Cody Matthew Johnson and Yoko Honda break down key tracks from the Kurosawa-inspired game’s soundtrack.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
The conversation around cinema’s sway over video game creators has grown pretty long in the tooth by the 2020s. Arguably, video games is a more self-assured medium these days, and, in turn, game creators seem to feel more at ease paying direct homage to filmmakers.
Trek to Yomi was born from the mind of writer-director and experimental gamemaker Leonard Menchiari, who felt inspired to create a black and white samurai game based on classic 1950s and ’60s Japanese cinema. He sold the folks at Devolver Digital on the idea before teaming up with Polish developer Flying Wild Hog and LA-based Emperia Sound and Music to deliver the final product, with the game being released in May 2022 across consoles and PC.
Menchiari met some of the Emperia crew, including composers Cody Matthew Johnson and Yoko Honda, at Tokyo Game Show 2019. The musical pair set about creating as authentic a soundtrack as possible, sonically and spiritually transporting players to feudal Japan during the Edo period, and further into the depths of Yomi, the land of the dead. While they studied the film music of Fumio Hayasaka — Akira Kurosawa’s regular collaborator — they chose not to emulate Hayasaka’s orchestral approach. Instead they limited themselves in several ways: to the use of period-appropriate instruments such as the shakuhachi, shamisen, biwa, and taiko drums; to certain scales and the musicality of the Edo period; and they especially leaned on the palette of Gagaku, the Japanese classical style, to capture the abstract and transcendent sound of Yomi.
We asked the duo to pick some key tracks from the Trek to Yomi soundtrack album, shedding light on their musical decisions and describing the process they followed to make the score feel authentic.
__________________________________________________________The Trek to Yomi soundtrack is available to stream and download on all major music platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon: lnk.to/TrekToYomi-Soundtrack
Check availability for the double LP vinyl via the Devolver Digital merch store - merch.devolverdigital.com/products/trek-to-yomi-deluxe-double-vinyl
“Sakura Fubuki” by Yoko Honda
Honda says: “I would like players and listeners to feel the subtlety of the Japanese aesthetic ‘less is more’ that has beautifully blended into this village sequence score.
“This was one of the first tracks and one of the first motifs I drafted, picturing a peaceful, rural area of a Japanese village. I wanted to portray the scene of a dōjō with small numbers of villagers where everyone knows each other like one big family, and with an epic nature that is uncultivated and undeveloped in a good way.
“We had lots of input from creative director Leonard Menchiari across all the tracks. He shared some of his wonderful insights and knowledge of Japanese history and culture, and a lot of tracks, including this piece, evolved organically [as part of that back and forth process].
“People should especially listen out for the Shinobue flute (which I often nickname the ‘commoner’s flute’) that plays the main riff; and the elegant Koto, which glues all the instruments together on this track through its playing of a counterpoint melody.
“Every day working on the score brought a series of challenges during the production period. There was the pressure to create something sonically wonderful to enhance the story, gameplay and visuals of Trek to Yomi, which was tough though fulfilling as I had to tap into, and constantly expand my imagination and knowledge. But there was also the pressure as a music director and composer to produce something historically and culturally accurate to represent where I'm from.
“Particularly for this track, I think balancing the notes and the pauses was the toughest part, since I purposely designed it to be minimal so the players can audibly become familiarised with the uncommon sound of Japanese instruments — even if just on a subconscious level.”
My special thanks and kudos to these amazing performers on this track (in no particular order): Yuki Yasuda (Koto), MB Gordy (Taiko), and Jamie Low (Shamisen).
“Pestilence” by Cody Matthew Johnson
“During Chapter 4,” says Johnson, “players are questioning whether Hiroki is in the world of the living or the dead — and during that chapter, they’re in the metaphorical bridge between the two.
“I wanted to slowly introduce the sounds of stretched and affected instruments and sounds to the listener to clue them into the changes that might have occurred. As players progress, the music becomes increasingly eerie and haunting.
“This cue specifically features koto and shamisen phrases from earlier in the game. I slowed them down and lowered their pitch to make an unrecognisable sound that creates an air of tension and mystery.
“Between recording takes, I secretly kept our engineer recording while my collaborator Yoko Honda discussed performance adjustments with the musicians. I took those recordings of Japanese spoken language and applied the same techniques of time-stretching and pitch manipulation but took it to extremes. The dark, spine-tingling bed of this piece is actually Yoko and our shamisen player, Jamie Low, talking about Tsugaru Shamisen technique!”
It’s worth noting that, while Johnson used his sound design skills to twist and layer exquisitely hi-fi live recordings to create a thicker atmosphere where appropriate, no synthesized elements snuck into the score.
“Ishi wo Tsugu Mono” by Yoko Honda
“I feel like this track is its own sonic rendition of the beginning part of Trek to Yomi,” explains Honda. “The beginning part clearly indicates that something is going to go wrong, through its tense, ominous atmosphere. I want players and listeners to feel the dramatic transition of the music throughout this track and discover the change of pace, intensity, and the dynamics.
“The track title means ‘He who inherits the will’, and I think it will help to fully comprehend what is going on story-wise in the game if you keep that somewhere in your head, especially when it’s playing over the title card.”
Everyone should listen out for the Shakuhachi — the bamboo flute — especially from around 02:07 as it breaks into a solo. Honda comments: “The technique is remarkable, and perfectly illustrates what is going on in the game (Please play the game to figure it out!) It had to be a solo instrument for this section to create something solemn yet powerful that represents the determination of villagers that also accompanies the whole Japanese cultural spirit — dignity, honour, and respect. It was a lot to take into consideration, but I knew from the get-go that it had to be Shakuhachi — I just knew it was the right instrument.
She also mentions to listen out for the ‘Horagai’ shell horns. Here’s a example of the instrument being played on its own:
Honda says: “It’s a very interesting and important instrument in Japanese history, oftentimes used on the battlefield to notify the enemy of the beginning of the battle, and to encourage one’s own army to fight bravely as well — that’s a hint as to where you can hear it during the track ;)
In no particular order, shout-outs to Zac Zinger (Shakuhachi), Scott Wilkinson (Horagai), Yuki Yasuda (Koto), MB Gordy (Taiko), and Ryoji Inatsugi (Shinobue).
“Ara-Mitama, Fury Unbound” by Cody Matthew Johnson
Johnson comments: “This track is unique among others from Trek to Yomi. This boss is a mirror image of the protagonist, Hiroki – the Ara-Mitama. During his journey, Hiroki attempts to balance the choices he is continually presented with between love, duty, and fury. Each of these is tied up with a different character: respectively, Aiko, Sanjuro, and the antagonist Kagerou.
“The Ara-Mitama version of Hiroki, the boss of Chapter 6, is his antithesis — a representation of imbalance. This piece was therefore designed to feel chaotic. To achieve this, I processed elements of Hiroki’s theme (aka the Balance theme), for instance reversing performances, reverbs, and effects, as well as blending in distorted elements of the other characters’ themes. Hiroki must act with agility when fighting enemies and his Ara-Mitama behaves the same way, using Hiroki’s own techniques against him. The music matches this high-tension battle with very sporadic and maniacal rhythms played on heavily processed, sonically manipulated Japanese instruments.”
“Déjà Vu” by Yoko Honda
“If you pay careful attention,” points out Honda, “you will notice that this is a variation of the track “Sakura Fubuki”, using the same motif. I won’t disclose too much, but because the story had a darker flow change, I had to compose something that would use the same instrumentation but in a much heavier and more aggressive way. The title came from a concept: ‘I feel like it’s foreign yet familiar’. If the players compare and feel the drastic change using the same motif, it may be helpful for them to better understand the whole concept of Trek To Yomi and its story.
“I knew from the get-go that I had to eventually create something that was going to be the darker version of “Sakura Fubuki”, so I tried to use instruments that would be versatile for both tracks and choose the right Japanese scales that could sound polar opposite; one especially darker, and one brighter.
“[Listeners should pay attention to] the intense amount of Taiko that plays rather complex patterns. I spent a lot of time on the taiko section alone… Not just hours, but days!”
Performers on the track include Nobuko Fukatsu (Biwa), Yuki Yasuda (Koto), Jamie Low (Shamisen), Zac Zinger (Shakuhachi), and MB Gordy (Taiko).
Composer influences playlist
Johnson and Honda kindly put together a playlist of significant tracks from the Trek to Yomi score, as well as influences and research/reference music that helped them shape the project.
You can also catch Cody and Yoko chatting with SoundWorks Collections:
__________________________________________________________Cody Matthew Johnson is a multi-media composer, music producer, sound designer, and multi-instrumentalist - www.codymatthewjohnson.com | Spotify | Instagram @codymatthewjohnson | Twitter @codymatthewj | Facebook @codymatthewjohnsonmusic
Both are part of Emperia Sound and Music - www.emperiasound.com