Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt discusses authenticity and historical accuracy in Trek to Yomi with Cody Matthew Johnson, and investigates what it takes to make a game’s soundtrack truly live up to its inspirations.
Think about how an Akira Kurosawa film sounds. But ignore the character themes, the way the director would opt for light music in sad scenes, the way he’d wrangle haunting melodies to fit his beautiful moments. Think instead about the actual sonics of the scores he used; the way all the music is pushed together into one wide, down-bearing force, the way Kurosawa’s famous aural counterpoints press on your ears in unavoidably oppressive ways. That sound, it turns out, was actually a limitation for the famed director – but one he used to poetic effect.
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“There’s magic in those Fumio Hayasaka recordings,” explains composer and music producer for Trek to Yomi, Cody Matthew Johnson, “because the recording technology of the West – where things were really developing in the 40s and 50s – hadn’t really spread to the rest of the world yet. So the recording techniques used for the soundtracks for the Kurosawa films were still quite old-fashioned – lots of mono, wall-of-sound recording, older tube microphones, dirtier pre-amps, and all that.”
The result, says Matthew Johnson (a trained ethnomusicologist), is a “raw and organic” sound that you lose when you start to bring in more sophisticated and orchestral recording techniques. You might think it’d be too much to replicate that – to find older tech, use older techniques, and make life generally much harder for yourself when you’re trying to record the score to a whole game in about six months – but not for Matthew Johnson. No, for him, that was all part of the authenticity; of making a game sound like a Kurosawa film.
“For this game, for Trek to Yomi, we’re pulling on influences from two worlds, right? From both the classic Japanese cinema that Kurosawa is associated with, and from the Japanese Edo period. Trying to piece those two together, alongside the techniques and sounds that Hayasaka used, was like putting all these puzzle pieces together to create our own sound.”
And it worked. Ahead of my interview with Matthew Johnson, I was sent a package of Trek to Yomi’s full score – two hours of music for a five-hour game. That’s a lot. And it was all recorded by an orchestra playing only era-specific instruments, playing only music that would be accurate to when Trek to Yomi is set.
So let’s step back. Trek to Yomi is about a young swordsman, Hiroki, who swears to protect his town and the people he loves against a country that seems hell-bent on killing him. The game takes Hiroki on a journey beyond death – to that titular Yomi, the Shinto realm of the dead – to address his life, his actions, what it means to kill and be killed in a world fuelled by vengeance.
It’s presented as a short, five-hour game. The kind “you can finish in a night”, per Matthew Johnson. A (mostly) linear experience that’s designed to tell a very specific story, evoke very specific feelings, and draw from very specific influences. The two pillars that both Matthew Johnson and director Leonard Menchiari drew on, to that end, were historical Edo period weapons, visuals, sounds and aesthetics, and the cinematic presentation and soul of Akira Kurosawa.
And in order to make sure this wasn’t just some glib, outsider’s take on the Japanese culture – pilfering the country’s history from a foreign perspective – the composer and the director worked with Yoko Honda; a composer, musician, and historian that has a personal connection to the game’s premise. “Working with Honda was fantastic,” explains Matthew Johnson. “She grew up in a village outside of Tokyo and she has roots and heritage back to the Edo period and before, all in this village.”
“And so she has a lot of knowledge when it comes to the musicality of the Edo period. And what comes before and after that. And what it means to, say, use a specific flute over another one. Or like, whether to use a commoner’s instrument or not. Or whether or not to use a specific instrument in a village, or we shouldn’t be using something else in combat.”
So, between using Honda as a music director – for that real sense of historical accuracy and authenticity – and recording everything as Kurosawa would have back when making his masterpieces, you’ve got a recipe for a soundtrack unlike anything we’ve heard for a very long time (in any kind of media), that obviously holds its source material in very high regard.
But just because the instruments and recording techniques were limited to the time period(s) that were guiding development, that didn’t mean Matthew Johnson didn’t get to employ some of his more trademark modern production, too. “Whenever we were recording, we always did it at 192k hertz,” he explains, “which is extremely high fidelity. So, I had flexibility to really start distorting and changing the kind of sonic characteristics of these things; time stretching them, manipulating them, playing around with them.”
As well as relevant experience on other videogame projects like Resident Evil 2 Remake and Devil May Cry 5, Matthew Johnson has spent a fair amount of time in the alternative music space – and you can tell from the way he drags these authentic, unique recordings straight into a disorientating afterlife in the OST. Hearing shamisen stems twisted and mangled and moulded into something else, or noting the way a koto pans from ear to ear – eerily and unsettlingly – you’d think you were listening to a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross cinematic joint, and not necessarily a game.
“The idea behind that was thinking about what happens to these sounds, the sounds of the living, as you get deeper into Yomi and you see all this imagery that’s more abstract, and scary, and borderline euphoric, and trying to mirror that thought process that the developer went through in the music.”
The result is nearly 120 minutes of music that evolves as you listen to it; the perfect accompaniment to a short, sharp game focused on delivering action, beauty, and self-reflection in a way that – I like to think – Kurosawa would have been at least intrigued by. The soundtrack meanders and mutates, taking the rich, authentic original sounds so recognisable as historical and Japanese, and warps into something more sinister and unknowable – at once unwelcoming and euphoric, soothing and terrifying. To manipulate the organic sound of life into the genuinely galling threat of death… it’s a feat unto itself, there’s no doubt about that.
Many games claim to have been inspired by Kurosawa – and, certainly, you can tell some have. But it’s clear from hearing Matthew Johnson talk with reverence about the source material – and listening to the way his and Honda’s vision of Edo-period Japan and the unknowable Yomi comes together – that Trek to Yomi is a project that doesn’t simply look to Kurosawa’s films for inspiration. No, this is a game that has sat and listened to them all, time and time again, too. And it’s come away all the better for it.
Cody Matthew Johnson is a multi-media composer, music producer, sound designer, and multi-instrumentalist that has worked across music, games, movies and more. Trek To Yomi launches on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One on May 5, 2022.