Following the Tohoku earthquake, game composer Akira Yamaoka organized the Play For Japan fundraising initiative, whose proceeds are being donated to the Red Cross in Japan. In this interview we hear from two musicians whose work is featured on the charity album "Play For Japan: The Album."

mitsuda_yasunori_270.jpgFor the compilation Yasunori Mitsuda provided an arrangement of "Dimension Break," a music track from the PlayStation 1 game Chrono Cross, published by Square Enix. This 2011 orchestral rendition will be included in the musician's long-awaited Chrono Cross Arrange Album, in the process of being recorded at Procyon Studio.

Laura Shigihara is currently at work on her independently developed game Melolune, while writing the soundtrack and recording her own vocals. Her music became widely known upon the release of PopCap's popular tower defense game Plants vs Zombies. Prior to recording her song "Jump" for inclusion in Play For Japan: The Album, she held a soundtrack album sale and contributed the proceeds to the MercyCorps charity organization.

We had the chance to hear from the two artists on their participation in Play For Japan. Further discussions of the making of the album can be found on Gamasutra and IndieGames.com.

How did it come about that you first became involved in the making of "Play For Japan: The Album"?

Yasunori Mitsuda: To do our part in contributing to the recovery efforts, our company Sleigh Bells had donated the entirety of our profits from album sales to charity. Sadly, the damage caused by the disaster had far more serious consequences than we could have predicted immediately following the event. We were in the midst of deciding on other ways to contribute when I received the call from Yamaoka-san. When asked if I would participate in the charity album, I said yes without hesitation.

Could you describe some of the ways in which the Tohoku earthquake has affected you on a personal level?

For our staff, the earthquake has left an impression, both physically and mentally. We had been in the middle of moving the location of our studio when it occurred, and there were a number of repairs required to the damaged areas of the new place. If you can imagine, we are still feeling aftershocks to this day. It's been the case that since early this year my sleep has been troubled by the far-reaching consequences.

Your arrangement of "Dimension Break" concludes Play For Japan: The Album. In interviews, you have mentioned that an official arrange album for Chrono Cross did not seem to be necessary because there were so many quality fan arrangements online. What led to your changing your mind?

At one point I had made up my mind not to create the arrange album for Chrono Cross. However, there were so many impassioned requests from people here in Japan as well as overseas that I became compelled to continue my work on the project, little by little. I can assure you that we are doing our best to have the album published this winter. Worst case scenario, it will be out next summer.

This arrange album follows the publication of MYTH: The Xenogears Orchestral Album. Have you gained new insights into your compositional process having so recently delved into your music from the PlayStation 1 era?

myth-xenogearstn.jpgThe Chrono Cross album is still in progress, so it's hard to speak objectively on the subject. When it comes to MYTH, it was a process of discovery, determining how I would go about making use of the orchestral form in a new way.

I wanted to find a sound that instead of being derivative of a Hollywood movie soundtrack or a European film score was reflective of my Japanese sensibility. The essence of that sound is so subtle that listening casually it might be hard to perceive. (laughs)

Outside of your orchestral projects, you have performed live electronic arrangements of your music from the Chrono series with Nobuyoshi Sano and Michio Okamiya as the Korg DS-10 Trio. Are you interested in approaching performances of symphonic versus electronic music differently?

I belong to a generation for whom introducing electronic music into the live environment was a much talked about subject. For years I created music that integrated electronic and acoustic elements together, though more recently those two forms are increasingly going their separate ways. This decision has come to me so naturally that I'm led to assume there might be some deeper significance to it. I think you might find that I draw clearer lines between acoustic and electronic sounds in my music in the future.

In addition to writing music for game titles and producing your own albums, you are overseeing work at your companies Procyon and Sleigh Bells. Would you have advice for musicians that intend to establish their own independent studios?

Managing a studio and composing music for a game are entirely different facilities. It's not as if the better you are able to write a melody, the more natural you will be as a company president. It requires the cultivation of different abilities. However, it opens doors once you've achieved a balance of both these professional capabilities.

Many people have shared that they have a strong connection to your music and pay attention to what you write on your blog. Are there particular messages that you wish to communicate, for instance to those affected by the Tohoku earthquake?

A great number of lives were claimed not only by the Tohoku earthquake, but also by the flooding in the Niigata prefecture. I would say that Japan is currently experiencing its most significant national crisis since World War II. But even in these difficult times, I see signs of hope. I think that the pains of this misfortune have reminded us here in Japan of the value feeling compassion for one another.

It shows how fortunate we are to have received such overwhelming support, not only from inside Japan but from all over the world. This support has come in many forms, from warm messages and emergency supplies to charitable donations. I'd like to express how grateful I am to all the artists who joined this album. These are trying times, but I believe recovery is just around the corner. Perhaps we can regain our strength without losing our compassion.

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Laura Shigihara, creator of Melolune, at the Game Developers Conference

Following the Tohoku earthquake, you had uploaded to YouTube a cover of "Ue o Muite Aruko," a song written in the early '60s. How would you describe your personal experience with the song?

Laura Shigihara: My dad first introduced me to the English version, "Sukiyaki," when I was young. It seemed like a weird name for this song and he told me the reason was that it was the first Japanese song to become very popular overseas. Since just about the only thing from Japan that Americans were very familiar with at the time was sushi and sukiyaki, that's what they named the song.

He explained the meaning of the lyrics: that when things aren't going well, you want to keep your head up to the sky so that your tears won't fall. I've always thought this was a very Japanese mentality. My relatives, when they are going through dark times, they won't tell you. They act like everything's okay and persevere. To me singing that song was also a way to say, "Be strong when times are tough."

The song seems to represent a historical moment in the reception of Japanese popular culture in America. Would you say your style as a singer-songwriter has been informed by both Japanese and American musical traditions?

When I'm improvising, I definitely hear influences both from Western and Eastern culture. It's only been kind of recently that I started thinking about what makes a song sound Japanese, besides something obvious like the use of Asian instruments. There are really subtle things with the chord progressions that I notice in my music that may have been influenced by Joe Hisaishi or even enka singers.

playforjapan1_coverGrowing up, I listened to a wide range of music. People are always surprised when I say I listen to hip-hop, because I'm a five-foot-one half-Japanese girl. They're like, "You like Tupac?" And, yeah, I do. I like any music that makes you dance, or if there's a compelling story behind it.

What was it about the particular approach of classic game composers that made you interested in joining the profession yourself?

One of the things I noticed about old Nintendo and Super Nintendo music is that it's often a fusion of styles. The composers were faced with a lot of limitations, so they really had to be creative with their composition.

On the flip side, I think they also had a lot of freedom to create music outside of a genre box. The CastleVania soundtrack, for instance, is gothic classical music with synthesized metal instrumentation and even some syncopated drums going on. It's a very interesting fusion of different genres.

In March you held a soundtrack sale for your Plants vs Zombies album, donating the proceeds to relief efforts by MercyCorps. What led to your choice of donating to this group?

Choosing a charity can be difficult. The reason I was drawn to this organization was because I had been following their blog for quite some time. On their website they talk about supplies they've given to a middle school, how many stoves and blankets they've donated, the specialists brought in to help with post-traumatic stress... On top of that, they are working with a Japanese organization called Peace Winds that is very well established over there. There's something more fulfilling about donating to a group that tells you exactly what they're doing.

Your song "Jump" is appearing on the Play For Japan album. At once there is a happy quality to the piece, while also a recognition of the hardships that families in Japan have faced in recent months. How would you describe the story that informed the writing of the song?

"Jump" is about how you never really know what the future holds. You don't know whether you will fall or fly, you have to go forward whether the outcome will be good or bad. That theme in mind, the song grew from there.

I wrote at the piano and for some reason the arpeggiation that appears at the beginning made me think of a child's storybook. Writing the lyrics, I imagined a boy who was in a hospital. His mom visits him every day and reads to him from this storybook in order to help him escape into a fantasy world.

A line of the lyrics says, "If you tell me everything will be all right, I'll believe you. You don't have to tell me how." A lot of times parents will tell their children that everything will be okay, even if they can't say how, and that in itself can be comforting. Sometimes you just want to hear that things will be all right.

[Images courtesy of Play For Japan - A Game Industry Relief Effort and Square Enix. Japanese language content from this article can be found on Game Design Current. Portions of this article are available in Italian on Gamesource.it. Translation by Yoko Wyatt. Photo of Yasunori Mitsuda courtesy of Procyon Studio. For more information on the artists, see the official websites for Procyon Studio and Laura Shigihara.]