If Nobuo Uematsu’s career was a video game, he beat it a long time ago. The world’s most prestigious orchestras have performed his music from the Final Fantasy series to cheering crowds. Grammy-winning hip-hop producer Knxwledge has flipped his MIDI melodies into slick beats. Musician Jon Batiste has transformed his favorite Final Fantasy songs into big band jazz arrangements and played them to millions of viewers on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” (Batiste’s favorite video game soundtrack is “Final Fantasy VII,” in case you’re wondering.)
What does Uematsu do next? It’s something that the veteran video game composer has finally found some time to reflect on in light of the famed JRPG series’s 35th anniversary. The last game he composed a complete soundtrack for was 2021’s “Fantasian,” an Apple Arcade exclusive created by his friend and Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, and it might be his last.
Uematsu devoted all of his “body and spirit” to the project. A typical working day involved waking up at 5 a.m. with music already in his head and composing until 6 p.m. It’s hard to believe that it was only in 2018 that Uematsu announced via a blog post that he was taking an “extended leave of absence” due to the fatigue from wrapping a hectic touring schedule around his composition work. Uematsu worked so hard that he was hospitalized. Sakaguchi had doubts as to whether he’d be able to work on “Fantasian.”
Despite the health concerns, Uematsu told The Washington Post over a video call that he’s now fully recovered. Has his output slowed down at all? Not exactly. His schedule is as busy as ever, and he’s still working similar hours now as he was before the leave of absence.
“The thing is, I don’t really have any downtime. All I do is work!” he said through an interpreter.
That said, Uematsu has spent time reflecting on his legacy and where he invests his creative time.
“My work has three main pillars at the moment,” Uematsu said. “The first: synthesizer-based solo performances. The second: live performances of theme songs that I wrote for different games with a small group of artists. I play the piano, another member of the group plays percussion, someone else plays the guitar and we have a vocalist as well. The third: writing music and stories by myself and having a voice actor perform the live reading with my music.”
The diversity of the self-taught composer’s music in the Final Fantasy series has led to it being arranged and performed in a variety of different genres over the years. There is a vibrant scene of musicians creating covers and arrangements on YouTube and online communities such as OverClocked Remix, whether that’s ’60s surf big band versions of “The Chocobo Theme,” lofi hip-hop remixes or classical guitar renditions.
Square Enix, the game studio responsible for Final Fantasy, is no stranger to the demand for Uematsu’s music either. It has released several arrangement albums of its own, such as “Square Enix Jazz: Final Fantasy,” “Cafe SQ” and the Distant Worlds orchestral arrangements it tours across the globe. Uematsu has never been directly involved with the arrangements of many of these albums, making his recent synthesizer-based solo performances so unique.
“Modulation” is Uematsu’s first synthesizer-based project, featuring his own synth arrangements of Final Fantasy music modulated from the instruments, sound chips and programs used to record the original tracks. It also marks the composer’s first time releasing an analog vinyl record. Uematsu says the idea for the album was sparked after introducing Final Fantasy music into his solo performances alongside music from other games he worked on, including the Blue Dragon series, “Lost Odyssey” and “The Last Story.”
“A representative of Square Enix heard them and asked me if I’d like to turn them into an album, and I accepted,” Uematsu said. He was able to choose which tracks from Final Fantasy he wanted to feature on the album.
Uematsu has always been passionate about performing the music he’s written for video games onstage. While video game concerts have been taking place in Japan since 1987, when Koichi Sugiyama filled the Suntory Hall in Tokyo with his music from Dragon Quest on the NES, it wasn’t until 2003 that Uematsu’s music was performed onstage in the West. The success of Thomas Böcker’s Symphonic Games Music Concert in Leipzig, Germany, spawned a symphony concert series that awakened Uematsu to the global popularity of Final Fantasy music concerts.
“Hearing my music performed outside of Japan was a great experience and a huge honor,” he said. “At the time, orchestral performances of Japanese game music weren’t really common outside of Japan. When I was young, Japan was strongly influenced by American and European culture, but not the other way around. To think that Japanese culture has now left an impression on American and European children makes me realize that times have changed.”
Uematsu was 10 years old when he heard music from the Vienna Boys’ Choir. This was the first time in the young composer’s life that he was moved to tears, he recalled.
“It really was a formative moment in my life. It was the first time I got a taste of how moving music can be,” he said. There’s a reason the tissues come out at Final Fantasy concerts whenever the orchestra drops “To Zanarkand” from “Final Fantasy X” or “Aerith’s Theme” from “Final Fantasy VII.” “The emotional impact that hearing the Vienna Boys’ Choir had on me is definitely an experience that I wanted to re-create, but I wanted to do it in my own way.”
Later, American and European bands greatly influenced Uematsu’s musical output. Kraftwerk fans will be able to recognize the three-note melody in “Final Fantasy VII’s” “Anxious Heart,” and there are obvious similarities between Deep Purple’s “Maybe I’m a Leo” and “Final Fantasy VIII’s” “Maybe I’m a Lion.” Uematsu cites Elton John, Kraftwork and Sparks as his biggest influences, and there’s no escaping how the composer’s love for progressive rock bands permeates his video game scores.
“At the beginning of the ’70s, progressive rock was very popular in Japan, except Genesis, maybe,” he said, although he cites “Foxtrot” by Genesis as one of his favorite albums. “Not a lot of people were listening to Genesis. But Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Pink Floyd were very popular.”
Of course, you can probably imagine Uematsu’s delight when Sony Music presented an opportunity to collaborate with Deep Purple’s vocalist, Ian Gillan, for a boss theme in “Blue Dragon,” one of the first games that Uematsu scored after leaving Square Enix in 2004. “I’m definitely a big fan of Deep Purple, so I was very happy that this collaboration came about!”
In 2002, Uematsu’s passion for prog-rock music led to him forming The Black Mages, a band featuring original Square and Square Enix members performing prog-rock and metal versions of Final Fantasy music. When the group split in 2010, Uematsu carried the concept forward with a new band, Earthbound Papas, adding music from “Lost Odyssey,” “Lord of Vermilion” and “Blue Dragon” to the setlist.
The group is still active, but nowadays, Uematsu is more interested in playing stripped-back versions of his music.
“Right now, I’m not playing rock music like I did in the days of Earthbound Papas and The Black Mages,” he said. “I’m trying to shift toward a kind of music that you can relax to. I’m not after playing music that’s all about great rhythm and big beats at the moment. I want to move people with melodies and harmonies. That’s why I’m currently focusing on simple acoustic setups instead of a full-on rock band.”
The acoustic setups of Uematsu performing with other musicians are currently being streamed in Japan as part of the conTIKI shows, with live performances scheduled for Europe next year. These performances and his solo projects are taking up most of Uematsu’s time right now, and he seems content not to be heavily involved in writing music for video games for the time being.
In fact, when we asked Uematsu about his favorite modern-day video game scores and composers, he struggled to name any soundtracks that have impressed him in recent years:
“I feel that everyone, including myself, I guess, is simply making music that you’ve already heard somewhere else. That’s not very exciting to me. I understand that video games are meant to be fun, of course. But they’re also the cutting edge of entertainment technology.
“That’s why I’d like to see people take a more experimental approach to them. In that sense, nobody comes to mind when you ask me if there’s a composer who I’m a big fan of … But wait, I just remembered something. There is a Czech developer named Amanita Design. What they’re doing is extremely interesting to me, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of the music.”
That said, he told The Post he has an idea for a video game he’d like to make. While this wouldn’t be the first time Uematsu has crafted a narrative experience (“Blik-0 1946” is his story of a weaponized robot released as an e-book on iOS in 2013), it would be his first time making a video game.
“If I find a company that’s willing to fund it, I would like to work on that.”
Mat Ombler is a freelance journalist specializing in the intersection of video games and music.