This extensive memorial article celebrates the life of Cave composer Ryu Umemoto, who passed away just over one year ago -- with new details about his life and contributions to game music which are, until know, largely unknown in the West. Written by his personal friend, journalist Audun Sorlie, it also includes remembrances from friends and colleagues.
To the video game industry and its many fans in the West, the name Ryu Umemoto will only echo faintly in the distance, a handful of followers responding in joy over the music in Cave's recent titles, such as Akai Katana. In Japan, the name Ryu Umemoto resonates in the hearts in thousands upon thousands of fans. It's a name recognized for changing a genre completely; it's the name of a man with an open heart and immense care for the industry he loved so dearly, and one who gave many young artists their first break.
Ryu Umemoto was a video game composer and producer who became a highly respected personality in the Japanese video game industry, even though his name never traveled much outside of the borders of his native country.
He eventually became a top producer and coordinator for Cave, and began plans to expand its selection of niche shooters (such as Deathsmiles) to the U.S. market. After 18 years in the industry, Ryu Umemoto would finally be able to spread his wings and showcase his incredible body of work internationally.
But on August 17, 2011, Ryu Umemoto died of sudden illness, aged 37.
A man of great intelligence, a complete soul, lost in an instant, in the midst of realizing his most passionate project in life -- reaching out to his fans around the world. Umemoto was a man who cared deeply for those he felt were dearest to him, and his fans were, to him, part of his extended family.
To commemorate the one year mark of his untimely passing, the story of his life will finally be told for the very first time, to fulfill the wish he held so close to his heart: to reach his fans, and to share with them his insight, his experience, and his passion. The article is the result of personal meetings, phone conversations and emails right up until the day of his passing, and with the assistance of his family and friends, in an effort to keep the name and spirit of Ryu Umemoto alive.
Childhood & Life Decisions
On February 18, 1974 in Yokohama, Ryu Umemoto was born into the fishing family of Chieko and Taiji Umemoto. Even from his first days, Umemoto showed a light mood and unstoppable curiosity, always eager to venture beyond his crib, and would often create much noise not by cries, but by endless shaking and studying of any near object within his reach.
The parents were immensely proud of their firstborn son. Chieko was a caring mother, always supportive, full of love and kindness. Taiji was a strict, but trustworthy, man. He was as any father should be; a role model, one who Ryu kept in his heart, even during the turbulent times in their relationship.
The Umemoto family had their stock and trade in fish. Ryu was brought into the family business at an early age to learn the craft and carry on the family tradition, as he was expected to one day run the operations. However, while his curiosity was very alive for the business he was to one day run, his compassion for life was just as strong as his curious nature. As the young boy looked into the tanks while listening to his father's instructions, he would bring small fry home with him in cups, opting to nurture them and study their way of life, rather than end it.
Young Ryu Umemoto
As he grew into his preadolescence, he became a playful child full of imagination and energy. His childhood could only be described as picture-perfect. His life would become even more exciting when he was soon to see a new addition to the family, a baby brother. Even at such a young age, Ryu showed an incredibly strong bond with those around him, and the role of big brother was one he took very seriously. From his little brother's first steps to his first words, Ryu would be at his brother's side to help him, and never allowed himself to see his brother cry or feel sad, always being there with a funny face and a helping hand.
Ryu also demonstrated at a young age an incredible understanding of numbers, exceptional math skills in which he seemingly saw something others did not, as he would not only solve the math question in front of him, but also find a melodic structure in it. He also found the world of science fiction, a genre that would fuel his imagination for his entire life. Like many young Japanese children, Ryu became infatuated with the Gundam TV series, being amazed by the intricate designs of the mechanical giants on screen, and its themes of war and peace, and the hope that grows in times of conflict. He would draw his own designs for Gundam, creating characters, motivations and story arcs.
Ryu and his brother
The dream of designing filled his heart and soul, and Ryu would spend his entire days creating worlds in his mind, not only detailing on paper their inhabitants' characteristics and appearances, but their emotions, their relationships, their entire life story.
His first day at school was a day of incredible excitement. His teachers took note of his remarkable imagination and his proficiency with math, but young Ryu was more eager to find that most of his classmates were as passionate about Gundam as he was. Ryu would spend his class time drawing-- his imagination took over. The only thing on his mind was to create -- to become an artist of some kind and shape something that others could care about.
Ryu's first day at school
Back then, a new entertainment medium was emerging. Invited by his friends into the city, Umemoto took his first step into a video game arcade in 1983. Here, he would be face-to-face with the first video game he would ever play: Taito's Elevator Action. Suddenly, his mind filled with more ideas. Here was a product that he could design worlds for.
His days became filled with visits to the local arcade, eager to play Elevator Action and other, new, exciting titles. His friends would invite him to come home with them after school hours to do homework together, and to play games on the MSX home computer system. Video games became his passion -- interaction was the perfect environment for him to create in. After much convincing and several hours of begging, Ryu and his little brother would receive a Famicom (NES) of their own to play with during the holidays, and he would later acquire an NEC PC-88, with the dual purpose of playing video games, and coding his own.
Ryu enjoying his PC-88 alongside his brother
During his adolescence, he discovered yet another passion: music. As video game music became increasingly sophisticated he became infatuated with the form. Bands such as Yellow Magic Orchestra had also made their mark on him. He would still visit arcades daily, and even win a Konami-sanctioned tournament for fastest completion of its 1986 game Salamander (known as Life Force in the U.S.)
Ryu Umemoto's teenage years would be filled with friends, many also interested in technology and music, dreaming about a future in video games or as rock musicians. Eager to make music of his own, Ryu formed a number of bands with his friends, including the video game-influenced Tailgunner. His instrument of choice was the drums, as patterns, timing, and rhythm were his forte.
Ryu Umemoto and his high school friends (click for full size)
Japanese culture began to shift as technology enabled the country's youth to pave its own way. Soon after graduating high school, Ryu now had to make a choice. He was expected to take over the family business, to go to university and earn his business degree and lead an ordinary Japanese life. But this was no longer his only option. Hours and hours spent on computers, sessions upon sessions creating music, and game after game inspiring his mind, his calling became clear. Ryu Umemoto had made the decision to become a video game music composer.
His first melodies had been crafted on the MSX and PC-88 -- small jingles to go along with stories he wrote in his notebook. Eventually, he began to experiment with programming his own applications to push the boundaries of his computer's musical capabilities. At times, he would share his music with friends, and also send floppy disks to MSX magazines, hoping for feedback. This garnered him attention, and he began to receive requests from small software developers to lend a hand with their music.
Tailgunner (click for full size)
His decision to become a video game composer was not warmly received at home. His father, eager to see his oldest son take over the family business, would become enraged by the idea of Ryu embarking on an unproven career, especially without proper musical schooling and no university education to fall back on. This led to a quarrel between father and son that would result in Ryu doing something very uncharacteristic, given his character.
He left his home, set on achieving his dream and proving those doubts wrong.