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Memorial: Composer Ryu Umemoto
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Memorial: Composer Ryu Umemoto

September 25, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next


With a few freelance projects to his name and some notoriety for his ability to code innovatively, Umemoto began his slow climb in the video game industry by taking on composition projects.

At the time, he connected with a developer called Familysoft -- a relatively small but successful company which held licenses for popular animation and manga franchises. Familysoft trusted Umemoto to compose music for most of its releases in 1992 and 1993, including Mobile Suit Gundam on the PC-98 and the FM-Towns, allowing the young composer to realize a childhood dream of working on a Gundam project.

However, the process quickly became a great frustration, as Umemoto would be under very strict direction and deadlines, and would often have his music rejected due to it being too expansive -- Familysoft wanted simple music, telling him to not "waste his time" trying so hard.

Umemoto saw things differently, and firmly believed that music and sound were instrumental in the process of connecting the player to the world they were interacting with, and that an emotional response was most effectively seen with great sound design.

His time with Familysoft became so frustrating that, after a year of struggle, he sought a new employer, and a genre in which he could invest all of his thoughts and feelings into his music without any restrains. In his search, Umemoto found a company called Himeya Soft, a young developer and publisher in the visual novel niche.

The company produced eroge -- erotic games -- which were becoming the most popular form of PC games in Japan at an incredible rate, with both established and up-and-coming talents lending their hands to the genre as it allowed for quick profit and fast recognition.

Soon, the genre became oversaturated with poor quality titles. Himeya's label C's Ware was an attempt to buck the trend and create premium quality games with grand stories and believable characters. Umemoto's expressive music was the perfect fit for the up-and-coming company, and his ideals fit with those of its rising star, Hiroyuki Kanno.

Close in age to Umemoto, Kanno had spent his high school years reading science fiction, studying physics, and watching romantic dramas on TV. Like Umemoto, Kanno wanted players to truly care about his game worlds and their inhabitants.

Their meeting resulted in a lifelong friendship and partnership that would have a tremendous impact on both men. Soon after it, they began the work on their very first collaboration. On August 22, 1994, Desire was released on the PC-98, and became an overnight smash hit.

Whereas most eroge had become gratuitous and exploitative, Desire was an ambitious adventure, using animation for action sequences, and offered deep storyline with intricately crafted characters and brilliant dialogue.

But perhaps most important was the music. Kanno and Umemoto worked alongside each other, becoming a single unit of output, sharing ideas for both storyline developments and the best musical approach for each scene. Japanese magazines heaped praise on the soundtrack, writing that work of this caliber had not been found before in a video game.

Umemoto's score provided a narrative voice for the video game that underscored the script, and it was modeled closely after the structure of a film score, with all the proper motifs. His skill and work ethic impressed his superiors and amazed his colleagues. Beginning with Desire, Umemoto also began extensive documentation of his work, writing pages of ideas, notes, charts and music sheets, all of which he would archive in notebooks and binders. A single game project would result in nearly 100 pages of notes, and no detail would ever go unmentioned.

In December of that same year, their second collaboration, Xenon, was released. Despite Desire's popularity, Xenon was neither a critical nor commercial success. All the same, the duo's skills in writing and music remained just as strong. Xenon took the action to space, telling the story of an alien invasion on a space station. For this game, Umemoto composed its memorable main theme -- a slow, pulsating harmonized melody, portraying shades of fear, bravery, and danger all at once, done with a remarkable mastery of the PC-98's FM synth chip.

Though the game was not a hit, C's Ware's next title was already in development, and planned to be its biggest title yet. On April 5, 1995, EVE burst error was released on the PC-98. Similar to Desire, this was yet another dual-perspective visual novel adventure. Again, the exceptional writing of Kanno blended with Umemoto's score and created a powerful combination with unseen depth in both the gameplay and the soundscape. For EVE, C's Ware also employed composer Ryu Takami; like Kanno, he remained a close friend until the day of Umemoto's passing.

Prior to composing the soundtrack for EVE, Umemoto had become deeply interested in Zen Buddhism, and had begun daily meditation to cope with the intense deadlines and amount of work asked of him. This had resulted in a slight change of style, with music not only being very melodic, but increasingly atmospheric as well.

This was also due to how Umemoto employed math in his music. Starting with EVE, his music was composed on Zen foundations, with scale and key changes applied at the rising or decreasing angle of either a temple or mountain of spiritual importance, or with time signatures corresponding with meditative breathing rhythms and lucky numbers. This fixation on Zen became increasingly important to him, with more spiritual themes incorporated into his projects.

EVE and Desire proved immensely popular, to the point where they did the unthinkable for eroge titles -- crossing to home consoles. All-new versions were produced for both the Sega Saturn and Windows, featuring higher resolution art, full voiceover acting, remixed soundtracks, all-new animation -- and no sex.

More astonishing was the fact that the Windows edition would see an overseas release, marking the very first time Umemoto's music was heard outside Japan. However, Umemoto himself remained unaware of this fact until much later, as C's Ware didn't involve him in these ports.

Despite their success, Kanno and Umemoto would soon find themselves in frustration over company directions and policies. While the games were highly regarded for their stories, the erotic content of the games were highly disputed internally.

Both Kanno and Umemoto were adamant that the intimacy between characters and depiction of such had a serious place in the video game industry, as they viewed it as a natural part of life and a tool which could be written to show motivation and character development.

Himeya Soft, however, was more concerned with meeting market demands and wanted the games to feature increasing amounts of sex, conflicting with both Kanno's focus on character development and the sensuality of Umemoto's music. Given the success of EVE and Desire, the duo took their chances and went freelance shortly after the release of EVE.

At the time, Elf Corporation was the biggest and most successful eroge publisher in Japan. In 1992, its Doukyuusei had melded the dating sim and eroge genres while Dragon Knight was a fully-fledged RPG series, comparable in quality to many mainstream games. With Kanno and Umemoto available, Elf snapped them up -- no expenses spared. Kanno pitched a story he had been developing since his teens, a tale of parallel universes, based on quantum physics; a tale of young man's struggle to come to terms with his father's passing, and his step into adulthood amidst paranormal activety.

YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of This World was released on December 26, 1996, and became Kanno and Umemoto's best-loved work. YU-NO was, by far, the most involved visual novel ever released by that time. The writing was unmatched, and was at its time compared to some of the best works of science fiction, with the logic of parallel universes researched and explained in great detail.

The budget allowed for Kanno not only to fully envision his story, but also create an all-new gameplay style dubbed A.D.M.S. (Auto Diverge Mapping System). Umemoto, for his part, further pushed the boundaries of the PC-98's FM sound chip. His score was deeply founded in Zen, and his music had reached its peak of expression.

The intensity of YU-NO's story allowed him to express the widest range of emotion. The game was a merger of minds between Kanno and Umemoto, as every key point of the story was discussed at length, ensuring that the score would be precise and appropriate to every situation. It has the unique quality of not being scored to fit characters or locations, but keyed to the emotional spectrum of the characters, with the writing and dialogue taking the sound into account and creating a total picture rare in games, particularly of the time.

YU-NO shot Umemoto to stardom in the game world. His sound was often compared to famed composer Yuzo Koshiro (composer of soundtracks such as Streets of Rage and Etrian Odyssey). Koshiro's work had inspired Umemoto in his high school days, and Koshiro himself would take note of Umemoto and be inspired in return.

YU-NO's success also led to a Saturn port, becoming one of the bestselling games on the console in December of '97. In the aftermath of YU-NO, a simple text adventure with some art and music were no longer enough; fans expected grand and involved adventures with rich scores.

Companies began to scavenge for talent. The genre became an all-new arena for young artists and musicians once again, with companies willing to take chances on fresh blood; the market thrived with the excitement and the risks that were being taken, and became a hotbed of creativity.

But the years of working so intensely with Kanno had taken its toll on Umemoto both mentally and physically. Each project had him under tight deadlines -- he often had less than three months to compose several hours of material, all of which required advanced coding in MML and assembly.

The constant pressure of time combined with his inability to say no meant that Umemoto had worked himself to near-total fatigue, and his already small frame had become mere skin and bone. Kanno himself had begun to suffer from migraines, and wanted a long vacation, as he was eager to marry and start a family. The two men who had singlehandedly changed an entire genre decided to take a rest, and parted ways professionally.

Umemoto spent this time mending the relationship with his father, who now had heard of his success. The two reconciled and with the much-needed change of pace from his musical career, he began to work alongside his father in the family business. This became his job for several years, as the video game industry had begun to make use of recorded music; Umemoto himself could not play any instruments and was discouraged.

Umemoto with his father

As the years passed, however, many gamers who had experienced Umemoto's work during their late teens had now come to an age where they were eager to try their own hand at creating games. Beginning in the early 2000s, the emerging doujin (or Japanese indie) scene boomed. With offers suddenly coming from unexpected quarters, Umemoto became intrigued by the idea of taking part in low-budget productions, seeing it as a way to retain his sound while also further developing his skills. The taste of composition proved too sweet to resist, and after a couple of years working on doujin projects, Umemoto saw fit to return to the industry.

He established the sound unit Risque-Fellow alongside his EVE collaborator Ryu Takami, and the two began to work closely together to make sure the music would uphold the standards of the biggest releases from established companies. In the mid 2000s, Umemoto composed for several PC games, including Attack Rate, R.U.R.U.R., Guillian Rader, and Ano Machi no Koi no Uta -- not only as a composer, but now as an audio engineer as well.

While none of the games had the impact of EVE or YU-NO, Risque-Fellow soon became noted for its excellent sound, and Umemoto was once again in demand, back in the industry he loved above all else. By now, his love had now also found a partnering soul, as he eventually married his girlfriend Alissa.

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