Composers: Kenji Ito

(credit:  Kenji Ito’s Official English Website)

Kenji Ito’s legacy lends itself to many poorly received releases in the US.  Oddly, he is a very well liked and well-known composer in Japan.  You may have never knowingly heard his music.  However,  you’ve probably heard his arrangements (this and this) for Super Smash Bros Brawl.  He should be on your radar.  Let me show you why.

Kenji Ito

Born:  July 5th, 1968

Main Instrument(s):  piano, clarinet, saxophone

Years Active:  1990-present

Official Website:  http://ito.cocoebiz.com/

Summarizing what I’ve read across numerous websites (such as his own), interviews, wikis, etc:  Ito started out on piano at a young age.  He became interested in electronic music though he was discouraged by his piano teacher.  Through his youth, he learned to play numerous instruments (saxophone, clarinet, etc).  He went to college for music and decided to become a composer.  His professor was all like:  uh, why not try video games?  He applied to numerous place (including HAL labs) and got a job with Square.  There, I just summed up a painful 4-5 paragraphs from an interview.

His first project was:

(credit:  asukacrystalrose – there’s some repeat business, haha)

This was know as Saga 2 in Japan but Final Fantasy Legend II here… mainly to drive up sales with name recognition.  He was paired with some guy:

(credit:  asukacrystalrose)

Yeah, this is early Nobuo Uematsu.  And Kenji Ito’s first project ever was to sit down and program barely 8-bit soundtracks for a game for the series that was considered the “much more difficult bigger brother” to the Final Fantasy series.  Uematsu would later go on to continue writing music for the Final Fantasy series and Ito would break off and become the composer for the SaGa series.

Ito’s next project was a series of games known as Seiken Densetsu in Japan which were intended to be spin-offs of the Final Fantasy series.  The first game, Seiken Densetsu, was a Game Boy game that featured a top over screen similar to the Nintendo Zelda series.  The original release of this game was known as “Final Fantasy Adventure” in the US.  Ito was the sole composer of Seiken Densetsu and you can see how his style really tested and stretched the capabilities of the Game Boy, even for 1991:

(credit:  PaperMario15)

There is a style to Ito that is very… busy.  There’s usually a lot of interplay between notes.  I think it is easy to hear the influence of his piano skills on what he writes.

Ito continued to write music for the SaGa series (Romancing SaGa 1/2/3).  Examples from Romancing SaGa 3:

(credit:  SinnerFalcon)

When I hear Ito’s name, I ALWAYS thinking of thumpin’ MIDI slap bass.  You’ll see that he relies on this heavily throughout his entire career.  It’s in direct contrast to Uematsu who uses more of a rock bass sound when developing his instruments for the Final Fantasy series.  Worst part about his music for the Romancing SaGa series is that the games are SO FREAKING HARD.  It’s hard to sit back and enjoy the music when you’re struggling to win random encounters at the beginning of the game.  Ugh.

Point of interesting:  Ito was scheduled to contribute and write the score for Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu II) but due to time constraints, he had to pass off the score to Hiroki Kikuta, Square’s second choice.  This conflict gave Kikuta his big break in the industry.  Before doing Secret of Mana, Kikuta was just a sound effects programmer for Square.

Ito was also part of a massive group of composers in 1996 who worked on Tobal No. 1, a fighting game.  He worked with Yasunori Mitsuda, Yasuhiro Kawakami, , Ryuji Sasai, Masashi Hamauzu, Junya Nakano, Noriko Matsueda, and Yoko Shimomura.  That’s kind of an amazing line up.  Here’s one of his tracks from that game:

(credit:  adicool88)

Continuing on, he wrote the music to SaGa Frontier, his final contribution to the SaGa series before passing the baton to Masashi Hamauzu.  This game, in my opinion, shows off some of the amazing technical skills and attention to detail possessed by Ito.  There’s something a little… unique to his sound.  He is very good at conveying intensity.  SaGa Frontier is a game where every battle could easily bury you, even random encounters.  Even listening to his music now fills me with the anxiety of being lost in a poorly conceived sewer dungeon with no weapons and monsters that can kill me in one hit.

One thing that is strange about Ito:  although the Playstation has the capabilities for many more sounds, he makes some pretty hilarious MIDI instrument choices.  I think he was still in Super Famicom mode:

(credit:  Arkenryu)

I would find a way to obtain this whole soundtrack and give it a listen.  Or just buy Saga Frontier on eBay for like, $.20 but good luck making it past the opening battles.  I’d head to YouTube where the monsters don’t kick your butt.  Again, another SaGa game that took a beating by the US reviewers.

Before I get to what Ito considers his best work, I would like to point out Chocobo Racing.  This was game where Ito had no creative control and was forced to essentially remix all of Uematsu’s music.  It leads to something awesome though:

(credit:  FenVGM and LedZeppelinXV)

Yep, bizarrely tasteful covers of all the original Final Fantasy series music.  Considering how this game was basically marketed toward the success of Final Fantasy VII and bought by gamers only because it had a chocobo on it, I’m very impressed.  I’ll definitely cover this in a Lesser-known Video Game Soundtrack post later.

Ito cites his best work as being for Culdcept Second, a JP only turn based strategy RPG released for Dreamcast and later Playstation 2.  I hear a lot of… Saga Frontier in this music and I don’t necessarily see how the music is better but here’s some tracks from the game:  (UPDATE- 10/17/2012  – the user who posted all of my original videos for this music deleted his YouTube account…  I waded through some Japanese and found some tracks to replace the originals.  I BELIEVE this is Culdcept Second- if it is not, PLEASE tell me and I’ll fix it.)

(credit:  kobbuu)

A prolific composer and sort of unknown, Ito’s career continues as he hosts live events and performs his music across Japan.  Got a favorite track?  Comment below!  Hope you enjoyed a brief look at Kenji Ito.

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

2 responses to “Composers: Kenji Ito

  • Jay C.

    I love Ito’s music! You definitely can tell it’s an Itoken battle theme when you hear that slap bass. Great story! Thanks!

  • chasebethea

    I am a huge fan of Kenji Ito and a bigger fan of this article! I grew up with Kenji Ito’s music when I was young doing sound tests on Final Fantasy Legend II aka Saga II. My favorites of him from that game are Lethal Strike (excellent Bach replication here). The Tranquil Earth has such a touching melody. Ravine of Darkness (although short and repetitive I still like it). Never Give Up (I used to make up some kind of love song lyrics to sing to this). Theme of a New God and Struggle to the Death is my absolute favorite! I can’t count the amount of times I have listened to these two songs over and over even until this day.

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