As often as the adjective of “Japanese” gets thrown around to describe a video game, there’s a big difference between a game that just happens to be made by a Japanese team, one that’s set in Japan, and one that actually channels the spirit of the historic nation.
Trek to Yomi is most definitely the third of these options, with a setting, plot and style that are all distinctly channeling both classic samurai movies as well as real Japanese history.
Ahead of its release next month, SPIN spoke with composer and music producer Cody Johnson (Lost Soul Aside, Resident Evil 2) as well as composer and music director Yoko Honda to get the inside scoop about Trek to Yomi’s authentically Japanese soundtrack.
As an added bonus, the co-composers were kind enough to share a brand new track, “Uchū,” which Johnson describes as “The rōmaji spelling of 雨注, meaning ‘shower of arrows’ — made obvious from the fast-paced, run-for-your-life gauntlet of driving, bending and crazed instrumentation.”
Check out the new track below, followed by the full Q&A with Johnson and Honda.
SPIN: What can people expect from the Trek to Yomi soundtrack?
Cody Johnson: It’s hard to put into words what people should expect from the Trek to Yomi soundtrack, but it’s exactly those expectations which it is defying. From the very beginning of the early creative conversations, everyone agreed that the music would not be your standard video game score with hybrid world elements. Adding layers of traditional Japanese and Chinese music on top of very Western music is quite popular the last few years, so we wanted — and very clearly needed — to steer clear of that. The game is so intentional in accurately portraying the Edo Period and feudal Japan, so the music will do the same.
Yoko Honda: People should expect to audibly experience something deeply connected to Japanese culture and its magical and anomalous roots — the soul, the people, and the vibrant color of life’s journey we all can connect with on a spiritual level.
Considering it’s such a stylistically unique game, what went into making the soundtrack fit Trek to Yomi’s visuals?
Johnson: We looked at the same source material that inspired Leonard Menchiari, writer and creative director of Trek to Yomi — legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, his films such as Rashômon and Seven Samurai, and the history of the Edo Period. The soundtrack for Kurosawa’s films usually featured the work of Fumio Hayasaka, a brilliant Japanese composer. While Hayasaka-san’s music was often orchestral, we studied his approach to drama and themes but intentionally steered away from orchestral writing. For the historical aspect, we looked to the musical history of the Edo Period for our palette of instruments and sounds. This is how we brought two worlds together to accomplish matching the cinematography of the game while aligning with the time and place of the source material.
Honda: A lot of research on what we’ve come to call “Kurosawa-ism.” Music from his go-to music collaborator, composer Fumio Hayasaka, and anything and everything about Japanese culture and traditional music history — especially around the Edo period in Japan.
How did your quest for historical accuracy influence your creative process?
Johnson: Yoko was an excellent — and patient — collaborator and music director, constantly guiding me to keep the music I was writing rooted in musical accuracy of the time. Working with a very limited and fixed set of instruments proved to be quite creatively demanding, but once I started learning and understanding these instruments in a deeper way, I found myself compositionally thinking through them — similar to learning a new language.
Honda: The hardest part was that we had very limited resources to produce this soundtrack. I shared a lot of information with the music team and spent a lot of time helping to comprehend and digest details of Japanese music so the soundtrack could arrive at a place where it’s not only as accurate as possible for the project, but fully respectful and sincere. I am a believer of music having “soul” in it — similar to how some say words have some invisible power when we speak them — and I wanted to make sure that the music we created has a wonderful soul in it.
With so many classic samurai movies to draw from — including several by Akira Kurosawa — did you have to balance providing the soundtrack people expect from that kind of tale with putting your own twist on it?
Honda: To be very honest with you, I didn’t think about differentiating our soundtrack from other samurai movies while I was working on this project. As always, I tried to focus on cherishing the story, its intention, and its purpose as my top priority. I also experimented with a lot of different sounds to sonically embody the world that the creative director and writer Leonard Menchiari envisioned.
Johnson: Any cinephile can attest that Kurosawa films and the like have a distinct vibe, from the look and feel to the sound and music. There is a split expectation of “this will sound like a Kurosawa film” and “this will sound like it’s from the Edo period.” We found combining both of those expectations created the best fit for a Kurosawa-inspired game set in the Edo period.
And here comes the twist. The game is called Trek to Yomi after all, so clearly, we’re on a journey from our status quo at the beginning of the game into the mysterious depths of Yomi. What does Yomi sound like? As the protagonist Hiroki delves further on his journey, the music takes an unexpected turn while still rooted in traditional Japanese culture. Some of that, “my own twist” as it were, is hinted in the trailer, but will be fully revealed to players that make it into the depths of the story.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your work on Trek to Yomi?
Johnson: More than any of my game work thus far, Trek to Yomi pushes its own conceptual boundaries as far as humanly possible — truly as high concept as we could fathom. The game is so novel and unique, and I found the musical limitations to match empowering. It would be unlike me if I didn’t find an opportunity to allow my music to become truly unhinged, so keep an ear out for some orchestrated chaos as you progress through your Trek to Yomi.
Honda: I mentioned and explained a lot about Japan and Japanese music above, but really, this soundtrack will make a whole sense when you actually play the game. I cannot emphasize enough that the music is so deeply connected to the visual aspects and the story of the game that I would love everyone out there to give it a play. You do not have to be a game fan or gamer. No need to be a cinema fan or an enthusiastic Kurosawa fan either. If you are interested in seeing or experiencing a well-crafted Japanese period piece, Trek To Yomi will appeal to you. It won’t let you down, I guarantee.