Ghost of Tsushima has fulfilled the expectations of many gamers across the board. It’s currently one of the most popular games on the PlayStation platform. I certainly am happy that Sucker Punch was able to produce another blockbuster title. However, a very important, yet underrated aspect behind the game’s success is the music.
I spoke at length about my impressions on the game’s soundtrack last week. However, this time, I am going to show the interview I’ve had with one of the game’s main composers: Ilan Eshkeri. I learned a lot of things about Ilan and his work. The most important of all is that he is a huge arcade fan like I am and loves OutRun as much as I do. Jokes about game taste aside, this interview should be pretty insightful for my dear readers. So, without further ado, let’s get started with some highlights from the Ilan Eshkeri interview.
The interview started with me asking Ilan how he got the opportunity to work on the soundtrack. Was he found by Sony or did he reach out to them? He answered:
“What caught my attention is that PlayStation was interested in working with me because of a soundtrack I’d done for a movie called Coriolanus. It’s a Shakespeare film directed by Ralph Fiennes, and the first project I ever did with him. He was very worried about the music in his film, and together we ended up making a score that’s very unusual. It actually has no reverb, which you can hear if you listen to it with headphones. It’s really unlike anything you’ll have heard before.
Because PlayStation had come to me for what I believe is a very arthouse film that I worked on, I was interested in. I met with them. Then, I met with Sucker Punch in Seattle. They talked to me for about an hour about the story in Ghost of Tsushima, with a presentation to go along with it.
By the end, I was completely blown away, because this wasn’t what I thought it was. Yes, there was killing and violence. But, at its core, this is a story about a young man who must go against everything he was taught from a moral and traditional point of view. It’s the emotional tension that travels all throughout the game that hooked me, that emotional turmoil in Jin himself. I thought that place was a very interesting place to explore a story from, so I was completely sold on it.
Learning New Ways to Use Old Tools
Japanese instruments like the Shamisen and the Shakuhachi are pretty much standard in Japanese films, especially in western interpretations. However, Ilan worked hard to re-learn the instruments themselves to keep the authenticity in his composition.
“I had worked on some films. One that springs to mind is Ninja Assassin, about ninjas, which was a contemporary film. It had a Japanese influence of course. I also did another film with similar influences called 47 Ronin.
Ninja Assassin was a project I had great fun with. However, it’s a contemporary story that happens in the modern world. So, it didn’t need the same level of authenticity as Ghost of Tsushima. 47 Ronin is a fantasy adventure that takes place in Japan, but it needed a big Hollywood score. Neither project needed the same level of authenticity.
For those films, I used the Koto and Shakuhachi. But I didn’t delve deeply into the possibilities of what was the right way to write for these instruments. I didn’t do the research or learn the things I needed to learn. It wasn’t necessary. For those projects, these instruments were flavoring, whereas in Ghost of Tsushima, they’re the main focus.
So, I had a little experience when I first started with Ghost of Tsushima, but I really had to learn and work to make the score what it needed, and deserved, to be. It’s not easy to learn an artform from another culture, and even once I’d learned it all, I realized that what I knew was the tip of the iceberg, and I know nothing at all!”
Bringing Back the Classics
Along the way, Ilan Eshkeri also told me about one incredible discovery he made regarding a lesser-known instrument: The Biwa. This lute was often used in Japan and slowly started to lose its popularity after the Ōnin War.
“It was really appropriate because it was the instrument that the Samurai used to play. It’s strung a bit like a guitar, and you play it with a giant plectrum, and the Samurai would sing tales of their exploits.
The tradition of Biwa playing was almost entirely lost a few decades ago. There was just one great master left. He taught a handful of people, one of which is a lady called Junko Ueda, who is a great master of the instrument, and an incredibly spiritual person. I feel lucky to have collaborated with her.
Luckily, she lives in Spain. So, she came to London and taught me about the Biwa. She’s actually the female vocalist on the game’s soundtrack. She sang a Shomyo, which are ancient Buddhist monk songs that are thousands of years old.
The Biwa and the Shomyo are from the time period that the game is set in, and earlier. There are also folk songs worked into the melodies. These things that you’re hearing are likely the same things that the people of Tsushima would have been hearing in the thirteenth century.”
Breaking the Rules
I asked Ilan about his process of creating the score for Ghost of Tsushima. He told me about how much work was put into … Putting together a soundtrack of this scale. He gave me a very interesting answer:
“To me, the scale doesn’t matter. Every project has its own challenge, there are many different aspects to all of them. The art bit is writing Luke Skywalker’s theme, right? But the craft bit is making Luke Skywalker’s theme fit that scene. Making it a bit sad, happy, action, that’s the craft to the work. Anyone can learn to do that, but not anyone can learn to write the tune.
I wanted to write in the idiom of this Japanese writing. So, I restricted myself to five-note Japanese scales. Normally in western music, we work with twelve-note scales. So, all the melodies that everyone plates are based on two pentatonic scales.
When it comes to chords, there isn’t actually a tradition of writing in chords in Japanese music. So I had to create chords out of these two scales. To do that, I had to create an entire system for making chords out of these scales, telling me which ones I could use, and then I applied it in order to write the soundtrack.
Sometimes of course, you break the rules. It was important to write the melodies with the five note scales, because of the Japanese instruments being used for them. I really learnt how to write for those instruments, writing books, working with a professor, and then I drove the musicians crazy. I made them teach me how to play each instrument, so that I could understand how to write for them in a natural way for those instruments.”
Reinventing The Wheel
Ilan Eshkeri is known for writing ballets, shows, and movies. His work is mostly intended to tell a story and a character’s tale through the music. So, when I asked him if he took inspiration from his previous work. He unsurprisingly answered with:
“Not really. I try to reinvent, but I tend to go through phases of writing music in certain ways. Recently I’ve been in a phase in which I start with one musical idea, and I let it go for the entire track. More lines then join it, but that one musical idea runs throughout. It started with a ballet and came about as the result of the director of that ballet telling me I could have one of every instrument to make the score.
So, I thought, great! I then wrote each piece with every instrument playing the same thing over and over, but they would build as time went on. Every time a phrase finished; another instrument would join. This is a method that I’ve been into for a few years now, and I think I’m at the end of that journey right now. With Ghost of Tsushima though, that phase of my writing was still definitely present and active.
I guess I also took a bit of inspiration from Coriolanus because PlayStation said that they liked it so much. Really, my inspiration came from the Japanese music that I was researching though. Some other Japanese composers also influence me, such as Toru Takemitsu. So I guess I found inspiration in that, but also the learning I did, the instruments I learned about, as well as the writing language AI developed for the soundtrack itself.”
Ilan Eshkeri’s Reunion with an Old Comrade
Earlier in this article, you might’ve noticed that I mentioned that Ilan Eshkeri was one of the composers for the game. The second composer is none other than Shigeru Umebayashi; known for composing music for multiple TV shows and movies. Ilan told me about how it was to compose with Mr. Umebayashi.
“What’s funny is that Ume and I collaborated more than ten years ago on Hannibal Rising. Working together on Ghost of Tsushima was just a happy coincidence. The way that they (PlayStation and Sucker Punch) wanted to do it was to have us work separately.
They had ideas about what Ume would write, and ideas about my writing too. So, we didn’t really collaborate in that sense, but we did have a fabulous, and memorable dinner together, and worked in the same studio a few times too. I have a lot of respect and admiration for him and am very proud to be credited alongside him. I’m so glad that I got to work with him again, in whatever form this counts as.”
Odds and Ends
There were a lot more questions I asked Ilan Eshkeri. However, I don’t want to drag this article much. As such, you can find the transcript of the interview in this Google Docs document. In it, you’ll find other answers alongside extended quotes from the answers found in this article. I’ll let Ilan take over from here:
“In life, you don’t need music. When you’re talking to someone there are many things that we get from the presence of the other person, none of which need to be said. But when you’re watching a movie, it’s not that easy to get that information. Music tells you all of that stuff that you need to know.
Music is capable of expressing both simple and incredibly complex emotions. So, for me, that’s the role it plays, it’s the soul of the thing that you’re creating. It’s the emotional soul of it. So, in that sense, it’s incredibly important. “
Alternatively, you can have a look at the full interview in the YouTube video backup coming soon. The video includes the entire unscripted interview with some incredible tidbits that weren’t transcribed in the transcript!
Authenticity in Question
Some people might bring up Matt S’s controversial review of the game for Digitally Downloaded. Considering that Matt offers the perspective of someone who has been to Tsushima and learned about the history of the region; I was surprised to know that there were aspects that weren’t up to par with his standards for a samurai epic.
However, if anything is to be believed by Ilan’s statement, it’s that Sucker Punch at least tried to be authentic. Whether or not it succeeded is completely left up in the air. However, it’s still important to note that there was an attempt. This couldn’t be demonstrated any further than in the way the music was made.
“Sucker Punch also had an extreme desire to make this game as realistic and authentic as possible. They got leaves from the island of Tsushima so that they could create realistic trees in the game. I admired that and relished the opportunity to do something similar with the music. To study and learn about Japanese music, and then base the game’s score on what I learned.”
While the story might have its flaws, I believe that the score of the game can make up for the lack of authenticity. Now, whether or not this is actually achieved is up to the viewer and the player of the game. I definitely believe that some merit can be put into the attempt at making a game that could be critiqued as a work of art.
What do you think about the Ilan Eshkeri interview? Do you like Ghost of Tsushima? What are your thoughts on the game’s soundtrack? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Do you want to check on some of our latest content? Check out our review of Rogue Company.