt “off” with the scenes they were creating; once he heard them with Mitsuda’s music he was convinced that music was indeed a powerful vehicle. Since then, Takahashi has held an enormous amount of respect for Mitsuda and in some cases has refused to work on a title if Mitsuda wasn’t involved (Soma Bringer). I’m glad that Mitsuda will be returning in Xenoblade 2 in what appears to be a primary composer role!

3. “The Treasure Which Cannot Be Stolen”Xenogears (PSX)

This is often unofficially regarded as Elly’s theme song, so naturally I’d love it, eh? That aside, I feel that this track is one of many that exemplifies Xenogear’s theme of nostalgia – it plays when you first visit Elly’s home and meet her parents, which doesn’t happen until near the end of the first disc (tens of hours into the game), and by that point she has been traveling with the party for a long time. “Treasure…” also relates to Xenogears‘ emphasis on a mother’s love – Elly comes from a rich family and has a strained relationship with her mother in particular; she reconciles with her during this segment of the game. Later on, this track plays in scenes where Elly and Margie are having serious discussions about their roles as women in power. Incidentally, both are “mothers” – Elly being a reincarnation of the Great Mother and Margie’s title literally being the “Holy Mother”.

2. “Time’s Scar”Chrono Cross (PSX)

I’ve long held the [biased] opinion that Chrono Cross has the greatest video game soundtrack that I’ve listened to. It’s mature, exotic, otherworldly (lots of Mediterranean and African influences) and very emotionally attached. It’s tricky to describe, but many tracks in the game really hit you in the gut and feel personal in ways I can’t say of any other video game I’ve played. The soundtrack also harbors a sense of familiarity—this is achieved by borrowing and reusing musical motifs from Chrono Trigger to great effect. For example, the melody of Chrono Trigger’s main theme is casually inserted in tracks that play during inconsequential scenes. It’s a neat way of continuing leitmotif in a game many would argue is only a sequel-in-spirit. I view Mitsuda’s three most famous soundtracks (Chrono Trigger -> Xenogears -> Chrono Cross) as a series of growth and maturity. Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack was Mitsuda’s claim to fame, his chance at striking big and he delivered with memorable themes and tunes. Xenogears’s was darker, more sophisticated, and clearly more experimental. Chrono Cross’s is rich, mature, refined, and feels like Mitsuda’s peak in delivery. Masato Kato, the main script writer of Chrono Trigger and later the director of Chrono Cross, specifically requested Mitsuda to join the project; it almost as if Mitsuda was honored by such praise and vowed to create his greatest work as a result.

Anyhow, “Scars of Time” itself is a spectacular opening theme. It begins with a slow-and-melancholy introduction by flute (actually a Japanese Shakuhachi) and quickly changes tempo and begins a powerful melodic string line. It’s a very layered track, and I especially like the post-bridge climax where the Shakuhachi returns as a counter-melody. I believe “Scars of Time” is also the only track in the game that’s performed live and not with synthesized sounds. Honestly, if I had to choose a single piece of music to showcase Mitsuda’s competency, it’d be this. It’s not my #1 favorite but in my opinion this–and Chrono Cross‘s soundtrack as a whole–is his magnum opus.

1. “Dreams of the Shore Near Another World”Chrono Cross (PSX)

Well, “Dreams…” is my favorite video game track. It’s a simple track with a simple melodic line and accompanying lines. But it’s just so beautiful. It carries a sense of mystique, of the unknown, in a powerful way I can’t even begin to truly describe. You get transported to an alternate world—an alternate dimension—and you walk outside the shore and hear this track playing instead of the usual world map theme. And you just sit there listening to it, slowly absorbing the unfamiliar-yet-familiar new world you’ve stepped into. I feel like everything Mitsuda set to accomplish with the tracks in the “other” world in Chrono Cross were achieved right here with this.

0202171851-1.jpgMost of my Mitsuda collection!

Feez

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