When I heard about the Diggin’ In The Carts for the first time I couldn’t believe that someone decided to create a documentary series dedicated to a group of Japanese composers about whom no one heard before. It’s been almost six years since the premiere of the first season. This is why I decided to talk with Nick Dwayer – one of the authors Diggin’ In The Carts, who was kind enough to talk with me about the future of the music industry in Japan and the next season of Diggin’ In The Carts.
I love the games, but it was the music of particular games that really blew my mind.
What the game music means for you? Especially when we think of music for Japanese games?
For me, video game music was my introduction to electronic music and electronic sounds period. When I was about seven years old we got a Commodore 64 in our house and of course I love the games, but it was the music of particular games that really blew my mind. It was that killer combination of visuals with these incredible sounds that made the experience such a thrill.
My brother moved to Japan around 1992 and sent a Gameboy back to New Zealand (when I was born) and then a year later a Super Famicom and with each new system came a new sound palette and it played a big part in my enjoyment of the game. Case in point is games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I was a 12 year old kid in New Zealand and although I had taught myself how to read Japanese text so I could play through those games, for the most part I didn’t really understand what was going on. But those soundtracks kept me hooked. I wanted to battle my way through endless screens of mostly indecipherable text so I could get to the next new piece of music.
How does music for Japanese games differ from music for Western games?
It’s very different for a number of reasons. First of the musical influences of the composers that created the soundtracks. If we look at the second half of the 80s especially when FM Synth has become a thing so many of the Japanese composers were in the early 20s and we’re big fans of homegrown music like Yellow Magic Orchestra or fusion groups like Casseopia or T-Square. You can hear these Japanese influences in the music.
I think one of the main differences though is that the Japanese composers took a much more artisan approach with the composition and really tried to create loops that would never tire the player whereas in the UK and US composers would be trying to make “tracks”. Although there are notable exceptions, personally, I just feel that there’s this certain kind of melodic magic that you found during the chip era of video game music history in Japan that wasn’t quite present in their overseas counterparts composition.
You are the author of the documentary movie Diggin’ In The Carts in which you describe slightly forgotten game music composers who had enormous influence on the music industry. Where is this idea coming from? What was the hardest part of working on this film production?
In the last 2000s I was presenting a TV show for the National Geographic Channel about music culture around the world and when it came to do the Tokyo episode of the series I wanted to feature video game music. I met and interviewed Yoko Shimomura and Hip Tanaka and it just blew me away how incredible they were.
Hip Tanaka was talking about how he was trying to emulate Sly & Robbie rhythms with three Famicom channels and I realised that there was a bigger story there. A few years later I was working on a music project and was looking for samples. I knew because I had a Super Famicom as a kid that there was this treasure trove of 16-bit JRPGs that had killer soundtracks so on trips to Japan I used to go to this shop called Super Potato in Akihabara to go digging for cartridges. I started discovering all kinds of things and I wanted to know more about the people that made the music and there was nothing online at the time. I pitched to Red Bull Academy to make the documentary, and they said yes thankfully.
You have been living in Japan for many years, so you witnessed changes in Japanese video game industry. What, in your opinion, caused the fact that Japan lost the status of leader in the “unique video games production” field? It had the influence on the game music industry.
I’m not really an expert on contemporary gaming and the industry in general but I think in the early days of the Japanese video game industry these (now giant) games companies all had indie game company mentalities. They trusted their game designers and teams to come up with unique and wonderful ideas and just let them make the games while the suits just looked after the suity things. At a certain point the games industry became bigger than the movie industry and all of a sudden when you become a giant corporation beholden to shareholders, suddenly there is a lot more bureaucracy involved.
I wanted to know more about the people that made the music and there was nothing online at the time.
These companies became these huge, monolithic entities that were slow to adjust to the changes in the global market. I think also Japan being an arcade market for so long with so many development teams being used to arcade architecture found it difficult to switch to PC architecture hence why the Xbox has never really made a dent in the Japanese market. But I’m not sure if I agree with the statement so much right now. I think Japan is making a huge comeback. Japanese indie games companies are increasingly proving that they are the future of the industry and no-one can deny the impact Nintendo has had this year.
Sure Japan will never excel at the kind of military-industrial complex FPS’s that young American fans love but that’s never what Japan’s done nor should they. I think (in these chaotic times) Japanese games are imbued with a soothing quality that is all their own which is what we need right now and hence why games like Animal Crossing have been the perfect antidote to pandemic panic attacks.
Many Western gamers don’t realize that there are Japanese composers without whom most of the games wouldn’t be successful. Do you think about changing this? If yes, what plans you have?
Yeah that’s exactly why we started the project!!! I think it’s slowly changing and composers are now getting the recognition that they deserve but yeah, we had a lot of future plans for Diggin’ In The Carts but sadly Red Bull Music Academy and Red Bull divorced and the project was kind of lost in the break-up. Am still working away on a few ideas though that are keeping the spirit of DITC alive. Myself and Parisian DJ Teki Latex put out a video game music mixtape earlier this year which you can check here.
You have a great knowledge about the music made for video games, especially about music for Japanese games. Why you focused on this market?
Over the course of doing the radio show I listened through the whole history of video game music from around the world but without question, the Japanese side of things is where all the heat is at!!!
Japan is the last market where the game music is still produced on CD in a massive scale. How do you think, what effect this trend?
CD as a format is still popular in Japan as Japanese people love to have something tangible. They love collecting and building up a collection. And yeah, since the mid 80’s video game music has always had the respect as its own genre of music in Japan which took many more decades to start to happen in the West.
If you could choose two Japanese composers, who would cooperate with one another, who would it be? In which modern game you would like to hear their music?
It would probably be Junya Nakano and Michiru Oshima as I really think that the Japanese ambient music that was produced for video games in the 90s and early 2000s is beyond incredible. In terms of a modern game, like I said, i’m not really across modern gaming but I guess whatever the next ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is. What’s special is that every system has its own sonic architecture and every sound chip has its own personality.
You are a person who promotes game music, but do you collect vinyl or CDs?
I had a big collection but I left it with a friend when I had to leave Japan for about 10 months once and when I got back he could never find it. I do have a few Japanese LPs now though from the 80s and killer remixes like this from Haruomi Hosono.
We have been witnessing increase in popularity of music streaming and on the streaming platforms, more and more often, can be found albums related to Japanese games. Is it, according to you, positive trend? Does it help to expand the knowledge about composers from the land of the rising sun? Yeah I think so!
What is special in 8 bit and 16- bit sounds?
For me that era was unique, it was a time when video game music was its own unique thing and it was its own form of unique electronic music. What’s special is that every system has its own sonic architecture and every sound chip has its own personality, be it the cheap square wave sound of the Famicom (NES), the iconic FM Synth of the MegaDrive or that epic ‘strings and pads’ RPG sound that the Super Famicom (SNES) did so so well.
Then there’s all of the arcade systems boards like Capcom’s CP System board or Namco’s System 86 board, each one of those boards has its own unique and incredible sound palette and composers were constantly exploring new ways to get the most out of the evolving technology. It’s that whole “battle against the limitations” that gave that whole era such a wonderful charm.
If it ever happen that the second season of Diggin’ In The Carts were filmed would you like to tell about it our viewers?
I did end up doing three seasons of a Diggin’ In The Carts radio series which you can listen to here. I still need to upload the rest of the episodes for series three however. But no, there won’t be another documentary series. Since Diggin’ In The Carts was released, my collaborator Tu Neill and I have been working on a Japanese documentary series which we are midway through production. Sadly we had some funding issues and things have dragged out but i’m confident we will be able to get that out in 2021.