Did you know that there are over dozen orchestras in Japan dedicated to video game music?
Most of them are amateur orchestras, but don’t let the word amateur scare you. Their concerts are actually some of the best I’ve ever been to in my life! (And I’ve been to 50+ VGM concerts thus far.)
Their passionate playing and focused track selection usually outperform popular game music concerts in the West. If you go to Japan, you have got to attend one of these concerts!
But most people don’t know even that VGM-only orchestras exist. Or maybe you have heard of the Littlejack Orchestra and their Final Fantasy VI concert, but not much else.
The thing is, there is very little information about them in English.
And that’s why I wrote this essay.
I wanted to share with you this amazing piece of Japanese VGM culture and give you a glimpse into its world. I wrote this essay originally as a university assignment, but I knew that I would publish it online as well.
I interviewed three people with different roles in the Japanese VGM orchestra scene. Each of them give a unique look into this culture. I’ve published all three interviews in their entirety here on VGM Land (you can find the interview links in the references at the end of this essay).
If you know you want further reading, I recommend the long and interesting Yusuke Ichihara interview. Go ahead and open that up in a new tab, but don’t forget to finish this essay first!
Traditional orchestras in Japan have been performing video game music since 1987. But since 2000, a lot of orchestras, mostly amateur orchestras, have been formed in Japan for the purpose of performing only or mostly video game music. These are called video game music orchestras, or just game music orchestras.
To get some perspective, it’s good to first look at a very brief timeline of relevant games and also game music concerts by traditional orchestras.
The video game console Famicom, known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the west, was released in Japan in 1983. Some of the Famicom games that come up in this essay are Super Mario Bros., Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, released in 1985, 1986 and 1987, respectively. They’ve all evolved into successful video game franchises and have influenced game music orchestras in Japan.
Since 1987, there have been over 180 Dragon Quest concerts in Japan. The first small Final Fantasy concert was held in 1989, the second in 2002 and after that quite regularly throughout the world. The first concerts to have music from a variety of games were the Orchestral Game Music Concerts in 1991–1996. Europe has had video game music concerts since 2003, the US since 2004 and Australia since 2007, although they’ve had game music along other music in concerts since 2003.
Game music orchestras have existed in Japan since 2000. Alongside full orchestras, which this essay focuses on, there are also string ensembles, brass ensembles and chamber ensembles and other kinds of musical groups. Some of them perform music from a variety of games, while some focus on only one game series. Some of them intentionally perform only once, which is called an Ippatsu Ookesutora (一発オーケストラ) that translates to “one-shot orchestra”. These one-shot orchestras often focus on one game only.
There are at least five amateur orchestras that regularly perform music from a variety of games: Littlejack Orchestra, Cosmosky Orchestra, Lapis Dream Orchestra, Elysion Philharmony Orchestra and Nagoya Game Music Ensemble.
Ther are at least four amateur orchestras that regularly perform or performed music from specific games. Hoshi no Shirabe focused on Final Fantasy Tactics , Myomoto Orchestra focuses the Dragon Quest series , Ritter Der Musik on the Fire Emblem series  and Orchestra An-Nin on Nintendo games .
There are have been at least two one-shot orchestras. Garden Orchestra focused on the game Final Fantasy VIII  and The Knight’s Templar Orchestra focused on Final Fantasy Tactics . There is also the PrimaVista Philharmonic Orchestra, which will perform a Final Fantasy IX concert in 2015, but it’s not clear whether it’s a one-shot orchestra or not.
So there are or have been at least twelve amateur game music orchestras in Japan. It is however difficult to find all the information and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between a full orchestra and a chamber ensemble. So twelve is not a definitive number and there seems to be around the same amount of smaller orchestral ensembles, according to a list on Gamemusic Garden.
Japan’s First Game Music Orchestra
Littlejack Orchestra was the first amateur orchestra to perform video game music and it has been doing so since 2004. The orchestra’s early form was created in 2000 and it all started with Hiroki Hashimoto.
Hiroki Hashimoto was fascinated by the music in the first Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. In the early 90’s he learned that some orchestras perform Dragon Quest music in concerts. He plays the violin himself and was a member of his university’s orchestra, and later a civic orchestra as well, but they only played classical music. In those days there were no ensembles that played music from video games.
Ever since joining his university’s orchestra, Hashimoto wondered how exciting it would be to perform game music with an orchestra. He wanted to find people that felt the same way and put up a website to recruit members for his ensemble. His strategy was to rank high in search engines with keywords like “game music” and “performance”. He even registered his website on Yahoo! Directory, which was recognized as a top site at the time.
In May 2000, Hashimoto formed his ensemble, but there were difficulties in the beginning. They were unable to practice normally, since all they had for sheet music was piano scores. Orchestral sheet music for games isn’t sold at all, so those had to be made from scratch. It requires high skills to copy the original music by ear, orchestrate everything and create the sheet music. There were also too many wind instrument players and too few string instrument players, since few people in Japan start learning string instruments already as a child.
In 2003, the conductor Kenichi Shimura joined Hashimoto’s ensemble. Before that, the ensemble practiced only on a small scale, but after Shimura joined, they became able to push on seriously.
Littlejack Orchestra’s first regular concert was held on August 22, 2004. It featured music from Dragon Quest III in the first half and music from Final Fantasy games in the second half, with Kenichi Shimura as the conductor.
Looking back on Littlejack Orchestra’s first regular concert, the performance was by no means a skilled one in Hashimoto’s opinion. They featured a full orchestra for a shorter part of the concert, which felt more than they could handle at times. But the members tackled it with earth-shattering zeal and their eyes literally changed colors. Hashimoto thinks it probably was pioneering and showed that an amateur orchestra really can perform game music.
Aside from annual regular concerts since 2004, Littlejack Orchestra has also performed other, usually smaller, concerts. In the beginning their plans were to have these smaller concerts with varying musical set-ups to do things that couldn’t be done at the regular concerts.
Between 2004 and 2014, Littlejack orchestra has performed eleven regular concerts and eight other concerts, of which four took place in the first two years.
In 2009, the Littlejack Orchestra dedicated a concert for the first time to only one game: Final Fantasy VI. The concert became known even outside of Japan, with news sites like GoNintendo and Original Sound Version writing about it. The composer himself, Nobuo Uematsu, attended the concert, which added to the experience.
Hashimoto is glad of how much the audience loved it. He feels the concert was successful in focusing on only one game and thoroughly conveying the world of that game. On top of that, the presence of the pipe organ was overwhelming.
Littlejack Orchestra has performed music mostly from role-playing games by Square Enix, like the Dragon Quest series, the Final Fantasy series, Romancing Saga 3, Bahamut Lagoon, The Final Fantasy Legend, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger. But in 2007 they did something quite different and focused only on Famicom games made by Konami for half a concert.
When deciding upon an upcoming concert program, the Littlejack Orchestra holds a meeting dedicated to that. They make up the program based entirely on pieces that the members themselves want to play. This results in heated battles and their inside joke is not to call them “meetings for choosing songs,” but instead “meetings for battling over songs,” which works out as a clever word play in Japanese. Hashimoto himself feels that while there is some music he’d still like to play, he has for the most part performed what he wants and feels satisfied.
Their next concert will be on August 23, 2015 in Yokohama. It will feature music from the SaGa series, like Final Fantasy Legend II, Romancing Saga 1-3 and SaGa Frontier.
2083 and the 4 Star Orchestra
2083 is a Japanese website and a company, that provides information on game music concerts, produces game music concerts and sells game music albums and other goods online. It was founded in 2009 by Kenji Saito.
Kenji Saito was previously a designer, whose work was used on websites and free newspapers. He plays bass and loves game music from the bottom of his heart. He played in an amateur game music band and wanted a website to provide information on game music concerts.
In the summer of 2009, Saito started the website 2083. He managed the website alone in the beginning. But later, when he started to produce concerts and festivals like the 4 Star Orchestra, he turned it into a stock company to make handling contracts and such smoother.
The 4 Star Orchestra is a game music festival produced by 2083. It is held only once every four years. Saito thought that it would be good to have something like the Olympics to aim at and hit upon this idea at the same time as 2083.
The first 4 Star Orchestra was held between September 30 and October 2, 2011. It took Saito ten months to make it happen and oftentimes it was really out of his league and he feels he caused trouble to others. But as a result a lot of people supported him and he learned a lot, which has helped him ever since in later productions.
The first 4 Star Orchestra featured an amateur orchestra, a wind ensemble and bands by famous game music composers, like Nobuo Uematsu, Noriyuki Iwadare and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.
The amateur orchestra and the wind ensemble were formed only to perform at this festival. They had a about 150 members in total, ranging from professionals to amateur players, from older men to young girls and from members of other game music ensembles to people who have never performed game music before. They performed music from Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Ace Attorney, Professor Layton, Katamari Damacy and Dragon Quest games to name a few. Saito himself decided all the music. He chose music he likes and also took into consideration what pieces will work for an orchestra or a wind ensemble.
The 4 Star Orchestra started a rise in game music orchestras in Japan, according to Saito. The festival itself went well with everyone’s performances exceeding expectations. This gathering was a chance for many orchestras to pop up in the following year and thereafter.
Saito also says that game music concerts in general have increased extremely since the first 4 Star Orchestra in 2011. His company, 2083, has also produced more concerts since then. The next 4 Star Orchestra on May 3-5, 2015 will be kind of a compilation of the concerts 2083 has a produced so far. Saito has already started forming an orchestra for the festival and this time the composers and game makers will have a bigger role than last time.
2083 is expanding in other ways too. Recently, their official game music arrangements and online shop have shown promise and Saito wants to invest more in those. He is planning a physical store as well and it’s making progress.
Professional Game Music Orchestras
Japan BGM Philharmonic (JBP) was the first professional game music orchestra in Japan. It was later disbanded and two new professional game music orchestras were born from it: Japan Game Music Orchestra (JAGMO) and New Japan BGM Philharmonic (NJBP). The original JBP was created by Yusuke Ichihara in 2012.
Yusuke Ichihara is a self-taught conductor, who loves classical music and game music. The first time he heard about game music concerts was the Super Smash Bros DX Orchestra Concert in 2002, which he also attended. But it was an event by Nintendo and performed by a traditional orchestra. It wasn’t until 2009, when he went to a Video Games Live in Japan, that made him think about forming a game music orchestra. He thought an orchestra specialized in game music came from abroad to perform at Video Games Live in Japan, but later he found out that it was just a traditional Japanese orchestra. But that misunderstanding was his inspiration to create JBP.
In January 2012, Ichihara started to talk to friends about his dream of creating the orchestra. He got support from a lot of people and put up a teaser site online for the orchestra in May 2012. To his luck, Yahoo Japan featured it as news and a lot of people visited the site. But he made a huge mistake in not having Twitter, Facebook or any other way to stay connected to the visitors. When he put up the full official site later, shockingly few people noticed it at all.
Via the teaser site, Ichihara started to search for a representative director of the board. He himself could have taken that role, but on top of conducting it would have been too much so he decided to become just one of the directors of the board. Through connections, he met Masanobu Endo, who is a game creator and the founder and president of Game Studio . Endo became the representative director for JBP with one condition, Ichihara has to find one more representative director, who is from the gaming industry and has music experience. Through a friend, he contacted the game composer Yuzo Koshiro, who agreed. In that moment, the decision to form the orchestra was finalized.
In July 2012, the full official site was put up, the JBP was established as a general incorporated association and the office consisted of seven or eight members. Through the official site, Facebook and Twitter, Ichihara started to recruit members. He tried to advertise it via media in the classical music field, but it didn’t work at all.
The recruiting process itself was interesting and as fair as possible. To avoid looking at age, gender, race and academic background, and to focus on skills and personality, Ichihara first listened to the auditions totally blind. Then he interviewed the applicants in random order, so he didn’t know who played what and could evaluate skills and personality separately. During the audition, everyone played one predetermined classical piece and one freely arranged game music piece. Most applicants played the Main Theme from Super Mario Bros. and many ended it with either the Game Over Theme or the Level Clear Theme. Ichihara couldn’t help but wonder if these applicants have much knowledge of game music.
In February 2013, the professional orchestra with 70 members was formed. During the following summer, they performed six ensemble concerts with music from Romancing Saga, Fantasy Zone, Sonic World Adventure, Space Harrier, Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger, ActRaiser, Legend of Mana and Chrono Cross. Depending on the special guests, they also performed music from The Final Fantasy Legend, Grandia or a medley of overworld themes from Final Fantasy I–VI. Ichihara didn’t conduct the concerts, he was just the representative and the host.
But in October 2013, the first regular concert with the full orchestra took place. Ichihara conducted the orchestra, but due to office work and little time to prepare he felt immense pressure and felt that he was disqualified for the job. But he galloped through four days of rehearsal and on the fifth day, in the main concert, the audience gave a warm response and a big applause in the end. Ichihara felt relieved and most of the feedback afterwards was positive.
The concert featured music from famous, unknown, old, new and upcoming games. They performed the main theme from Sonic Lost World, which still hadn’t been released at the time. Ichihara thinks it was unheard of to perform music from a yet unreleased game at a concert that’s not an event by the game company itself. This idea came from Sega’s side, while Ichihara mostly decided upon other games, which include Dragon Quest, Grandia, Sonic World Adventure, Puzzle & Dragons, Sangokushi V, Faxanadu, Final Fantasy IV, Chrono Trigger, ActRaiser, Secret of Mana, Earthbound and Dragon Quest IV.
Before the concert, there had been some opposition and bad-mouthing of JBP inside a certain game music community, especially among people in amateur game music ensembles. But Ichihara thinks that this concert changed their minds. This and the overall positive response exceeded his expectations.
In turn, the number of attendees was below Ichihara’s expectations. Concerts like PRESS START fill halls with 1500 people and he was naive to think he could easily get 1000-1500 people. In reality, less than 600 tickets were sold and around 100 additional guests showed up. He had a hall for almost 1300 people, but only 700 came in total. The time, place and advertising were also lacking, but 700 people were enough to make him believe that there is a future for the orchestra.
In March 2014, the second regular concert with a full orchestra took place, titled The Legend of RPG. This time Ichihara had no part in deciding the program and another person from the outside was brought in to select the music. According to Ichihara, this person had no knowledge of game music and simply chose famous pieces that the players suggested. Ichihara describes it as a restaurant with only main dishes, with no elegance in the selection. Even if the audience expected that kind of program, Ichihara himself would have avoided such a program. The music performed was from the Pokémon series, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest III–VI and Final Fantasy II–VI, IX & X. The concert was held twice on the same day and both performances sold out.
After the second regular concert, JBP was disbanded. Ichihara formed the new group NJBP (New Japan BGM Philharmonic), which had its debut show in November 2014. The idea is to do small scale performances at bars and restaurants to create an environment for people to casually listen to game music. On April 29, 2015 a concert is planned to feature all members and music from geeky games to major games in the first half and pieces by game composer Yoko Shimomura in the second half.
From JBP’s disbandment another professional game music orchestra was born: JAGMO, which is also a stock company. Both Masanobu Endo and Yuzo Koshiro went from JBP to JAGMO, where they now serve as honorary chairmen. The CEO and founder of JAGMO is Tadakazu Mishiya.
Tadakazu Mishiya was the person brought in to produce The Legend of RPG, the last concert by JBP. He managed to make it a success and turn around the finances of JBP, which was in a lot of debt. He was promised by his superiors that he could continue producing concerts, which he is doing now with JAGMO. His vision is to give game music its place in history, make JAGMO known outside the circle of video game music fans and bring concerts abroad as well.
JAGMO has performed concerts with smaller ensembles about once every two months since June 2014. They have full orchestral concerts planned from February 2015 onward. All shows are titled The Legend of RPG Collection and consists mostly the same music as in JBP’s last concert, which is even listed on JAGMO’s website as one of their concerts.
It is clear that orchestras, especially amateur ones, are a significant part of the video game music culture in Japan. A lot of the games, whose music is performed by these orchestras, were released in the late ’80s or during the ’90s. The children that grew up playing those games are forming game music orchestras now as adults.
But it wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. Even back in 2000, when the Internet wasn’t that common, Hashimoto used only it to find members. And ever since the 2083 website started to give information about concerts online in 2009, the amount of concerts and orchestras started to rise.
The amount of game music orchestras in Japan is relatively big. According to Ichihara, Tokyo has close the 500 amateur orchestras and ensembles, and over 1000 exist in the entire country. If 20 or more of them perform game music, it doesn’t seem like a big percentage. But the UK has 1213 amateur orchestras and ensembles and only one of them has listed that they perform game music alongside other music. In this sense, 20 or more in Japan is a huge number.
Most of the music performed by Japanese game music orchestras comes from Square Enix games. Ichihara says that Square Enix has made a lot of games that sold well, so a lot of their music has stuck with people. If you want to make sure that everyone in the audience knows at least one song, you have to include Square Enix games.
Another company with well-known and successful games is Nintendo, but game music orchestras rarely perform their music. The reason could be that they are so protective of their music. In a blog post on Gaming Rocks On, the author writes, “Unlike Square Enix and a plethora of other companies, Nintendo very rarely releases any of it’s music.” Thomas Böcker, a long-time producer of game music concerts, has said that obtaining licensing for concerts is difficult and when Nintendo does give permission to a concert, they review and approve all the steps involved. So if obtaining the rights to perform music is difficult in general, it must be even more difficult with Nintendo.
There doesn’t seem to be any signs of game music orchestras declining. Even if people from amateur circles move into pro circles and increase game music concert by traditional orchestras, like Kenichi Shimura is doing with the tour Game Symphony Japan, there are at least two unique things game music orchestras can offer over traditional orchestras: unrestricted show lengths and passionate players. Lapis Dream Orchestra performed every song from Final Fantasy VI, which lasted for a bit over three hours , while Hoshi no Shirabe had planned their Final Fantasy Tactics concert to last for four hours . The orchestra players are also game music fans themselves and I’ve personally felt and seen their passion at concerts. That might just be the driving force of game music orchestras: by fans, for fans.
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- Littlejack Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://littlejack.jp/
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- Lapis Dream Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://lapisdream.org/
- Elysion Philharmony Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://elysion-phil.com/
- Nagoya Game Music Ensemble. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://nagoyagme.cyber-ninja.jp/
- Hoshi no Shirabe. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://hoshirabe.info/
- Myomoto Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://moyokyo.com/
- Ritter der Musik. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://rdmweb.ma-jide.com/
- Orchestra An-Nin. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://orchestraannin.web.fc2.com/
- Garden Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://gardenorchestra.com/
- The Knights Templar Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://fft-orche.tumblr.com/
- PrimaVista Philharmonic Orchestra. 2014. Home Page. Accessed November 30. http://primavista-phil.com/
- Gamemusic Garden. 2012. “30団体以上が存在、日本国内のゲーム音楽演奏団体まとめ[2012年版]” (Over 30 Groups Exist, Summary of Japanese Game Music Groups [2012 Edition]). Accessed November 28, 2014. http://sky.ap.teacup.com/helen/1867.html
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- Original Sound Version. 2009b. “Go, Go Little Jack Orchestra! Final Fantasy VI Concert Impressions”. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.originalsoundversion.com/go-go-little-jack-orchestra-final-fantasy-vi-concert-impressions/
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- Tokyo Otaku Mode. 2014. “Interview: JAGMO Producer Tadakaz Mishiya”. Accessed November 29. http://otakumode.com/news/538dd502f25e8e3c5a0000fd
- JAGMO. 2014b. “公演一覧” (List of Performances). Accessed November 29. http://jagmo.jp/concert-list/
- UK Amateur Orchestras. 2014. “Home”. Accessed November 30.
- Gaming Rocks On. 2014. “How Nintendo Can Improve Club Nintendo”. Accessed November 30. http://gamingrockson.blogspot.fi/2014/01/how-nintendo-can-improve-club-nintendo.html
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- Aim Village. 2014. “Game Symphony Japan”. Accessed November 30. http://www.aim-vil.com/artists/game-symphony-japan/
- Lapis Dream Orchestra. 2014. “10月25日 第四回定期演奏会 団員からのメッセージ” (October 25, Fourth Regular Concert, Messages from the Members). Accessed November 30. http://lapisdream.sblo.jp/article/105280199.html
- 2083WEB. 2014b. “ファイナルファンタジータクティクスの曲を全曲オーケストラで演奏崎元仁、岩田匡治両氏もゲスト出演！管弦楽団：星の調べ「第3回演奏会」” (All Final Fantasy Tactics Songs Performed by Orchestra. Both Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata as Guests! Orchestra: Hoshi no Shirabe. ‘Third Regular Concert’). Accessed November 30. http://www.2083.jp/concert/20110320hoshirabe.html
- VGM Land. 2014. “Littlejack Orchestra interview: The first video game music orchestra in Japan”. http://gameharmony.com/blog/interviews/littlejack-orchestra-2014/
- Interview with Kenji Saito. 2014. (Coming soon)
- VGM Land. 2014. “Yusuke Ichihara interview: Creating Japan’s first professional VGM orhestra”. http://gameharmony.com/blog/interviews/yusuke-ichihara-2014/