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Memorial: Composer Ryu Umemoto

Though not very well known in the West, Ryu Umemoto (a composer for shmup creator Cave, among others) was a beloved member of the Japanese game industry who tragically died at the young age of 37 just last year -- and in this article, journalist and friend Audun Sorlie explores his life and work.

This extensive memorial article celebrates the life of Cave composer Ryu Umemoto, who passed away just over one year ago -- with new details about his life and contributions to game music which are, until know, largely unknown in the West. Written by his personal friend, journalist Audun Sorlie, it also includes remembrances from friends and colleagues.

To the video game industry and its many fans in the West, the name Ryu Umemoto will only echo faintly in the distance, a handful of followers responding in joy over the music in Cave's recent titles, such as Akai Katana. In Japan, the name Ryu Umemoto resonates in the hearts in thousands upon thousands of fans. It's a name recognized for changing a genre completely; it's the name of a man with an open heart and immense care for the industry he loved so dearly, and one who gave many young artists their first break.

Ryu Umemoto was a video game composer and producer who became a highly respected personality in the Japanese video game industry, even though his name never traveled much outside of the borders of his native country.

He eventually became a top producer and coordinator for Cave, and began plans to expand its selection of niche shooters (such as Deathsmiles) to the U.S. market. After 18 years in the industry, Ryu Umemoto would finally be able to spread his wings and showcase his incredible body of work internationally.

But on August 17, 2011, Ryu Umemoto died of sudden illness, aged 37.

A man of great intelligence, a complete soul, lost in an instant, in the midst of realizing his most passionate project in life -- reaching out to his fans around the world. Umemoto was a man who cared deeply for those he felt were dearest to him, and his fans were, to him, part of his extended family.

To commemorate the one year mark of his untimely passing, the story of his life will finally be told for the very first time, to fulfill the wish he held so close to his heart: to reach his fans, and to share with them his insight, his experience, and his passion. The article is the result of personal meetings, phone conversations and emails right up until the day of his passing, and with the assistance of his family and friends, in an effort to keep the name and spirit of Ryu Umemoto alive.

Childhood & Life Decisions

On February 18, 1974 in Yokohama, Ryu Umemoto was born into the fishing family of Chieko and Taiji Umemoto. Even from his first days, Umemoto showed a light mood and unstoppable curiosity, always eager to venture beyond his crib, and would often create much noise not by cries, but by endless shaking and studying of any near object within his reach.

The parents were immensely proud of their firstborn son. Chieko was a caring mother, always supportive, full of love and kindness. Taiji was a strict, but trustworthy, man. He was as any father should be; a role model, one who Ryu kept in his heart, even during the turbulent times in their relationship.

The Umemoto family had their stock and trade in fish. Ryu was brought into the family business at an early age to learn the craft and carry on the family tradition, as he was expected to one day run the operations. However, while his curiosity was very alive for the business he was to one day run, his compassion for life was just as strong as his curious nature. As the young boy looked into the tanks while listening to his father's instructions, he would bring small fry home with him in cups, opting to nurture them and study their way of life, rather than end it.


Young Ryu Umemoto
 

As he grew into his preadolescence, he became a playful child full of imagination and energy. His childhood could only be described as picture-perfect. His life would become even more exciting when he was soon to see a new addition to the family, a baby brother. Even at such a young age, Ryu showed an incredibly strong bond with those around him, and the role of big brother was one he took very seriously. From his little brother's first steps to his first words, Ryu would be at his brother's side to help him, and never allowed himself to see his brother cry or feel sad, always being there with a funny face and a helping hand.

Ryu also demonstrated at a young age an incredible understanding of numbers, exceptional math skills in which he seemingly saw something others did not, as he would not only solve the math question in front of him, but also find a melodic structure in it. He also found the world of science fiction, a genre that would fuel his imagination for his entire life. Like many young Japanese children, Ryu became infatuated with the Gundam TV series, being amazed by the intricate designs of the mechanical giants on screen, and its themes of war and peace, and the hope that grows in times of conflict. He would draw his own designs for Gundam, creating characters, motivations and story arcs.


Ryu and his brother
 

The dream of designing filled his heart and soul, and Ryu would spend his entire days creating worlds in his mind, not only detailing on paper their inhabitants' characteristics and appearances, but their emotions, their relationships, their entire life story.

His first day at school was a day of incredible excitement. His teachers took note of his remarkable imagination and his proficiency with math, but young Ryu was more eager to find that most of his classmates were as passionate about Gundam as he was. Ryu would spend his class time drawing-- his imagination took over. The only thing on his mind was to create -- to become an artist of some kind and shape something that others could care about.


Ryu's first day at school
 

Back then, a new entertainment medium was emerging. Invited by his friends into the city, Umemoto took his first step into a video game arcade in 1983. Here, he would be face-to-face with the first video game he would ever play: Taito's Elevator Action. Suddenly, his mind filled with more ideas. Here was a product that he could design worlds for.

His days became filled with visits to the local arcade, eager to play Elevator Action and other, new, exciting titles. His friends would invite him to come home with them after school hours to do homework together, and to play games on the MSX home computer system. Video games became his passion -- interaction was the perfect environment for him to create in. After much convincing and several hours of begging, Ryu and his little brother would receive a Famicom (NES) of their own to play with during the holidays, and he would later acquire an NEC PC-88, with the dual purpose of playing video games, and coding his own.


Ryu enjoying his PC-88 alongside his brother
 

During his adolescence, he discovered yet another passion: music. As video game music became increasingly sophisticated he became infatuated with the form. Bands such as Yellow Magic Orchestra had also made their mark on him. He would still visit arcades daily, and even win a Konami-sanctioned tournament for fastest completion of its 1986 game Salamander (known as Life Force in the U.S.)

Ryu Umemoto's teenage years would be filled with friends, many also interested in technology and music, dreaming about a future in video games or as rock musicians. Eager to make music of his own, Ryu formed a number of bands with his friends, including the video game-influenced Tailgunner. His instrument of choice was the drums, as patterns, timing, and rhythm were his forte.


Ryu Umemoto and his high school friends (click for full size)
 

Japanese culture began to shift as technology enabled the country's youth to pave its own way. Soon after graduating high school, Ryu now had to make a choice. He was expected to take over the family business, to go to university and earn his business degree and lead an ordinary Japanese life. But this was no longer his only option. Hours and hours spent on computers, sessions upon sessions creating music, and game after game inspiring his mind, his calling became clear. Ryu Umemoto had made the decision to become a video game music composer.

His first melodies had been crafted on the MSX and PC-88 -- small jingles to go along with stories he wrote in his notebook. Eventually, he began to experiment with programming his own applications to push the boundaries of his computer's musical capabilities. At times, he would share his music with friends, and also send floppy disks to MSX magazines, hoping for feedback. This garnered him attention, and he began to receive requests from small software developers to lend a hand with their music.


Tailgunner (click for full size)
 

His decision to become a video game composer was not warmly received at home. His father, eager to see his oldest son take over the family business, would become enraged by the idea of Ryu embarking on an unproven career, especially without proper musical schooling and no university education to fall back on. This led to a quarrel between father and son that would result in Ryu doing something very uncharacteristic, given his character.

He left his home, set on achieving his dream and proving those doubts wrong.


Career

With a few freelance projects to his name and some notoriety for his ability to code innovatively, Umemoto began his slow climb in the video game industry by taking on composition projects.

At the time, he connected with a developer called Familysoft -- a relatively small but successful company which held licenses for popular animation and manga franchises. Familysoft trusted Umemoto to compose music for most of its releases in 1992 and 1993, including Mobile Suit Gundam on the PC-98 and the FM-Towns, allowing the young composer to realize a childhood dream of working on a Gundam project.

However, the process quickly became a great frustration, as Umemoto would be under very strict direction and deadlines, and would often have his music rejected due to it being too expansive -- Familysoft wanted simple music, telling him to not "waste his time" trying so hard.

Umemoto saw things differently, and firmly believed that music and sound were instrumental in the process of connecting the player to the world they were interacting with, and that an emotional response was most effectively seen with great sound design.

His time with Familysoft became so frustrating that, after a year of struggle, he sought a new employer, and a genre in which he could invest all of his thoughts and feelings into his music without any restrains. In his search, Umemoto found a company called Himeya Soft, a young developer and publisher in the visual novel niche.

The company produced eroge -- erotic games -- which were becoming the most popular form of PC games in Japan at an incredible rate, with both established and up-and-coming talents lending their hands to the genre as it allowed for quick profit and fast recognition.

Soon, the genre became oversaturated with poor quality titles. Himeya's label C's Ware was an attempt to buck the trend and create premium quality games with grand stories and believable characters. Umemoto's expressive music was the perfect fit for the up-and-coming company, and his ideals fit with those of its rising star, Hiroyuki Kanno.

Close in age to Umemoto, Kanno had spent his high school years reading science fiction, studying physics, and watching romantic dramas on TV. Like Umemoto, Kanno wanted players to truly care about his game worlds and their inhabitants.

Their meeting resulted in a lifelong friendship and partnership that would have a tremendous impact on both men. Soon after it, they began the work on their very first collaboration. On August 22, 1994, Desire was released on the PC-98, and became an overnight smash hit.

Whereas most eroge had become gratuitous and exploitative, Desire was an ambitious adventure, using animation for action sequences, and offered deep storyline with intricately crafted characters and brilliant dialogue.

But perhaps most important was the music. Kanno and Umemoto worked alongside each other, becoming a single unit of output, sharing ideas for both storyline developments and the best musical approach for each scene. Japanese magazines heaped praise on the soundtrack, writing that work of this caliber had not been found before in a video game.

Umemoto's score provided a narrative voice for the video game that underscored the script, and it was modeled closely after the structure of a film score, with all the proper motifs. His skill and work ethic impressed his superiors and amazed his colleagues. Beginning with Desire, Umemoto also began extensive documentation of his work, writing pages of ideas, notes, charts and music sheets, all of which he would archive in notebooks and binders. A single game project would result in nearly 100 pages of notes, and no detail would ever go unmentioned.

In December of that same year, their second collaboration, Xenon, was released. Despite Desire's popularity, Xenon was neither a critical nor commercial success. All the same, the duo's skills in writing and music remained just as strong. Xenon took the action to space, telling the story of an alien invasion on a space station. For this game, Umemoto composed its memorable main theme -- a slow, pulsating harmonized melody, portraying shades of fear, bravery, and danger all at once, done with a remarkable mastery of the PC-98's FM synth chip.

Though the game was not a hit, C's Ware's next title was already in development, and planned to be its biggest title yet. On April 5, 1995, EVE burst error was released on the PC-98. Similar to Desire, this was yet another dual-perspective visual novel adventure. Again, the exceptional writing of Kanno blended with Umemoto's score and created a powerful combination with unseen depth in both the gameplay and the soundscape. For EVE, C's Ware also employed composer Ryu Takami; like Kanno, he remained a close friend until the day of Umemoto's passing.

Prior to composing the soundtrack for EVE, Umemoto had become deeply interested in Zen Buddhism, and had begun daily meditation to cope with the intense deadlines and amount of work asked of him. This had resulted in a slight change of style, with music not only being very melodic, but increasingly atmospheric as well.

This was also due to how Umemoto employed math in his music. Starting with EVE, his music was composed on Zen foundations, with scale and key changes applied at the rising or decreasing angle of either a temple or mountain of spiritual importance, or with time signatures corresponding with meditative breathing rhythms and lucky numbers. This fixation on Zen became increasingly important to him, with more spiritual themes incorporated into his projects.

EVE and Desire proved immensely popular, to the point where they did the unthinkable for eroge titles -- crossing to home consoles. All-new versions were produced for both the Sega Saturn and Windows, featuring higher resolution art, full voiceover acting, remixed soundtracks, all-new animation -- and no sex.

More astonishing was the fact that the Windows edition would see an overseas release, marking the very first time Umemoto's music was heard outside Japan. However, Umemoto himself remained unaware of this fact until much later, as C's Ware didn't involve him in these ports.

Despite their success, Kanno and Umemoto would soon find themselves in frustration over company directions and policies. While the games were highly regarded for their stories, the erotic content of the games were highly disputed internally.

Both Kanno and Umemoto were adamant that the intimacy between characters and depiction of such had a serious place in the video game industry, as they viewed it as a natural part of life and a tool which could be written to show motivation and character development.

Himeya Soft, however, was more concerned with meeting market demands and wanted the games to feature increasing amounts of sex, conflicting with both Kanno's focus on character development and the sensuality of Umemoto's music. Given the success of EVE and Desire, the duo took their chances and went freelance shortly after the release of EVE.

At the time, Elf Corporation was the biggest and most successful eroge publisher in Japan. In 1992, its Doukyuusei had melded the dating sim and eroge genres while Dragon Knight was a fully-fledged RPG series, comparable in quality to many mainstream games. With Kanno and Umemoto available, Elf snapped them up -- no expenses spared. Kanno pitched a story he had been developing since his teens, a tale of parallel universes, based on quantum physics; a tale of young man's struggle to come to terms with his father's passing, and his step into adulthood amidst paranormal activety.

YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of This World was released on December 26, 1996, and became Kanno and Umemoto's best-loved work. YU-NO was, by far, the most involved visual novel ever released by that time. The writing was unmatched, and was at its time compared to some of the best works of science fiction, with the logic of parallel universes researched and explained in great detail.

The budget allowed for Kanno not only to fully envision his story, but also create an all-new gameplay style dubbed A.D.M.S. (Auto Diverge Mapping System). Umemoto, for his part, further pushed the boundaries of the PC-98's FM sound chip. His score was deeply founded in Zen, and his music had reached its peak of expression.

The intensity of YU-NO's story allowed him to express the widest range of emotion. The game was a merger of minds between Kanno and Umemoto, as every key point of the story was discussed at length, ensuring that the score would be precise and appropriate to every situation. It has the unique quality of not being scored to fit characters or locations, but keyed to the emotional spectrum of the characters, with the writing and dialogue taking the sound into account and creating a total picture rare in games, particularly of the time.

YU-NO shot Umemoto to stardom in the game world. His sound was often compared to famed composer Yuzo Koshiro (composer of soundtracks such as Streets of Rage and Etrian Odyssey). Koshiro's work had inspired Umemoto in his high school days, and Koshiro himself would take note of Umemoto and be inspired in return.

YU-NO's success also led to a Saturn port, becoming one of the bestselling games on the console in December of '97. In the aftermath of YU-NO, a simple text adventure with some art and music were no longer enough; fans expected grand and involved adventures with rich scores.

Companies began to scavenge for talent. The genre became an all-new arena for young artists and musicians once again, with companies willing to take chances on fresh blood; the market thrived with the excitement and the risks that were being taken, and became a hotbed of creativity.

But the years of working so intensely with Kanno had taken its toll on Umemoto both mentally and physically. Each project had him under tight deadlines -- he often had less than three months to compose several hours of material, all of which required advanced coding in MML and assembly.

The constant pressure of time combined with his inability to say no meant that Umemoto had worked himself to near-total fatigue, and his already small frame had become mere skin and bone. Kanno himself had begun to suffer from migraines, and wanted a long vacation, as he was eager to marry and start a family. The two men who had singlehandedly changed an entire genre decided to take a rest, and parted ways professionally.

Umemoto spent this time mending the relationship with his father, who now had heard of his success. The two reconciled and with the much-needed change of pace from his musical career, he began to work alongside his father in the family business. This became his job for several years, as the video game industry had begun to make use of recorded music; Umemoto himself could not play any instruments and was discouraged.


Umemoto with his father

As the years passed, however, many gamers who had experienced Umemoto's work during their late teens had now come to an age where they were eager to try their own hand at creating games. Beginning in the early 2000s, the emerging doujin (or Japanese indie) scene boomed. With offers suddenly coming from unexpected quarters, Umemoto became intrigued by the idea of taking part in low-budget productions, seeing it as a way to retain his sound while also further developing his skills. The taste of composition proved too sweet to resist, and after a couple of years working on doujin projects, Umemoto saw fit to return to the industry.

He established the sound unit Risque-Fellow alongside his EVE collaborator Ryu Takami, and the two began to work closely together to make sure the music would uphold the standards of the biggest releases from established companies. In the mid 2000s, Umemoto composed for several PC games, including Attack Rate, R.U.R.U.R., Guillian Rader, and Ano Machi no Koi no Uta -- not only as a composer, but now as an audio engineer as well.

While none of the games had the impact of EVE or YU-NO, Risque-Fellow soon became noted for its excellent sound, and Umemoto was once again in demand, back in the industry he loved above all else. By now, his love had now also found a partnering soul, as he eventually married his girlfriend Alissa.


Veteran and Producer

As 2007 came to a close, Umemoto was approached by Haruhisa Tanaka, a popular game composer and performing under the name Hally. Tanaka had an undeniable passion for classic video game music -- so much so that he created his own digital release label dedicated specifically to video game soundtracks from the 80s and 90s, Egg Music, which acquired soundtracks from retro games like Xak, Valis, and Langrisser.

But simply releasing classic soundtracks was not enough for Egg, which aimed to use the original source code -- some of it two decades old -- to remaster each and every soundtrack. Umemoto was Tanaka's first and only choice; no one else had the technical expertise and the musical understanding to go back and remaster these scores. He accepted the job after only one meeting with Tanaka.

The process was beyond painstaking; outdated and incomplete code filled Umemoto's days as he went through each line up 100 times to make sure all was properly constructed. One single error could result in hours of work being wasted. However, he saw the job as blessing; he was officially responsible for mastering and producing soundtracks he had himself been inspired by throughout the years, allowing them to be preserved for the next generation to enjoy.

In 2008, Tanaka approached Umemoto with yet another opportunity -- the chance to return to his very own work: Xenon, EVE, and Desire. The offer was a surprise to Umemoto. He had never expected the chance to return to the scores that brought his name to national attention. As a showcase of gratitude towards his irreplaceable services, the soundtracks -- along with his more recent work GroundSeed and Eclipse -- would be released physically on CD.

The eventual release of the Ryu Umemoto Rare Tracks series became one of his most emotional and proudest moments, as the CDs sold out almost immediately, and the reaction from fans was overwhelmingly positive -- from overseas as well. From the moment of the release of his CDs, Umemoto began to extensively blog and communicate online, in order to show his gratitude to his fans.

Another company had begun to show increasing interest in Umemoto. At Cave, Makoto Asada had risen to a prominent position in the company. During his late teens, Asada had crossed paths with Umemoto; as the two struck up a friendship, he sensed great potential in Asada, and offered him assistance and advice. Asada had always felt in debt to Umemoto due to this bond, and promised to one day work with him on a game. He remained true to his word, and invited the veteran to become part of Cave in 2008 as an in-house sound engineer and composer.

Umemoto would contribute numerous arrangements to Cave's increasing number of Xbox 360 ports including Ketsui, Deathsmiles, Dodonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou, and Mushihimesama Futari. His warm personality seemed to fit right in at Cave, and his status as a veteran garnered him the upmost respect.

Eventually, the trust in Umemoto was such that Cave was eager to not only let him compose for their latest games, but to make him its flagship composer as it began to expand from the shooter genre into adventure and action games. At this point, Umemoto also undertook the company's expansion into Western markets and began to study English at a local American church in his off time, eager to begin his travels.

Cave was on its way to becoming one of the biggest niche publishers in Japan, and its games and their soundtracks had become a sought after commodity in the U.S. and Europe. Umemoto was in the front seat, ready to take on the world.

Umemoto oversaw the planning stages of numerous projects and would involve talent, giving experienced composers who had faded from the public eye a chance to take part in big projects once again; he also gave younger composers opportunities to work alongside these veterans. It was during this time that he became a highly respected leader to the video game composer community, a man who was universally known as someone one could ask for advice, and someone who would give a newcomer a chance.

Thanks to this, composers affectionately nicknamed him "big brother". For him, it was nickname he humbly accepted; he had, in fact, been a big brother for most of his life, and he brought the same care and trust to his closest friends as he did to his own family.

For its part, Cave began to announce its plans with Umemoto publicly. The all-new arcade shooter Akai Katana would feature a full rock soundtrack by the now legendary composer, and the news of an adventure game with his involvement came to light. Akai Katana was a hit at Japanese arcades, and a soundtrack CD followed shortly thereafter, becoming one of Cave's bestselling soundtracks.

Last Days

With the increased workload, Umemoto again returned to Zen Buddhism

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