The influences of female NES/Famicom music composers

I was born in 1977. My first video game console was the Atari 2600, followed by the Atari 7800, then the NES/Nintendo (a.k.a. Famicom/FC (ファミリーコンピュータ)), and later the SNES/Super Nintendo (a.k.a. Super Famicom/SFC (スーパーファミコン)).

Every system for me was influential in some way, but the NES will always remain the most significant because of what age I was at the time (roughly 11). I have a staggering number of positive memories from that time period, many of which in some way or another involved the NES either directly or indirectly. In general the late 80s/early 90s was a good time to be alive when it came to anything relating to electronics, gaming, or technology. It was an inaugural time of sorts; there was so much originality and ingenuity happening on multiple levels, especially in the United States and Japan. Technology was advancing rapidly but was still “simple” enough for someone technically-inclined at age 16 or 17 to understand, all the way down to the hardware. Today that often isn’t the case.

So it should come as no surprised that NES/Famicom music was an illustrious thus significant part of my life both then and now; I still to this day hum and whistle key melodies from popular games (and I don’t just mean Super Mario Brothers). The list is almost endless.

It was so powerful that at one point in the early 90s I wrote (and faxed) a letter to Capcom asking them if they could provide me with (or planned to release/sell) the sheet music to Duck Tales. After several weeks I got a response, albeit terse, stating they had nothing of the sort on hand and had no plans to release such compositions. I imagine had they replied with a single page of sheet music, I almost certainly would’ve begged my parents for piano lessons (I couldn’t remember how to read sheet music at that point, and the only exposure to musical instruments I had was 2-3 years of violin via school, and I ended up doing some solos on stage in front of the entire school and the parents/faculty, which is probably why I hate public speaking or being the centre of attention today).

For almost two decades I had built up mental images of the composers/musicians at Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, Rare, HAL Labs, and some of the smaller companies. It’s hard to put into words the visions I’d created, but pretty much everything had an “80s look”; the only example I can think of is how Tim Fallon looked back then.

It wasn’t until much much later, with the worldwide adoption of the Internet, that I was presented with a revolutionary statement. This would have been in the early 2000s, and I forget who mentioned it to me — it was probably on IRC — but I was told that many of the musicians at Konami and Capcom were women.

It never occurred to me even for second that females would be composing music for video game consoles; the inner workings of technology were (especially at that time, and for the most part still are) predominantly a “male thing”, meaning generally-speaking it was men who found such subjects interesting. I blindly assumed that to compose music for the NES/Famicom that you had to be of that gender. Please don’t misunderstand me: it wasn’t sexism or discrimination on my part, it was just that women-in-tech were extremely uncommon during that era, and as such never occurred to me that the minds behind all those stuck-in-your-mind-for-days blips and bleeps were women.

As the Web became more commonplace and international online social barriers started getting broken down (in this case, particularly more people who spoke both English and Japanese), more information came to light. Over time new sites were brought online (like VGMdb and VGMPF) with all sorts of information about the teams at Capcom and Konami in particular — called Alph Lyla (アルフ・ライラ) and the Konami Kukeiha Club (コナミ矩形波倶楽部).

And as luck would have it, eventually someone uploaded a photo — a photo to this day remains strangely, yet deeply, influential to me:

In the past few years I must have gone back and stared at this photo at least a hundred times, ditto with going through all the English-languaged profiles of YAMAGA Kumi (山鹿久美), MATSUMAE Manami (松前真奈美), KAWAMOTO Tamayo (河本圭代), FUJITA Harumi (藤田晴美), TAMIYA Junko (民谷淳子), TERASHIMA Satoe (寺島里恵), SUMIYAMA Tomoko (炭山智子), YAMASHITA Kinuyo (山下絹代), and so many others.

But the one of Capcom’s gals was always the most influential.

I think because, for me, it was (and still is) amazing to stare at the faces of those who were responsible for so many of my musical memories, but also because there they were, at a Japanese restaurant somewhere, in the 80s; the background, atmosphere, and everything is something I try to take in (though I admit I do this with almost any photo of 80s or 90s Japan).

I imagined what their days must have consisted of at that time: if they were stressed out from work, if their personal lives were stable or in turmoil and how that affected their music, what their offices or cubicles looked like, what equipment they used/worked on, if they did anything on paper vs. played it entirely by ear, if they ate food (and what kinds) while composing, where they got inspiration from (not necessarily bands at the time, but rather where they got the idea for a certain melody or sequence of notes), stuff like that.

And particularly for Capcom, I have always wanted to know how their “signature sound” came about: I’m referring to the use of both square waves slightly offset timing-wise to give an echo-y effect, followed by lots and lots of vibrato at the end of long sustains. It’s prevalent in practically every Capcom NES/Famicom game made, and gave everything a very unique sound. Anyone growing up during that era who was into video games heavily could say “you’re playing a Capcom game!” solely from the music — even if they didn’t know what game it was.

And of course, one can’t help but notice how young they were — all were in their early-to-mid 20s, if my memory serves me right. That made me wonder what I was doing in my early-to-mid 20s (of course I remember this), and how it compared. Was anything I did as influential? Almost certainly not.

There’s just so much to take in. It makes me wish I could sit with all 5 of them and ask them all these questions. Heck, I wish I could tell all of them just how influential — no, I’d say important — their music was at the time, even in the United States. Were they aware of that possibility at the time, or was it “just a job”?

I hope during my lifetime someone eventually makes an effort, maybe through a Kickstarter or something, to go to Japan (if not there already) and get them all together once more for a big hour-long interview at a restaurant… with proper English translation/subtitles, of course.