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Kenji Yamamoto Retrospective


With only a few episodes of Dragon Ball Kai left to broadcast on television before coming to a close with the Cell arc, on 09 March 2011 Toei Animation posted an official statement on their home page (PDF) with a bit of news that came as what can only be described as an “expected shock”:

The existence of multiple suspicious musical pieces which may infringe on the rights of third parties has been confirmed within the musical compositions recorded for “Dragon Ball Kai”, an animated television work produced by this firm. The relevant musical pieces are used as background music in “Dragon Ball Kai”, and measures are promptly being taken to replace the relevant musical pieces from the background music of “Dragon Ball Kai”.

Also, we are proceeding with a swift investigation of the facts, and discussion of countermeasures with concerned parties in the near future.

Almost immediately, broadcasts of repeat episodes of the series in Japan had nearly the entire musical score replaced. While the opening theme (“Dragon Soul”), closing theme (“Kokoro no Hane”), eyecatch and preview music remained the same, the background music used from the very beginning of the “refresh” composed by Kenji Yamamoto was replaced with the original musical score from the Dragon Ball Z TV series by Shunsuke Kikuchi, and the next new episode (96) continued with this trend. Yamamoto’s name was removed from both Fuji TV’s and Toei’s website staff listings, and Dragon Ball Kai was even removed from Yamamoto’s profile page on Office One-Two, Inc. Furthermore, international broadcasts of the series very quickly started shifting Kikuchi’s score into the series, as well.

UPDATE
Since this article’s original publication, Dragon Ball Kai has come to a close in Japan and its home releases have normalized. An update to the appropriate section at the bottom of this feature details at which point in the various broadcasts and releases of the show that the musical score shifts from its originally-intended Kenji Yamamoto score to the Shunsuke Kikuchi score.

What on Earth just happened…? We should first back up and explain a few things about the music for the franchise, which extends beyond that of the standard TV series.

The background music for the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z TV series (along with their respective movies; 3 for the first series, and 13 for the second series) was composed by Shunsuke Kikuchi (菊池 俊輔). While unrelated to the subject at hand, it may be worth pointing out that the music for the Dragon Ball GT TV series (as well as the 10th anniversary movie for the franchise) was composed by Akihito Tokunaga (徳永 暁人).

As with any major franchise, a plethora of merchandise was released over the course of many years — this, obviously, included video games. Kenji Yamamoto (山本健司), a man who had worked with the music for the TV series and its movies along the way (usually arranging vocal theme songs), was the primary individual responsible for the soundtracks to the vast majority of the franchise’s video games. Whether under his own name, a variation on “MONOLITH” or “HYPER MONOLITH” (Super Butōden, Super Famicom), or even “Kenz” (Infinite World, PS2), Yamamoto arguably had as much to do with the musical sound of the franchise as Kikuchi did, albeit in a different way.

It should perhaps also be noted that a different Kenji Yamamoto (山本 健誌) is responsible for the score of many other video games at Nintendo (such as the Metroid series).

In March 2009, Toei Animation announced that Yamamoto would be scoring Dragon Ball Kai, the “refreshed” version of the DBZ TV series being produced in HD for a new generation of fans.

That was, perhaps, the beginning of the end. Before dipping into Kai, we need to take quite a few steps back to set the stage.

The TV Series and Movies

For years upon years, it has been something of a fun pastime for fans to point out clear homages and references in Yamamoto’s music. All artists take inspiration from others and use it in their own way, but there was something different going on with Yamamoto.

Dragon Ball Z Movie 7:
CLOSING THEME:
“GIRIGIRI –Sekai kyokugen–

(1992)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Led Zeppelin:
“Immigrant Song”

(1970)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

With “GIRI GIRI’, the closing theme to the seventh DBZ movie (most recently collected as Track 17 on the first disc of LEGEND OF DRAGONWORLD), it should at least be noted that Yamamoto was responsible for its arrangement, while Chiho Kiyooka was responsible for its music and Dai Satō for its lyrics. The “Aaaahhh…!” chants from vocalist Hironobu Kageyama and the guitar riffs are clear allusions to the classic “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. The exact notes sung, how long they are sustained, and where the song heads off into are all different enough, however, that it does not likely require much more attention than this.

Just a year prior, though, Yamamoto had arranged what would likely have been his most infamous song were it not for Dragon Ball Kai many years later. Amazingly enough, this plagiarism would not come to be common knowledge for well over a decade!

Dragon Ball Z TV Episode 120
INSERT SONG:
“Battle Point Unlimited

(1991)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Propaganda:
“The Murder of Love”, “p:Machinery”, etc.

(1985)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

“Battle Point Unlimited” (composed by “MONOLITH”, a.k.a. Kenji Yamamoto) was used as an insert song twice in Episode 120 of Dragon Ball Z for the character Trunks (once during his Super Saiyan transformation, and once again at the end of the episode as he defeats Freeza). The song was actually released on DBZ Hit Song Collection 6 in March 1991 (Track 7, with an “overture” version as Track 2), despite not showing up for its episode in the TV series until December that year. Unlike just about every single other song released for the franchise, it would never be re-released on any CD ever again — not on the “Complete Song Collection” sets in 2003 (which compiled the Hit Song Collection series and then some), and not even on the 13-disc “Complete Song Collection Box” in 2008. Perhaps the only exceptions were when the entire Hit Song Collection series was re-released at budget prices in 2006 (Hit 6 was indeed a part of the group), and when a short version of the song was included in Japan-only as background music for the Raging Blast video games in 2009-2010.

This always left us wondering — the song sounded so different from even Yamamoto’s other works, and if it was never included on other sets, what exactly was the “problem” with it…?

Well, when you take at least three songs from the same German synth band’s album from 1985 and combine them into something you pass off as your own, it may be a little problem.

The bass line of “Battle Point Unlimited”, along with the exact notes and progression of the synth overlay, are ripped straight out of “The Murder of Love” by Propaganda. Other songs off the same album (“A Secret Wish”) are actually combined together to create “Battle Point Unlimited” — the blaring synth in “Battle Point Unlimited” before it breaks down into just the bass is the chorus in “p:Machinery”, and the foreboding ending of “Battle Point Unlimited” is taken directly from “The Chase” (in particular, its beginning and end).

At the very least, it is moderately impressive how Yamamoto took multiple songs from the same album and created something partially new!

During this era (the “golden age” for the series as it was still in its original television run), plenty of other examples could be cited as homages, but they were mostly relegated to tiny bits in songs littered throughout the Hit Song Collection series. For example, also on Hit 6 (where Kenji Yamamoto served as the sound supervisor and programmer) is a song titled “Mai • My • Mainichi” (“Mai – My – Every Day”) which uses the classic riff from C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” as its underlying basis.

The Video Games

In the mean time, Yamamoto was busy at work composing the score for multiple video games for the franchise, where some of his other notorious “inspirations” were unearthed.

Super Butōden 2 (SFC)
CHARACTER MUSIC/BGM:
“Cell’s Theme

(1993)
No audio sample available
The Inspiration:
Pink Floyd:
“One of These Days”

(1971)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

While Yamamoto’s composition adds layers to the song, the underlying basis for Cell’s theme in Super Butōden 2 for the Super Famicom is “One of These Days” by Pink Floyd — the plucking bass line and the exact way in which the song crescendos up is ripped directly from Pink Floyd’s song.

While there are likely other examples during that generation of video games, Cell’s theme is easily the most recognizable as having a direct source it had been ripped from.

DBZ / Budokai (GC, PS2)
IN-GAME BGM:
“Move Forward Fearlessly

(2002)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Stratovarius:
“Glory of the World”

(2000)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

One of the most iconic battle themes from the first Budokai game on PlayStation 2 and Gamecube (released in Japan as simply Dragon Ball Z) features a great guitar intro that transitions into some double bass pedal action before kicking into its “verse”. The song was released as Track 6 on the compilation album for the first two Budokai games. It is also the first of at least three songs taken directly from the Finnish metal band Stratovarius… and not only that, but all from the same album.

Stratovarius’ album “Infinite” from 2000 (released two years prior to Budokai) features a track called “Glory of the World” which should sound eerily familiar to those who had played the DBZ game it had been “featured” in — the exact same guitar opening builds up with the same drums and continues right into the exact same double bass pedal. Without the vocals to build upon the song, Yamamoto took the game’s BGM (titled “Move Forward Fearlessly”) in at least a little bit of its own direction, but the basis is indisputably there in the Valley Plains stage BGM (and later in the second game on the Muscle Tower stage).

DBZ / Budokai (GC, PS2)
IN-GAME BGM:
“Chōsensha-tachi

(2002)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Stratovarius:
“Hunting High and Low”

(2000)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

The same Stratovarius album opens with a track entitled “Hunting High and Low”, another song “adapted” by Yamamoto for the Budokai soundtrack as “Chōsensha-tachi (“The Challengers”). The song was released as Track 7 on the compilation album for the first two Budokai games, immediately following the first Stratovarius “inspiration” track. The similarities may not be as immediately noticeable as they are with the track above, but they are certainly there, and arguably more so as far more parts of the song are directly lifted from its “inspiration”.

What sounds like perhaps like a bit of chiming at the beginning of the Budokai track is actually the opening guitar riff from “Hunting High and Low”; with it pushed into the background a tad bit, a casual listener may not hear it right away. The instant that the drums kick in, however, the similarities between the two songs become slightly more apparent.

It becomes painfully obvious once the Budokai track transitions into its “chorus” with the same note changes and pattern from the Stratovarius song. While some of the guitar notes may differ a bit from the Stratovarius song, the original lyrics can still be sung over top as-is without needing to fudge it all that much, making the Planet Namek stage fun in an entirely new way.

One game later Yamamoto would be keeping the Finnish dream alive — but we need to stick with the original Budokai for at least one more song.

DBZ / Budokai (GC, PS2)
IN-GAME BGM:
“Senritsu no Toki

(2002)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Black Sabbath:
“Iron Man”

(1970)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

One of the fun musical allusions that far more fans picked up on in the first Budokai game’s story mode (released as Track 10 on the compilation album for the first two Budokai games) was one that is at least semi-arguably more in the “homage” realm. “Senritsu no Toki (“Time of Shudders”) begins with some evil, droning guitar wails that transition into a breakdown that just about anyone can recognize as a play on “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath.

Back to Stratovarius, however…!

DBZ2 / Budokai 2 (GC, PS2)
IN-GAME BGM:
“Michi no Kuni Kara Kita Senshi

(2003)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Stratovarius:
“Infinity”

(2000)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

For the second game in the franchise’s console renaissance, Yamamoto returned to the same Stratovarius album as before, leaving little in the way of argument for whether or not the “new” songs were entirely new creations. The Room of Spirit and Time stage in Budokai 2 (released in Japan as Dragon Ball Z 2) features a track called “Michi no Kuni Kara Kita Senshi (“Warrior From a Mysterious Land”) with haunting instrumentation and a bit of chanting vocals. The song was released as Track 19 on the compilation album for the first two Budokai games.

The entire song is lifted directly from the Stratovarius song “Infinity”, also off the album “Infinite” from 2000, the same as the two prior examples — the notes over top the pounding background and the chanting going on at the same time are just the exact same song lifted as-is.

During this time, Yamamoto collaborated with Tower of Power for music in the games, which resulted in three of the band’s songs being officially “covered”: “Soul With a Capital S”, “Only So Much Oil in the Ground”, and “Soul Vaccination”. Since this was an official collaboration, it is hardly fair to classify these songs in the same way as others listed here, but it is at least worth tossing out there to avoid unnecessary accusations.

Tower of Power, as featured on the Dragon Ball Z & Z2 Original Soundtrack Bonus DVD

It appears that Yamamoto may have been taking some musical inspiration from non-traditional rock music during this time, too — songs by Meat Beat Manifesto and The Chemical Brothers arguably serve as the inspiration for a couple tracks in Budokai 2, as well.

An example from the next game in the series would also dive back into the “homage” territory.

DBZ3 / Budokai 3 (PS2)
IN-GAME BGM:
“Aozora o Dakishimete

(2002)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Journey:
“Be Good To Yourself”

(1986)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

The opening piano bit to the Budokai 3 song “Aozora o Dakishimete (“Embracing the Blue Sky”) is note-for-note a toss-back to “Be Good To Yourself” by Journey. The song, like much of Yamamoto’s catalogue, goes off in its own direction to become a new composition (released as Track 26 on the soundtrack album for Dragon Ball Z 3 / Budokai 3), but the reference is definitely there. The happy feeling of the song’s opening at least makes for faces full of smiles during the game’s story mode!

The Dragon Ball Kai TV Series

It is actually somewhat surprising that Yamamoto did not use more of his own works, or at least adaptations thereof, for Dragon Ball Kai. A few references popped up here and there, such as something ever-so-slightly resembling the Budokai 2 opening theme appearing in instrumental form during the break before the Jinzōningen would appear, and a track from the first Budokai game (“The Man Called C”) showing up pretty close to itself as a new piece of BGM.

While Toei Animation has not confirmed it, the following examples are the most likely and plausible targets for whatever pieces of music were “identified” in Yamamoto’s compositions, and the reason why the entire score for Dragon Ball Kai could essentially no longer be trusted, and therefore would have to be replaced.

Dragon Ball Kai
SERIES BGM:
“Isshin Ittai”

(2010)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
James Horner:
“War” (from “Avatar”)

(2009)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

First played when Trunks kills Freeza in Dragon Ball Kai episode 56 (and many times after that, particularly in scenes where something important is just about to happen), “Isshin Ittai” (“The Ebb and The Flow”) is an interesting piece in that it evokes both a triumphant and cautious feeling at the same time. The horns that come in fit perfectly against the marching drum and crashes that accentuate it. The music was released as Track 11 on Dragon Ball Kai Soundtrack III & Songs, the most recent BGM compilation for the series.

It is, however, basically just a take on the track “War” from the Avatar soundtrack composed by James Horner. All of the same elements are there — the horns may hit different notes at times, and other instruments play the part of the vocal chants in the original movie track, but it is essentially the same song arranged in a slightly different way.

While we note time and time again that Toei has yet to acknowledge any specific tracks within the score of Dragon Ball Kai that they consider to be possibly infringing, “Isshin Ittai” comes the closest. When the edited English dub of episode 56 was re-broadcast via Nicktoons on American television, before the full-on replacement score hit, this one particular track was replaced with a different track still from Yamamoto’s score (“The Braveheart Challenges the Strong”). It seems all too unlikely that one particular track would be replaced for no particular reason after Toei’s official statement and after fans had started noticing these similarities and after the show (and this episode with this track) finally made its way outside of Japan (and specifically to North America) — that would be one heck of an interesting coincidence.

Dragon Ball Kai
SERIES BGM:
“Arata na Teki no Shutsugen

(2010)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Danny Elfman:
“Terminator Salvation” Opening Theme

(2009)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

First played in Dragon Ball Kai episode 55 as the characters fly to the site where Freeza’s ship is about to land, “Arata na Teki no Shutsugen” (“A New Foe Rears His Head”) is certainly one of the most ominous compositions in the entire series’ library. The music was released as Track 7 on Dragon Ball Kai Soundtrack III & Songs.

It also happens to not be Yamamoto’s own composition, this time being a direct lift from the Terminator Salvation opening by Danny Elfman, right down to the same “clank” noises that occasionally accent the music.

Dragon Ball Kai
SERIES BGM:
“Hisō na Unmei

(2010)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon Japan
The Inspiration:
Craig Armstrong:
“Storm” (from “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”)

(2007)
Listen to audio samples @ Amazon

First played in Dragon Ball Kai episode 60 as Goku’s heart virus begins to attack him, “Hisō na Unmei” (“A Grim Fate”) begins with plucking strings and a flute before concluding with a loud batch of additional strings and horns. The music was released as Track 16 on Dragon Ball Kai Soundtrack III & Songs.

Its entire ending sequence also happens to be taken note-for-note directly from the track “Storm” from the Elizabeth: The Golden Age score by Craig Armstrong, once again with the horns taking the place of the vocal chants from the original track, but otherwise playing out the same.

There are likely more examples in the score to Dragon Ball Kai, but as far as we are aware right now, the only other suspect is “The God’s Bolero”, which is not really suspect at all, since it is based on a classical piece by Mauriece Ravel from 1928 (and with Yamamoto’s piece having the word “Bolero” in the title, there is no attempt at all to hide this fact).

The Fallout

As of this feature’s publication (originally in March 2011 and updated in June 2011), Kenji Yamamoto is no longer associated with Dragon Ball Kai. It remains to be seen whether or not he will have any future involvement with the franchise’s video games — while the majority of composition and arrangement work for the main console games has shifted to Toshiyuki Kishi, Yamamoto had at least still been around arranging the vocal theme songs up through 2010′s Raging Blast 2… though even that changed (see below)!

As explained earlier, the score for Dragon Ball Kai underwent an immediate shift in Japan after the announcement in March 2011 (using music composed by Shunsuke Kikuchi for the original version of Dragon Ball Z), which in turn began to affect international versions of the show. The following diagram showcases the point that each prominent version of the series had its music replaced (in order: Japanese TV broadcast, Japanese Blu-ray, Japanese DVD, North American DVD/Blu-ray):

(click for larger version)
  • The Japanese TV broadcast switched over immediately, with episodes 96 and 97 being aired exclusively with the replacement score (episode 98 was never aired on TV due to the earthquake and tsunami coverage, and was instead reclassified as a “Bonus Episode” for the home release). It should be noted, however, that all subsequent airings of the series on Japanese TV now have the replacement score, leaving only the original broadcasts up through episode 95 ever having the original Kenji Yamamoto score.
  • The Japanese Blu-ray release made it through the second “Jinzōningen & Cell” box set in February 2011, containing episodes 66-76, with the original broadcast score. This marks the furthest in the series to be released with the original Kenji Yamamoto score, as the following box set in June 2011 began using the replacement score through to the end of the series.
  • The Japanese DVD release, which trailed in content behind the Blu-ray release, made it through 24 total volumes, up through episode 72, before delays pushed back additional releases that would then contain the replacement score. This actually leaves an interesting span of four episodes (73-76) that exist on the Japanese Blu-ray release with the original broadcast score, but on the DVD release with the replacement score.
  • The North American release from FUNimation, released in simultaneous versions on both DVD and Blu-ray, switched over to the replacement score beginning with their fifth set in June 2011. The first four volumes (containing episodes 1-52) were released prior to this with the Kenji Yamamoto broadcast score intact, but have switched to the replacement score for the remainder of the series.

In May 2012, FUNimation re-released their first four “Part” sets of Dragon Ball Z Kai in larger “season” sets. In these re-releases, the Kenji Yamamoto musical score was replaced with the Shunsuke Kikuchi musical score, now finally mirroring the home broadcast shift on home video, as well.

A much more strange replacement actually took place on the video game side of things — in late summer 2011 (nearly a year after the game was originally released), fans who purchased new copies of Raging Blast 2 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 immediately noticed a replacement musical score. It extends all the way from the opening theme of the game, “Battle of Omega” (indeed composed by Kenji Yamamoto), being replaced with the international replacement opening theme from the PlayStation 2 and Wii game Budokai Tenkaichi 2 (originally released in Japan as Sparking! NEO), and extends all the way through the rest of the music used in the game. In a nutshell, the PS2-era games that used Shunsuke Kikuchi music in Japan had a replacement score composed for international releases — this replacement music was once again used to replace music an entire generation of consoles later!

What had been a joke for so many years to so many fans ended up having serious repercussions not just for one man, but for the entire franchise. How many other series will this eventually affect, though? Since even before the Dragon Ball Kai news broke, fans began digging into Yamamoto’s compositions for other series — the opening theme to the Super Sentai series Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger (which was adapted as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” in North America) appears to be at least partially lifted from the Total Recall main theme, for example.

What else could there be? Something we have stated on many occasions is that there are likely many more examples of this “compositional plagiarism” that have gone unrecognized because the right types of music fans are not necessarily also fans of the various series that Yamamoto has worked on.

Anime fans have consistently pointed out this type of activity (plagiarism, inspiration, homages, etc.) in the music of their favorite series for years. Is it just a Japanese thing? Hardly, but perhaps we place a bit too much attention on it because we are so entrenched in it. Then again, when you take a look at Kenji Yamamoto’s extensive catalogue and just how much has its basis in the existing works of other international composers, a double-take is certainly in order.

The biggest question is likely not just “Why?” but “Why now…?” Why, with just a few episodes left to broadcast, suddenly make this announcement and pull the entire Yamamoto score? The official statement makes no mention of receiving legal threats, but simply states “the existence of multiple suspicious musical pieces which may infringe on the rights of third parties has been confirmed”. Confirmed by whom? Did the near-immediate export of the series to other countries (and specifically North America, where some of the BGM has Hollywood roots) contribute to the controversy? Had this been a decade earlier, would it have been swept under the rug like all of the past examples?

Regardless of the cause and if there is any “final” resolution, this has certainly been one of the biggest stories to ever hit the franchise and its fanbase. It will likely affect production of the series and its merchandise for years to come in different ways, even if it is not apparent to anyone other than the producers, themselves.