Shenmue Original Soundtrack
Shenmue Original Soundtrack
March 23, 2000
Buy Used Copy
Shenmue. Just mentioning the first syllable in the game’s name is likely to elicit some sort of response from the game’s rather pronounced cult following. With some of the most unique gameplay of its time (and ours) the game attracted many gamers with the freedom to do more than console games had ever allowed. With its five-composer team, is the game’s soundtrack as engrossing as the game world crafted by Yu Suzuki? The short answer is no, with half of its tracks actually engaging me, and the other half sounding more like Journey than any substantial music.
The two most distinctive tracks on the album are timbral adventures from Takeshi Yanagawa. Both tracks are quite dark, as their titles (“Revenge of a Sailor” and “Nightmare”) would imply. The latter is a bit more forceful in its affect, opening with understated timpani beneath painfully high strings and a chromatic flute melody before tossing the melody into low strings, which eventually play accompaniment to the melody’s restatement in the horns. “Revenge of a Sailor” is no less effective, but less sustained pitches, a generally sparser texture, and the generally loose sense of continuity makes the effect less blatantly frightened and a more subtle unsettled sense. It’s a shame Yanagawa was not called upon to compose other tracks on this soundtrack, or to compose more often in general, it would be nice to see how he is able to compose for other moods, as his music is, at the very least, the most distinctive of the pieces on the Shenmue soundtrack.
Osamu Murata composed the most tracks on the album, and unfortunately it is his music that most holds this album back. Very few of his tracks have any lasting appeal, with “Secret of the Warehouse” being the most notable of his composition. That is a neat piece though, with an evocative melody over an accompaniment that is more characterized than any of his others. It still repeats itself a little sooner than I would like, but the material that he does have is far more intriguing than any of his other offerings. “Encounter with Destiny” is somewhat intriguing in its climax, but the build to that climax is too nondescript to be of value, and the piece drops off around 1:40 and picks itself back up in the exact same way it did the first time, making it feel as if there’s been no progression over the course of the piece. The rest of Murata’s pieces are relatively stereotypical ballad pieces that revolve around pleasant but forgettable piano-take “Memories of Distant Days” and “Nozomi’s Confession” as examples.
Though he composed relatively few tracks on the album, Takenobu Mitsuyoshi’s contribution of the stellar “Shenmue” theme was certainly worthy of his place on the album. This theme is easily the most recognizable on the album, and its crossing of eastern and western aesthetic is such an effective overhead for the game and the album as a whole. His “Departure on a New Trip” isn’t quite as intriguing, the overall pacing of the tune is a little slow, but there are some dramatic harmonic shifts that are quite satisfying. The arranged versions of both tracks are worthy of an extra listen.
Ryuji Iuchi composed a number of tracks for the album, and like Murata, occasionally drifts dangerously close to 80’s balladry. However, the quality of his melodies makes up for the occasional sappy moment, and his tracks do move me. Many of his tracks are based of “Shenhua”, the feminine counterpart to Mitsuyoshi’s “Shenmue” theme. This theme is quite beautiful, and though it occasionally drifts toward sappiness, the music has personality unlike Murata’s pieces, so the effect is far more gripping. Iuchi also contributed the beautiful “Separated from Yokosuka” and the interesting “Snowy Scenery”. Both pieces are slightly melodramatic, but again, the amount of the character in the music outdoes it, and I think the synth is partially to blame for the over-the-top effect. Iuchi’s only major letdown is “Christmas on Dobuita Street”, and even that piece sounds quite nice; it’s just a little dull in comparison to Iuchi’s other contributions.
Yuzo Koshiro is likely the highest profile of the five composers on the soundtrack, and his role was one of the least significant on the album. His first contribution is a variation on Mitsuyoshi’s theme and is called “The Sadness on My Shoulders”. Unfortunately, the piece doesn’t really go anywhere; it just continues repeating the Shenmue theme over swelling strings with no real push to any emotional peak or anything. It is not nearly as expressive as its title would suggest. “Rain” is a brief and understated piece that does a better job of expressing than the previous, but still feels a little reserved compared to other tracks on the album. His final contribution is “Hip de Hop”, which gives Suzuki the 1986 flavour he wanted; although I don’t expect Koshiro would be wise in planning a new career in hip-hop anytime soon, there are some moments in this track that are worthy attention, particularly around 1:00 in the track.
The overall effect of the album is not wholly unfulfilling, but in comparison to the revolution that the game was, the music feels sadly mundane. It is anchored by a few strong compositions, and two very recognizable major themes. The rest of the soundtrack tends to be very forgettable and just slips under the radar. Perhaps it was best for Shenmue, which was more interested in creating an interactive world than anything else, and the somewhat 80’s flavoured ballads do seem to fit into Yu Suzuki’s vision of 1986 Japan. It still feels like there’s a little character missing that could have been added without tossing the sense of time out the window, especially considering the success of the two more traditional themes. Shenmue’s soundtrack is no slouch, but it doesn’t reach out to the unknown quite like the game itself did, and independent of the game, only carries limited staying power.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Richard Walls. Last modified on August 1, 2012.