Yakuza 0’s Hidenori Shoji on composing battle themes for the Dragon of Dojima and Mad Dog of Shimano

Kiryu and Majima from Yakuza 0

We interviewed the music director for the critically acclaimed Ryu ga Gotoku Studio prequel, set in late ’80s Tokyo.

By Jerry Jeriaska (The Ongaku), translated by Hidenori Arikawa and edited by Thomas Quillfeldt

Following five commercially successful mainline entries in the Ryu ga Gotoku franchise — known as Yakuza in the West — the developers at Tokyo-based RGG decided to create a prequel title. Flashing back to the streets of the fictional red light district of Kamurocho in the winter of 1988, the sprawling crime drama Yakuza 0 presents players with the origin stories of protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima as they face off against high-ranking yakuza bosses.

The game’s music director and co-composer Hidenori Shoji chatted to us about creating the high-energy battle tracks, the challenges the team encountered in utilising motion capture for music-oriented cut scenes, and the musician’s aims in collaborating with fellow composers at Sega.

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Laced Records first pressed the Yakuza 0 6LP vinyl box set and double LP in 2021 - check for availability: www.lacedrecords.com/collections/yakuza and via other retailers.

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The Yakuza 0 vinyl box set by Laced Records

Yakuza begins

Kiryu from Yakuza 0

Since the mid-1990s, Hidenori Shoji has been recording music for Sega games for arcade cabinets and home consoles. It first hit home for the composer that his work was making an impact on the world stage when the famous singer Christina Aguilera posted to her website that her favourite video game was Super Monkey Ball — the arcade platformer prominently features Shoji’s music.

Since then, Shoji has contributed to every entry in the Yakuza series, both front-and-centre as a composer and behind-the-scenes as music director.

The direct translation of ‘Ryu ga Gotoku’ is ‘Like A Dragon’, which became the moniker for the Western-localized title of the seventh and, at the time of writing, most recent entry in the series. The rich history of the Yakuza franchise not only extends into the past with its prequel entry, but has even attempted historical fiction.

Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! witnesses the series protagonist assuming the identity of the Sengoku era’s legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, while Ishin! finds him taking on the role of Edo period samurai Sakamoto Ryōma. In every era in which his devastating fighting prowess is manifested, Kazuma Kiryu asserts his dominance against all odds as the Dragon of ‘Ryu ga Gotoku’.

However, in Yakuza 0 we are introduced to Kiryu in circumstances that characterize his personality as far from sympathetic.

The Hunted Dragon

Kiryu from Yakuza 0

*** Yakuza 0 early and mid game story elements are discussed below ***

The opening scenes of Yakuza 0 introduces an ominous chapter in the Kiryu saga. Over the years we have grown to respect the Dragon of Dojima, the protector of young Haruka (introduced in Yakuza Kiwami) and rescuer of puppies bullied by meanspriited delinquents.

In Chapter One, ‘Bound By Oath’, a loan shark has hired Kiryu to corner a delinquent client in a vacant lot and beat him into submission. The scene reveals that Kiryu’s rise through the ranks of the Tojo Clan has left blood on his hands.

Shoji explains that the light and dark sides of Yakuza 0 are represented by playable characters Kiryu and Majima, respectively. And those themes are reflected in the choice of music genres associated with each character’s battle techniques.

“First off, there is Kiryu's fighting style known as ‘Chinpira’ (Brawler) Style,” Shoji explains. “It was not so much a matter of choosing a style of music that would fit. Rather, it is fixed in place that this is the background music you hear when encountering a battle for the first time. I made a conscious effort not to start off with too aggressive a melody. The aim, rather, was to dive in with something a little lighter, as in a comparatively upbeat track."

Battle track “Force Addiction” is associated with Kiryu’s Brawler”Style. In Japanese, the fighting technique is called “Chinpira” Style, referring to Kiryu’s standing as a low-ranking member of the Tojo Clan. Alternatively, this label would translate to “thug” or “hoodlum,” illustrating Kiryu’s relative insignificance at the outset of the prequel.

As it turns out, Kiryu’s low rank brands him as easy prey for the yakuza, who utilize his deed for the loan shark as a means to frame him as a patsy. When the body of Kiryu’s mark is discovered the following morning with a fatal gunshot wound, Kiryu must find a way to cut ties with the Tojo Clan’s Dojima family, hunt down the killer, and clear his name.

The Chained Dog

The Cabaret Grand from Yakuza 0

The setting of the Cabaret Grand in the fictional district of Sotenburi presented Shoji with one of the most difficult challenges of Yakuza 0’s development.

In Chapter 3, ‘A Gilded Cage’, we are introduced to Goro Majima, the manager of a popular music hall in the Kansai region of Japan. Before long, Majima has a run-in with a drunken, unruly patron who challenges him to a fistfight on the floor of the lavish club. However, Majima has sworn never to strike a paying customer, and must deftly dodge the lout’s awkward punches and kicks.

At the start of this peculiar duel, undoubtedly not the first of its kind, the band members performing on stage at the Grand recognize that this is their cue. They launch into a heart-pounding rendition of “Customer Creed,” selected for such an occasion. The musical performance takes place as the Mad Dog of Shimano and his would-be assailant face off.

This scene from “A Gilded Cage” is a fun example of diegetic music, meaning the on-screen characters can hear the music of “Customer Creed”, unlike the battle tracks associated with brawls on the streets outside. What made this scene a chore for the composer, akin to the travails of the hand-tied Goro Majima, was the fact that the music needed to be synched to the movements of the virtual band members.

“Composer (Yuri) Fukuda from the sound team participated in motion capture for the pianist,” Shoji relates. “When you watch the pianist during that big band sequence, all those movements were performed by Fukuda during her motion capture session. In the same way, mo-cap for the guitarist was done by ZENTA. He is a composer from outside of Sega who has contributed music for the Ryu ga Gotoku series, including karaoke songs, and here threw in some motion-capture acting.”

Shoji was asked to compose the music track prior to the cutscene being mapped out by the graphics animators. However, additional adjustments had to be made as the scene came together in order to link the music’s timing to the motions of the computer generated band members. This was one instance where extensive discussion was required between the music director and visual design staff on the development team.

Majima’s introduction again subverts the player’s expectations, as it inverts the dark versus light motif that defines the game’s dual protagonists. While the curtain rises on Kiyru cornering a cowering victim in the dark corners of a vacant lot, by contrast, our first impression of Majima is of a by-the-book professional. Majima exercises such surfeits of self-restraint that he meekly allows a bottle of champagne to be poured upon his head by a drunken buffoon.

Proof of Resolve

Kuzu from Yakuza 0

To clear his name, Kiryu must evade detection by Kamurocho’s deadliest lieutenants and their unlimited reserves of disposable underlings. The antagonists of Yakuza 0 are the stuff of legend, led by a hot-headed psychopath named Daisuke Kuzu, a bloodthirsty mafioso-styled sadist called Hiroki Awano, and the cold and calculating strategist Keiji Shibusawa.

At regular intervals, Kiryu is spotted on the streets of Kamurocho and must defend himself against low-ranking yakuza and suited goons. As he progresses in his training, Kiryu unleashes a new fighting technique, called Rush Style. The associated music track, dubbed “Parry Addiction,” was influenced by Western boxing matches, particularly their portrayal on the big screen. A character played by actor Brad Pitt became a focal point for defining the Rush technique.

“At that time, I saw the film Snatch," Shoji recalls. "The film score accompanying the brawls and boxing matches made a strong impression. I decided to write a music track with that kind of flavour, but in the breakbeat genre.”

Kiryu’s determination to extricate himself from the Dojima Family, which has marked him as a renegade in the eyes of the three lieutenants, sets in motion the character’s path to redemption. By the time he meets Haruka in the events of Yakuza Kiwami, he is already well on his way toward fulfilling his destiny as a legend of Kamurocho.

“Kazuma Kiryu gains access to the ’Dragon of Dojima’ battle style," Shoji relates. "Acquiring the Dragon of Dojima Style within the game sets the stage for the events of Ryu ga Gotoku 1.” This is accompanied by the track “Receive You ~Tech Trance Arrange~”.

He continues: “I went about arranging “Receive You”, which has returned in new variations in every instalment since Ryu ga Gotoku 1.”

One-eyed assassin

Majima from Yakuza 0

Majima, however, has set out on an opposite trajectory, seeking to deepen his involvement in organised crime. However sympathetic he may appear at the outset, the darker nature of Majima’s ambitions gradually surfaces, as he acquires ever more devastating fighting prowess. The course correction comes with the introduction of Majima’s initial battle track, titled “One Eyed Assassin,” associated with his Thug Style fighting technique.

“In the contest between these themes of light and dark, Kiryu's side is decidedly brighter,” says Shoji. “That prompted me to compose a music track with an overall quality of brilliance, accentuated by light moments. On the other hand, Majima represents the flipside. When encountering an enemy, the mood darkens ー and so his Thug Style technique is represented by a sinister drum'n'bass track."

In a parallel storyline unfolding in Sotenburi, the Shimano crime family is putting the screws on Majima. As with the Dragon of Dojima, the Mad Dog has been backed into a corner.

Explained in a flashback sequence laid out in still images like fading photographs, Majima once was foiled in his attempts to assassinate the chairman of the Ueno Seiwa Clan. As a consequence of his failure, he was punished by the Shimano family, suffering soul-crushing beatings and losing his eye in the process.

Now Majima must make amends by filling the Shimano organisation’s coffers with the profits earned through his painstaking labour as manager of the Grand. Overseeing this operation is Tsukasa Sagawa, a sardonic father figure who exacts ever higher levies on Majima’s salary in order to satisfy the yakuza’s demands. One day, Sagawa allows him a means of escaping his predicament.

Majima is given the offer to enrol as an assassin, targeting a delinquent client known as Makoto Makimura. Where Kiryu seeks to escape a false accusation, Majima now grapples with the choice of whether to embrace such a fate in reality. The only means of putting his past behind him is to pick up where he left off, taking on the role of a professional assassin.

As he accrues greater experience as a fighter, Majima gains access to his signature baseball bat, learning the Slugger fighting technique. What perhaps most clearly distinguishes Majima from his Kamurocho counterpart are the flickers of glee that cross his face when knocking the wind out of his opponent to the tune of “One Eyed Slugger.”

“Majima's Slugger fighting style employs the use of a baseball bat,” Shoji explains. "To help bring out the darker quality of this technique, divorced from any association with baseball, I selected dubstep as the choice of genre. The idea was to emphasise the impression of violence in this implement being used as a weapon."

For Majima’s break dancing Breaker Style, alternatively called Dancer Style in the Japanese release, Shoji found a genre that would complement the character’s amusement when tripping up his foes.

"The Breaker technique is a humorous fighting style whereby Majima elatedly gets the drop on his enemies, so cheerful connotations are unavoidable,” Shoji explains. “The trick was to somehow suggest a darker aspect to it. That led me to combine upbeat dance music with a style of underground dance music."

Over the course of the Yakuza series, Majima has gained a reputation for mixing comical flourishes with flashes of viciousness, catching his enemies off guard. His ultimate battle technique, the Mad Dog of Shimano style, represents a subtler callback to Yakuza Kiwami.

The track that plays for Majima’s final style is “Receive You The Subtype”:

“Listen closely and you will recognize that it's another arrangement of Kiryu's “Receive You” theme,” Shoji explains. "Whereas [“Receive You ~Tech Trance Arrange~”] is characterised by a dazzling tech trance style, [the Mad Dog of Shimano Style track] is arranged in a gritty metalstep style."

The Ryu ga Gotoku ethos

Kiryu and Majima from Yakuza 0

Shoji’s role as music director involved collaborating with over a dozen co-composers on Yakuza 0. When combined with the workload required for crafting hooks and performing instruments on his own compositions, micro-managing others’ output simply was not an option. Nor did such an approach strike him as a meaningful exercise in eliciting creative inspiration from his team members.

“As a music director, I start out by communicating some sense of the overall intention of the music score,” states Shoji. “At the same time, I have no desire to suffocate that special something that each musician brings with them. Oftentimes, the best approach is to offer some direction and then leave the rest to them.”

This hands-off approach has allowed numerous musicians to communicate their personal interpretation of harrowing and exhilarating scenes unfolding in Kamurocho. Each artist is encouraged to innovate when it comes to crafting the sounds of Ryu ga Gotoku’s nightlife – from the drunken street brawls to the intimate karaoke parlours.

“Allowing room for an individual's personal discretion is important,” Shoji states. "It would be too restrictive for me to stipulate, ‘write this kind of song, using this method, employing these instruments.'

“For instance, with the battle tracks," Shoji explains. "Let's say that I was assigning someone the Thug Style track. I would suggest they take a look at Kiryu's Brawler Style theme as a reference. ‘Here is a thematically light track that I wrote. Why don't you make a dark one to go alongside it?' I might ask in an abstract sense, ‘How would you go about representing this thematic contrast between light and dark?'

“From there, it's left up to their personal interpretation. The important thing is to allow that individual's special something to shine through.” 

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Hidenori Shoji is a composer and music director.