Snake Eaters, Sound Therapy, and Gentle Love: Norihiko Hibino’s Second Verse

In 2008, celebrated Japanese composer Norihiko Hibino found himself growing increasingly dissatisfied and disinterested in his work. Having composed music for popular titles such as Metal Gear Solid 3, Zone of the Enders, and Yakuza 2, he found himself sought after for more and more violent video game projects. Uneasy at this development and determined to apply his skills elsewhere, he decided instead to explore the therapeutic side of music, establishing the Hibino Sound Therapy Lab and contributing to a number of albums intended to relax and comfort listeners with his group GENTLE LOVE. His has been an unusual career path.

It all started back in 1999, when Hibino returned to Japan after having spent a year studying music production and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Despite having no prior knowledge of video games, he quickly found himself working for Konami Computer Entertainment Japan on the Metal Gear series, landing himself the job based on a tip from a friend and his experience with both computer production and acoustic composition. 

A Soundtrack to Surpass Metal Gear

“I didn’t even know of Metal Gear Solid when I got hired,” Hibino admits to me. “The first thing I was told by the chief was we’ve already talked with Harry Gregson Williams, the composer of famous films, and you will be collaborating with him. I was like, ‘what should I do?’”

Despite his anxiety, Hibino nailed it, getting his first credit for the score to the Game Boy Color Metal Gear Solid. Following this, he graduated to become a member of the music team on the hotly anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, for which he contributed a number of tracks including the memorable theme for the railgun-toting Dead Cell member Fortune. A melancholic jazz number drawing on Hibino’s experience with the saxophone, the song stands out from the game’s otherwise mostly-electronic score.

Hibino contributed to many more tracks in MGS2, including most of the in-game music soundtrack such as the adaptive music for the alert themes. The resulting score was a huge success with critics, but as he didn’t receive much credit, his own star didn’t rise with the game’s. But that all changed with the next entry in the series, a game that would cement Hibino’s legacy as a composer and earn him wider recognition overseas. 

Climbing the Ladder to Success

As players boot up Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, they are greeted with an unusual James Bond-like opening that features a catchy theme song with music and lyrics by Hibino and vocals by soul singer Cynthia Harrell. Director Hideo Kojima recommended that Hibino watch Bond films from the 1960s for inspiration — From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and You Only Live Twice. Hibino also drew influence from his history as a jazz performer, which is evidence in the jazz-noir finish.

“We wanted to implement some of the feelings of the main characters, not only Snake but Eva,” Hibino tells me. “Those people have a mission to accomplish. They have a history behind them. We wanted to implement that deep, deep feeling that they have [of] just doing their best towards the mission and that they are fine to just give their life.” 

Speaking about the song’s success, he’s somewhat surprised by the life it’s taken on — a legacy that was helped along by its appearance in a notorious and much-memed scene in which a determined Naked Snake climbs an unusually long ladder while listening to a stripped-down version of the song.

“’I give my life, not for the honour but for you’ are the main lyrics for the song,” Hibino explains. “This has a much, much bigger meaning for me. The ‘for you’ — it’s not just like for someone you love or someone you think of, it can be about something much bigger, you know, like existence. For some people, it could be about the whole world, for other people it may be about god. [Hibino himself is a devout Christian.] It’s like a much, much bigger mission you will go through in your life. That was a really big thing for me.” 

Hibino Sound Therapy Lab

Hibino left Konami in 2004, the same year Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released internationally. Nonetheless, he worked on a number of other games in the series, including Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, with his new third-party music production studio Gem Impact. Over the next decade he contributed to the soundtracks of a number of high-profile games, before becoming disillusioned with the violent nature of the titles he was helping bring to life.

“After finishing projects, I became like a dead man,” Hibino says. “You know, my soul was kind of taken out. Music has a power to touch people’s souls… and you know, you can draw people in every way. You can draw the people to think ‘I want to become violent.’ Or maybe you can bring people to a totally other direction.”

In an effort to do just that, Hibino founded the Hibino Sound Therapy Lab in 2008 to explore the positive effects of music on listeners and its application in therapeutic, palliative, and psychiatric care. As part of this new project, Hibino began experimenting with high-frequency recording in order to amass a sound library for a new therapeutic sound system called the RINSHU, a hand-carved sound system in the shape of a yacht.

His interest in this side of music deepened as the years went on. One particular incident, a trip in 2011 with his now producer Jayson Napolitano to the San Diego Hospice and The Institute for Palliative Medicine, was a huge inspiration on his work. On this visit, he met with professional harp therapist Linda Hill-Phoenix and gained a greater understanding of the potential for music to help people in pain.

“When I saw the harp therapist in the hospice, it was like a really new bright side of music,” Hibino tells me. “When I was making music for video games, it was like I was making music for someone. But in harp therapy, it’s the other direction. The patient is first and the composer and the player are second. We go along with the patient’s breathing and their feelings and all the music starts from the patient, not from me. It’s more befriending and it’s really something that may last forever and that’s more needed for people now.”  

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Fight For Your Dreams 

Hibino is also part of the group GENTLE LOVE, along with the Etrian Odyssey and PersonaQ performer and pianist Ayaki Sato (AYAKI). Together they have performed on a number of video game cover albums, demonstrating Hibino’s cautiously renewed interest in video game music.

Taking their name from a relaxation phone app that Hibino developed alongside frequent collaborator Mission One, the Prescription for Sleep albums, released under Scarlet Moon Records, are intended to relax listeners and to help them drift off to sleep. There are nine albums in total, with Hibino’s producer Jayson Napolitano selecting the tracks to be rearranged and providing Hibino and Ayaki with enough context to inspire the two musicians’ performances.  

“Jayson can explain all day and it helps a lot, because I don’t need to clear the game,” Hibino notes. “That’s definitely the more challenging part.” 

The series of albums has led to some interesting experiments, including a complete album of boss theme rearrangements called Prescription for Sleep: Fight For Your Dreams, which contains an unlikely jazz cover of the Ornstein and Smough theme from Dark Souls and a soothing rendition of the Mother Brain track from Super Metroid

Some of their other albums, meanwhile, include tributes to Toby Fox’s Undertale and Lena Raine’s soundtrack for Celeste, two games that tackle relevant themes such as determination and overcoming your anxiety. The latest of these releases is a rearrangement of the music from roguelike Wizard of Legend, which marked the second anniversary of the game. 

When I ask him what he believes people will get out of these albums, he’s reluctant to refer to them as therapeutic, hoping instead that both he and his audience together can find some comfort in the musical experience. 

“Everyone has a different way to listen to music and everyone has a different approach. So, it’s all up to whoever listens to it. But at the very least, I can provide music free up myself, and maybe touch someone’s soul. Then something can happen. The only thing we can do is just provide music so that we can do our best.”