A Dragon's Journey: Ryu Umemoto in Europe

by Audi

The following story is best enjoyed while listening to some of Umemoto's music. Be sure to grab this pack of samples beforehand!

Growing up being a polite young boy, there were few things on my juvenile mind. Like every child fortunate enough to have been born and raised in the 1980’s, I was enjoying the fruits from the decade with watching the greatest cartoons that TV had to offer and having my life consumed by video games. More so than the games themselves sometimes, I would find myself more interested in the music featured in these video games, especially with the acquisition of Batman on the NES. Growing up with the C64, NES and MSX would be a blessing for me as I would for hours go throw cases of floppies and disks simply to find the best music to record onto my tape player to make personal mix tapes, long before internet and recording software were common in the public suburb home. But as I was growing into my adolescent years, another interest started sneaking into my fragile maturing mind; Naked chicks.


Norwegian Countryside

And who else had more access to pornographic material of soft and hardcore nature than your big brother? Yes, like any young child who discovered that boobies are fun, I would often sneak a peek at the collection he himself had amassed since the day he made this very same discovery some 7 years prior. The selection was endless and rich in variety, but with the discovery of a few CD-Rs in the drawer, my interest would soon change back to where it all along had been most focused. In the midst of pictures of anime girls in questionable positions and attacked by what I could only identify as”colored licorice sticks with eyes”, there was an .exe file which read”ebe”. I installed the file and with the several computer worms that were probably included, I found myself playing a game titled EVE burst error. This would lead me to the discovery of one of the most important musical influences in my entire life, the music of Ryu Umemoto. Fast forwarding a good 15 years since that day, I found myself at the Stockholm Central Station waiting for my friend to arrive for our time together in the Swedish capital. That friend was none other than Ryu Umemoto.

Even though I consider myself a world citizen, I hail from Norway near the capitol, Oslo. It was through mutual friends and business associates that I had been able to befriend one of my idols some time ago. One of these mutual friends is Swedish composer Mattias Häggström Gerdt, who writes music under pseudonym Another Soundscape and carries a deep influence from Umemoto’s style of composition and is an amazing talent in his own right. The decision was made to hold the festivities in his comfortable flat a short distance outside Stockholm to show our melodic hero around the beautiful snow covered royal city. After the trek across the icy lakes, I was greeted to a real Viking hug by Mattias and there we were waiting for the arrival of Ryu Umemoto to appear as planned. As the melted snow had slowly dried on my clothes and belongings, I finally found myself shaking the hand of the man whose work was largely responsible for the direction of my life and profession.

As he strolled down the station with us carrying his bag, we took the time to sit down for a quick bite to re-energize from our individual travel through the heavy snow that was coming down on Stockholm with no end in sight. During the quick lunch, we got to take our first trip into the man’s mind and figure him out. As he presented us with a gift called Inden, a deerskin purse made with a 400 year tradition in Yamanashi, Umemoto would explain in a genuine tone of excitement that his greatest desire is to spread his culture and heritage all over the world. In the recent years he had begun to research his DNA and ancestors which revealed him to be a descendant of Takeda Shingen, a powerful territory lord during the Sengoku period of Japan (1467–1573). It was this discovery that influenced him to take the step out of his own environment and expand his knowledge, influences and legacy. Thus, here he had arrived eating a feast worthy of a world traveler, a Burger King hamburger. We started the journey to our flat outside of town and continued to lend our ears to Umemoto’s insightful stories of his ancestry and being a Zen Buddhism practitioner.

Once finally home from the ice cold walk from the station, Umemoto took a glance at the games at our disposal. Having never let go of his gaming roots, the discovery of Gradius V, Psyvariar and Mushihime-sama Futari provoked a reaction akin to the one yours truly had when he first saw the Super Shredder action figure in stores as a child. However, one game caught his eye more so than any other title. Taito Legends was resting on top of the pile and on it, Elevator Action could be found. He turned to us and asked kindly:


Ryu Umemoto playing Elevator Action, his first game ever

“Could I please try this game? Elevator Action is the first video game I ever played. I have not had a chance to play it in many many years.”

Indeed Elevator Action was for many Japanese gamers the first taste of their newfound hobby, and seeing Umemoto go back to the beginning was a sure treat for us as he strolled down memory lane and told us about his humble beginnings.

“During high school, I would start to do small freelance projects for the home computer systems. I had always had a fascination for music, playing around with synthesizers and programming music tracks on them when I was young. I actually never had any proper schooling in music so all I know is what I taught myself through curiosity. I got my first assignment from a company called Familysoft after sending in some demo works of mine. These games were mostly anime adaptations like Gundam and Macross for FM-Towns Marty and the PC-98, which didn’t leave me too much room to fully express myself musically.

I decided to go freelance to find a more suitable game for the music I personally enjoyed making and landed a job for C’s Ware scoring their visual novels. My first assignment was XENON, an erotic space station adventure. The deadline schedules were extremely intense on C’s Ware titles, often under 2 months while working on simultaneous projects. I enjoyed it however as I got to work with what would become my trademark sound platforms, the YM-2203 and FM sound modulation. C’s Ware games would also have some personal connection with me because their later titles that I scored were often inspired by Yokohama locations, allowing me to draw inspiration from somewhere I am deeply rooted. Surprisingly they gave me rather free reign to do what I wanted and informed me of the personalities, locations and setting for me to get inspired. I feel with these games, Ryu Umemoto was born”


Always drawn to the nearest keyboard

The later games in question are Desire and Eve burst error which have become his most famous works. The games were a great success for C’s Ware and properly placed Umemoto in VGM history as one of the greatest FM synth composers of all time. His works are often compared to those of Yuzo Koshiro, not because of melodic similarities but because of the sophisticated and complex sounds. Once done with his 3 game contract for C’s Ware, Umemoto was approached by Elf to score their new title, YU-NO • A girl who chants love at the bound of this world.

Even though Elf had released some other successful titles like Doukyousei in 1992 and the Dragon Knight series, YU-NO would become one of their most popular and successful titles to date and a lot of its success is credited to the brilliant score by Umemoto. With the exception of XENON, all the Umemoto scored visual novels by C’s Ware and Elf would be edited and ported to Playstation and Sega Saturn, and even recently on the PSP and PS2. Eve burst error and Desire would even see an international release being published on Windows in the US, though with some major cuts made to the story and content. Even though it was a great privilege to see his own work released all over the world, Umemoto would express some dissatisfaction with these ports.

“Naturally to see your dream and hard work accomplished in such a way is very touching, but the music in the home console ports and PC version were not handled by me, and changes to the music and sound driver had a negative effect on my sound. I’m happy that it still seemed to be effective enough so individuals such as you felt a connection and would continue to support my music, but I wish I could have had more involvement with the ports to ensure that the music was properly implemented”

We started taking our discussion in the direction of inspirations and influences that Umemoto has picked up over the years he’s been a gamer and composer. He asked us kindly to wait as he reached over to his bag in the hallway to show us examples of his musical inspirations. As he calmly sat down again at the table, he put down 2 items, a red notebook and an Otamatone.

“If you ask me of inspirations from other musicians, then naturally other video game composers such as (Yuzo) Koshiro and Hiro Miyauchi (real name Hiro Kawaguchi) come to mind. In fact, After Burner by Miyauchi was one of the first vgm I tried to arrange. I would also credit Yellow Magic Orchestra and Casiopea to an extent. If you take in my notebook however, you’ll maybe get a better idea of how I approach composing.”


Audi vs Ryu

Opening the book, it would at first seem like the diary of a madman, scribbles in Kanji and English mixed, diagrams, ornament designs based on Zen philosophy and names of many relatives, ancestors and new friends. With a guiding finger, the cloud of confusion in the heads of me and Mattias started to clear:

“All my compositions are in fact based on Zen. In some way or another my music mathematically adds up to a lucky number in Zen, while scale and key changes will go at the rising or decreasing angle of either a spiritual temple’s architecture or mountain of spiritual importance. I apply Zen to all things in my life, even my music.

You might also have noticed my Otamatone that I brought along. Even though it cannot produce what the general public would call “great” music, I find the nature of the instrument very inspirational in that anyone can use it and create a melody, no matter what age. I also use such a philosophy to my own music, I want it to inspire others to do the same and create their own music based on their own spirit. A big part of my reason to come here is to meet talented musicians such as Mattias to create new sounds and collaborations while also discussing and learning from knowledgeable individuals such as yourself.”

As the night progressed, we began to work our way through newer video game titles with Street Fighter IV and Cave shooters being especially popular. Umemoto actually visits game centers in Japan fairly often to play the newest titles on the arcade scene. This was quite evident as I got my behind royally schooled by his Sagat skills. Even more impressive are his skills in danmaku shooters. With the same grace as he uses in his musical approach, he seemed in control of his surroundings and soared through the layers of bullets that came at him from every angle. CAVE is well known for hiring legends of game music to score the soundtracks, often surpassing the game's own popularity.


At the Gallerian Mall in Stockholm

“The last few years my career has taken many interesting turns. About 4 years ago, D4 Enterprise producer Hally (a famed chiptune artist in Japan) contacted me with a proposal to become a producer and mixer for his new video game music download service, EGG Music. This put me in charge of mastering all releases that is put on the service, ranging from soundtracks on PC-88/98, MSX, X68000, Super Famicom and PC. While I won’t bore you with a lot of technical detail, it often does require me to reverse engineer the consoles and extract the music through binary, an extremely tedious process that can often take hours and hours just for a few minutes of music. Through this service my own works also got a chance to resurface through the Ryu Umemoto Rare Tracks CD series, which are now sold out and out of print.

I’ve also started work for CAVE on numerous projects. I did music for many of their games, either one track contributions or full arrangements like ESPGALUDA II Black Label. It’s been a blessing that has gotten me in touch with many fellow game composers. As you both know I also was responsible for the complete score of their newest arcade game, Akai Katana. I have 3 secret projects on the way for 2011 so there is no end in sight but it’s ok, I do not worry (laughs)”

We said cheers with our exotic Swedish beer in hand and would enjoy watching Game Music Festival 1990, the joint live concert from Zuntata and Sega Sound Team. Even in the relaxed setting and late night hours, Umemoto would identify all scale changes as the songs would be performed. Before the night was truly over, I booted up Strip Fighter II on the PC Engine in order to correct the uneven win/loss score that was left behind from Street Fighter IV and did a no death run of Assault Suit VALKEN to allow Umemoto to finally see the entire game.

Time passed and the snowfall would never let up as it covered Stockholm like diamond dust. Each morning starts with Zen meditation for Umemoto. Folding his legs and hands to create a straight line in body and mind, he takes 8 deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, clearing his mind. It’s thought provoking to see a man who has more deadlines than I have fingers and toes to be so at peace with himself and his schedule, while most of us younger kids who in theory have more strength and wits will have a fit over the way someone puts their toilet paper in the holder.

Despite the winter wind nearly crystallizing our ear tips with its bitter breeze, we ventured into the heart of Stockholm for our last day to do shopping and have a farewell dinner at a traditional Scandinavian restaurant. The cold didn’t seem to mind Umemoto as he smiled and enjoyed the sights and sounds the city had to offer. We eventually sought refuge in a mall to get some warmth and cultural items for Umemoto to bring home with him. Even though we often think of Japan as a shopping mecca and the relatively limited selection that a Scandinavian store can offer would seem plain in comparison, he entered each shop with excitement and surprise at how well organized and clean they all seemed to be, and the polite nature of the clerks always welcoming him to look around. Wanting to take with him some basic homework of Scandinavian culture, he purchased some music, a traditional children’s’ fairy tale book and an assortment of random Swedish designed art.

To my surprise he also revealed that he had a long time fascination for the French painter Monet as I was looking through a Monet art book, having been my personal favorite throughout art school. Another point of interest was to visit the local Gamestop to look at the selection of games we enjoy. Needless to say it didn’t quite live up to Umemoto’s expectations, though a chuckle could be heard when he looked at the box of Swedish produced Josefine, an educational game series developed for PC and DS starring a female rabbit. Noticing a copy of Batman: Brave and The Bold on the DS, he lifted it and told me that he used to enjoy Batman comics as a child. As he put the game back in its place, I informed him that the soundtrack for that particular game is done by Jake “virt” Kaufman. He quickly grabbed the game back in hand from the shelf and looked at me with a surprised stare before he proclaimed:

“virt is my favorite American composer. I’ll have to buy it then!”

It was getting dark as we passed the royal symphony hall and the last stop of our trip together would be at Tennstoppet, a Scandinavian restaurant with history dating back to 1867. Selecting a delicacy of pickled herring, dill spiced potatoes and salmon, we would sit at the culturally rich restaurant for several hours to further discuss each other’s lives and plans. I had noticed that Umemoto seemed to have a strong fascination for science fiction, so I asked him if he had any specific sci-fi works that he enjoyed.


Umemoto's final supper in Europe

“Science fiction is my preferred genre of entertainment. It’s hard to list all the works that I enjoy really. I would probably say that Gundam and the Terminator movies had the most impact on me. It’s not just sci-fi I enjoy however, I also read most of Stephen King’s works which I greatly enjoy. Due to my work schedule and research into my own bloodline the last few years, I haven’t been able to really keep up with the new works that is available, though I did play Mass Effect and found it to be an extremely enjoyable game and story. I felt very inspired after playing that game. Actually, when I’m not working these days I am drawing blueprint papers for energy saving devices. I hope to go back to university in order to study ecology in the near future. I guess my interest for nature friendly energy comes from science fiction works.”

Guinness beer would go down as midnight approached us and our individual travels home drew near as scheduled in the next early morning. It had been a warm time together in a harsh and cold setting, a time which seemed so surreal to me as I was preparing for it just days earlier but now felt as natural as meeting a brother and friend. Umemoto would with a smile proudly tell me and Mattias:

“I feel coming here has taught me more than any other event in my life. I am continuously surprised by the character, the intelligence and the heart that you two have shown and that can be found in the people here. When I go home now, it’s with inspiration and desires to bridge our cultures together and provide all video game music fans with a possibility to listen and acquire their favorite music with ease. Not just music, but cultural items that represent Japan, I want them to be easily available to anyone who desire them. It will be my main goal from here on out, to create a trading company that will make this into reality. During my stay here in Stockholm, it’s not just a second home that I’ve found, but also brothers in spirit. I want to make sure everyone knows the importance of going out in the world and exploring life because it has taught me so much.”


RisqueFellows

It was time for us to part ways when we stepped on the icy steps of the hotel which Umemoto would spend the night to be near the airport. We would spend a moment in the hotel room as he booted up his laptop to show us photo albums of his hometown. In the midst of the busy office environments and streets of Tokyo, we could see the peacefulness that he had brought along with him in the pictures of Zen gardens and energy fusion experiments that he had photographed. Taking one last photo together before going separate ways, we shook hands and in unison told each other what an honor it had been to meet. For now our time together had come to an end, but it won’t be the last time that our paths will cross.

I sat on the long train ride home reflecting on the last few days that had gone by fast, so fast that I hadn’t been able to yet digest completely what exactly had happened. Though Umemoto traveled half the world in order to come visit us, I felt that the true journey had been in me. The daily visual of the fjords, the safety and freedom that our countries give us had somewhat faded in my own pride. I have spent the last 7 years traveling around the world and always felt that coming from such small town in the middle of nowhere had somewhat held me back from properly adjusting into bigger cities and places, always retaining a bit of the “Beverly Hillbilly” even after all these years. I finally sensed a feeling of accomplishment and pride of my own self and home. If nothing else happens in my life or should I meet an untimely demise, I can go back to the 9 year old me who’s digging through adult magazines and CD-Rs and say that not only would I get to say thank you to Ryu Umemoto in the future, but also be considered a brother and friend.

Though I wouldn’t shake my own hand, because I know where it’s been.

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