Final Fantasy Unlimited Music Adventure Verse 1
Final Fantasy Unlimited Music Adventure Verse 1
December 19, 2001
Buy at CDJapan
The exploits of Square Enix outside the safety net of RPG gaming have rarely been easy to promote, and when executives came to the decision that their flagship series Final Fantasy might be worthy of a 52-episode anime project, fans awaited with trepidation. After studying some of the mistakes that doomed the short-lived animated series Final Fantasy: The Legend of the Crystals, it was concluded that by creating a brand new storyline and universe, the production team could manage a two-birds-with-one-stone effect — the series would appeal to Final Fantasy enthusiasts, due to the name association itself alongside maintained traditions, while also sparking the interest of anybody else who might enjoy good-quality anime (in so doing, sneakily advertising the whole franchise). To adhere with this ambitious scenario, the production levels would have to be generous in all creative areas, not least on the musical soundtrack, given the high acclaim with which the aural experiences in each game instalment had been bequeathed in the past. Composer Nobuo Uematsu’s involvement likely became a certainty at this point, but curiously, he was subsequently paired up with long-time collaborator Shiro Hamaguchi and Akifumi Tada, the latter a man relatively well-versed in the medium. Hamaguchi had featured as the prominent orchestral arranger for the Final Fantasy series, in particular, not long after the commencement of the affectionately titled Sony era, but had never been accredited with any compositional work; despite his then small anime resume, people were a little dubious as to whether he would be have been better off limited to an arranging role here too. Luckily, it turned out to be a wise business move.
Despite the disappointing response to the eventual release of Final Fantasy: Unlimited, which was condensed into a 26-episode run following its mediocre reviews, the music was, even in the early days of depression, grudgingly complimented, and has since established itself as a cult classic among anime album collectors.
It must be stressed how different composing for an anime series is to composing for a game; with the audience’s personal involvement being entirely replaced by human pathos as opposed to the physicality of role-playing, the creators are forced to manipulate their tools in an entirely different manner, resulting in an experience much more like that of a film, in terms of artistry and musical ‘cinematics’. This means that instead of having a piece for every location that is looped while the characters remain in a given proximity, themes are integrated much more delicately, through subtly repeated motifs. Coincidentally, Nobuo Uematsu has always been complimented for weaving lots of character motifs into his music, which probably made the prospect of approaching this project slightly less daunting. Surprisingly, though, it is Hamaguchi that gets the spotlight in this area, composing themes for just about every major character that makes an appearance. On this volume, we are treated to tracks for the young protagonists Ai and Yu, two children who embark on an adventure to find their missing parents; each piece features appropriately buoyant passages to represent the characters’ youthfulness, with the heavy reliance on strings being rewarded by rich personalities.
Shiro Hamaguchi’s handling of the orchestra has been a source of much enjoyment for many Final Fantasy fans, with his arrangements often helping to fully realise Nobuo Uematsu’s original visions in pivotal cutscenes, as accompaniments to epic vocal tracks, or as separate entities on specifically arranged albums. It is very interesting to hear how well he can manipulate his technique to compose sophisticated pieces from scratch for this series, however, and throughout the early stages of the soundtrack, his skill builds the core foundations for the rest of the musical journey. Whether this involves setting the mood for an emboldening exchange peppered with a little nostalgia, as in the case of “A Little Courage”, or giving the charismatic stranger Kaze an appropriate introduction, Hamaguchi shows his willingness to challenge himself and build upon his own classical preferences to meet the requirements of a scene, and often ends up inserting such passion that you cannot help but enjoy the work outside of its context as well. His inspiring “Where the Road Leads” is without a doubt one of the most memorable compositions to grace the album, aiming for a truly epic, cinematic sound; from the delightful piano ostinato that underpins the beginnings of the track to the elegant combination of the strings and flute and finally the inspirational crescendo reached shortly after the introduction of the horn, Hamaguchi hits his mark on all accounts, producing something comparable to the magnificent melodic heights film composers such as John Williams always aim for.
Anyone who would have assumed that orchestral material would make up the sum total of the arranger-turned-composer’s contributions might find themselves surprised, in fact, by the amount of experimentation he does over the course of the CD. The listener is never smothered by an excess in any particular style, and Hamaguchi creates some impressive hybrids involving engaging percussive lines (the one in “Kaze Appears” might sound familiar to anyone who has listened to “Nelbina Underground Fortress” on the Final Fantasy XII sundtrack) and interesting contrasts in instrumentation. One such example can be found in “Firing of the Magun”, an action cue driven by rapid strings and a compelling horn melody, while all the time being accompanied by some interesting trance-inspired synth sounds; these cleverly help to combine the joint themes of bravery and futurism, providing a perfect backdrop for sequences in which Kaze calls forth summons from his mysterious weapon. Other cases can be even more unique with “Subway” and “World of Nothingness” managing to be really surreal and oddly mesmerizing. Yet, at no point does Hamaguchi become overwhelmed by his struggles to differentiate between the subway station, the different worlds, and the populace therein. He maintains a consistent Final Fantasy vibe with magical pieces gluing everything together, such as “Fabula’s Mansion” and “Tyrant’s Dining Table”, each of which prove excellent food for escapism. The latter introducing the theme of the villainous Earl, the evil, mischievous endeavours of the harpsichord and strings are perfect selections for depicting an ‘all-powerful’ overlord who is as hilariously eccentric as he is a spoilt brat. It could be compared with Final Fantasy VI‘s “Kefka” in terms of its witty musical characterization and baroque influences.
Nevertheless, Hamaguchi alone is not what makes this score a success. While Akafumi Tada might not make the largest of impacts on Verse 1, his five contributions are not at all without merit. His tendency to go one step beyond Hamaguchi in terms of experimentation with synth instrumentation and classicism with the orchestra makes his compositions a welcome break; while “Monster Appears” might not leave the greatest of first impressions, the man’s subsequent pieces more than make up for it. “Devastated by the Monster”, for example, features the same blend of rock and electronica as the aforementioned piece, but increases the tempo, and features some interesting counterpoint following the introduction of the strings, making it leap out as that much more interesting and impressive. His other tracks range from atmospheric and moody to pleasant ambience. “Cid the Genius Scientist” shows that the composer is confident, precise, and knows exactly what he’s doing, appealing on the same sorts of level as Junya Nakano’s music (to cite a face that has worked previously for the franchise).
Fan favourite Nobuo Uematsu is responsible the remaining eight tracks. It would be an exaggeration to claim that he ‘explores places he never has before’, but it’s fairly interesting to note that his brooding theme tune for Kaze, “Silent Wind”, is somewhat out of the ordinary, supporting a fairly morose jazz quality; while not, upon first listen, one of the more poignant tracks, it’s understated tone and apt match for a man of few words serves to lift it into the ‘memorable’ category and adds a certain unpredictability to the score. It is fairly ironic that “Departing Wind” comes straight afterwards on the tracklist, a simple but captivating piece, invoking strong imagery pertaining to nature and beauty, whilst also bringing an Asian element to the score. Here, Uematsu challenges the character he has just defined, and in the way that Lisa tries to penetrate Kaze’s unyielding barriers in the series, the listener experiences an impressionistic transition, which is the source of a delightful tension. After a fair homage to the infamous Chocobo theme courtesy of Kazuhiko Sawaguchi, Uematsu gets to wrap up the CD with two more tracks. “Touch of the Heart”, a moving nostalgic theme, recalls some of the earlier moments of the album, fittingly bringing back the sense of travel and its hardships; in this case, the pain and loss, the homesickness, but also the friendships and determination become the main sources of inspiration and we come to think fondly of our two young protagonists (largely due to the raw emotion the music betrays), who are children that didn’t long to go a quest so much as they wanted to be back with their Mum and Dad. It might be argued that it would have made a fitting conclusion to the album, particularly if the listener had not watched the anime, given the composition’s heart-warming nature, but “Lisa’s Recollection”, instead, leaves things on an unresolved note.
In many ways, Final Fantasy Unlimited Music Adventure Verse 1 takes the popular aspects of the series’ game scores and adapts them to impress on another level. With this in mind, the album comes highly recommended, and while you might not find melodic content as delightful as that of Uematsu on top form, the contemporary orchestral sound is one that is bound to be a solid hit with many listeners. One of the strongest points of this album is its effectiveness within the anime, as well as outside of it. All too often, anime soundtracks can come across as being a little inaccessible if you have not watched the series first, but Unlimited stands among the elite that are rarely unlucky enough to suffer from this problem. The track “Subtitle” is an unfortunate exception, though, and highlights why care should always been taken when deciding which pieces should be included and which should be cut from a release; it seems a thoroughly illogical inclusion and takes away from the experience, potentially lowering the credibility of the overall work for listeners looking to immerse themselves in a world. A rude indicator crying out ‘I am a linear Anime Soundtrack’ (instead of a Musical Adventure) is unlikely to be viewed favourably under any circumstances, and it would be fair to assume that Shiro Hamaguchi was not overly fond of the creation.
However, this minor complaint is not intended to detract from the positive aspects of the work. Each composer strongly contributes to the final success and, for the most part, achieves a fine coherence. A couple of Akifumi Tada’s electronica pieces might sound a little out of place — and they do raise eyebrows during the episodes too — but in conjunction with some of the more eccentric Hamaguchi additions help to make the opening and closing themes (featured on Verse 2) sound that much more connected to the score. In this way, there seems to be a more expansive arc at work on the album, and is largely emphasised by the choice of “Lisa’s Recollection” as the closing piece. Is this collection worth a purchase? This review approves an affirmative nod, and thanks to the kind people at Geneon Entertainment, you will be spared the bother of having to import should you choose to pursue. However, it would be of pertinence to note that the compulsion to get both volumes will be strong, and is probably the best way to experience the composers’ vision.
With the trademark melody-charged allure of the game scores on display in full orchestral glory, Hamaguchi spearheads a soundtrack toting an irresistible charm, a lot of character and a diverse, while consistently excellent range of tracks. It is the fine balance that is crafted, however, resulting in a Final Fantasy treasure and a competent anime work that makes the album truly unmissable.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Ross Cooper. Last modified on August 1, 2012.