Granblue Fantasy Orchestra Concert: Sendai, December 2016
I am on a business trip to Tokyo. I take the bullet train out of the megalopolis and head north. The sky is clear and blue, and Mt. Fuji can be seen beautifully far, far away in the west. Skyscrapers turn to rice fields and cold clouds cover the northern sky. But why head north? What awaits there?
Granblue Fantasy Orchestra ~Sora no Kanade~, an official orchestral concert for the game Granblue Fantasy. Have you heard of it?
Granblue Fantasy is a browser game for Android and iOS platforms. It was developed by the Japanese company Cygames and released in 2014. It is a role-playing game with turn-based battles and art by Hideo Minaba, art director of Final Fantasy VI and IX.
Granblue Fantasy Orchestra ~Sora no Kanade~ is actually a full-fledged concert tour, spread across 20 performances in 5 cities in Japan. The concert I am heading to is in Sendai, Japan. Tonight’s show (Dec 24, 2016) is performed by the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra in the confusingly named Tokyo Electron Hall Miyagi, since we are 350 km away from Tokyo.
But what is musically so special about Granblue Fantasy? Why does it have its own concert tour?
I would guess because the music is composed by Nobuo Uematsu and Tsutomu Narita. As you know, Nobuo Uematsu is the father of Final Fantasy music. His sidekick in recent years is the youngish arranger/composer Tsutomu Narita, who has composed with Uematsu games like Unchained Blades, Hometown Story, and most recently Granblue Fantasy. Narita has also arranged much of Uematsu’s and others’ music since 2009, including Final Fantasy music.
Like many, I found out about Granblue Fantasy because of these two composers. I love about half of the soundtrack, and casually enjoy the other half. I know little of the game, and I am going to this concert purely because of the music.
Before the concert
I arrive at the concert hall, never having been here before. Granblue Fantasy-themed flags hang over the entrance, and life-sized cardboard paintings of the game’s characters are propped up here and there. People are taking photos and a few women scream in surprised delight when they see the characters they love. More pictures are taken.
I have a press ticket for the concert, and when I enter the building I realise that it’s a premium ticket with the best seat, free goods, and a price point at 19,800 JPY – which is about 170 USD or 160 EUR. The cheapest ticket without the free goods would have cost 5,800 JPY – a bit less than a third of my premium ticket. Lucky me.
Entering the building I am in a mini-sized fantasy land of Granblue Fantasy. Everything is branded with the game’s name: the envelope that my ticket came in, the bag containing free goods, the trading cards in the bag, the flags outside, the building pillars outside, and tons of stuff inside…
As you can see in the photo above, there digital screens rotating through images of the game’s art, which by the way is fantastic. Looking through the art in the concert booklet makes me want to experience more of the game’s world first-hand. From my relatively brief experiences of the game, though, I felt that the art doesn’t fit well on a small mobile screen. It’s so detailed that it needs a big screen, which is why I’m glad they are coming out with a Granblue Fantasy anime in 2017.
Okay, back to the music. There were people queueing in front of a booth where they sell various merchandise, including the CD recording, which was released when the concert tour began in August 2016.
I never listened to the CD, but I have listened to the original soundtrack a fair amount. I am not sure what to expect of the concert. Will it be like the original soundtrack experience – loving half of it, casually enjoying the other half? Or will it be less? Or perhaps more?
The first half
I enter the concert hall, which is about 80% full. Lights darken and the orchestra members walk on stage, followed by the conductor Hirofumi Kurita. He has strong white hair and a slightly small but powerful posture. Without introductions, the concerts starts with the “Main Theme”, composed by Uematsu. I love it. It’s fuller than the original and the brass is especially strong.
The next piece, “Battle with the Great Primal Beast”, is a tune composed by Narita. And I can’t believe what I’m hearing, it’s fantastically amazing! I don’t remember the original track at all, but I am awe-struck by the performance. At this point I’m thinking, “This might be one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to!”
A lady comes on stage, she is the concert host. She is followed by special guests Nobuo Uematsu and Tsutomu Narita. They introduce themselves and she asks if anyone is attending an orchestral concert for the first time. About 20% raise their hand and Uematsu explains how to behave at a concert like this (I’m paraphrasing): “You might have heard that classical concerts have set rules. But here you can shout or clap your hands hard. During performing it’s not really okay, but after a piece ends, let us know if you liked it!”
Three pieces follow, all composed by Narita. “Amalthea Island -Order Above All-” starts out with a solid adventurous melody, like a horse galloping on a vast field, but it’s the second part of it that enchanted me: a mystic forest-like atmosphere with a pinch of ethnic percussions. The next piece, “Lumacie Archipelago -Mystic Woodlands-“, is quite ambient and minimalistic. Beautiful if somewhat dull. The last of the trio is “Colossus Omega”, which brings back an adventurous tone that is a bit generic, but still good fun. However, it felt like something was missing sound-wise here and there, but I wasn’t able to my finger on what this was until later in the concert…
Uematsu, Narita and the concert host come back on stage. Uematsu and Narita reveal that they don’t name the track themselves, it is instead done by the game developer Cygames. “We could never come up with these names,” Uematsu says, “and they have words I can’t even read or understand”. He asks where the audience are from, and more than half have come from outside the Miyagi prefecture, where Sendai is located in. A few more questions reveal that about 10-20% have been to this concert before, and a dozen or more people have been to all 12 previous concerts! There seems to be some quite hardcore fans of Granblue Fantasy.
My favourite piece from the game is next: “The Wind of the Beginning”. Unfortunately it lacked life in this orchestral rendition and the conductor seems to have lost his vigour. I think the tempo is slower than the original and the orchestration doesn’t feel as adventurous. I am disappointed. “Encounter with the Supreme Ruler Separated from the Sky” picks up the pace. It really reminds me of Masashi Hamauzu and his battle music to Final Fantasy XIII. The conductor is back in shape and the piece is great fun!
After another round of the composers and the host back on stage, the first half ends with “Luminiera Omega”. It’s another fantastic battle track, with a slow-moving powerful melody performed by the brass section.
Now there is an intermission. Most people either power up their phones and play the game, or read the concert booklet. It has a short synopsis of the game, personal messages from the composers Narita and Uematsu, profile text about the conductor, set list and commentary on each track by the two composers, a message from the producer, an interview with the three of them, and a bunch of art and photos alongside the texts.
The second half
By the end of the 20-minute intermission I head back to the hall. Two tracks follow without any pre-speeches, just like the beginning of the first half. “A Distant Journey, Soaring on the Battlefront” features a delicious, addictive Hiroki Kikuta-like background arpeggio on xylophone. “Ancient Battlefield of the Stars” is a battle track that drew inspiration from it’s own name. “Before I began composing this piece, the title had already been decided, and the music grew from that. I constructed it mainly around rhythm and passages with short breaths,” Narita writes in the booklet.
Uematsu talks on stage about the next piece: “Tragic”. He says it’s a sad piece with a glimpse of hope because otherwise it wouldn’t work as well. I personally loved it: a classic Uematsu melody that tugs at your heartstring, which reminds me of “Cave” from Blue Dragon. It also perfectly utilises the orchestra, meaning there are many interesting things going on in different sections of the orchestra and it keeps on building and changing. In that sense it reminds me of Final Fantasy VII‘s main theme.
The last three pieces are all composed by Narita: “Leviathan Omega”, “Neigh to the Whole Sky”, and “Auguste Isles -Babbling Falls-“. He is really the main composer of this game, and he also arranged and orchestrated all pieces for this concert. Let’s look at what he said in the booklet interview:
“I routinely compose pieces with an orchestra in mind, but when I was doing these arrangements, there were honestly tracks where I thought, ‘Are we really doing this one with an orchestra!” I completely rewrote those pieces, while at the same time cherishing the image of the original tracks. […] If you prioritise ease of playability [for performance reasons], there is a risk of losing phrases from the original music. It becomes indigestible to the players who listen to the original music. I struggled to maintain that balance.”
The main program ends to great applause, and the conductor walks off stage. He re-appears, but takes a few steps back, because he apparently doesn’t think the applause is loud enough. People start clapping harder and he starts coming forward, but again takes a few steps back and really plays with the audience. The applause is roaring now and he runs back to the stage to conduct an encore: Battle 1 & 2 Medley.
I mentioned earlier a hard-to-describe lack of acoustic power. It has been present here and there throughout the program, but it wasn’t until now that I realised what it is: The strings section is quieter than what I’m used to at other concerts. I really focus on listening to the strings during the encore and yes, they were a bit lacking here. The conductor points toward the concertmaster, who now plays a violin solo. But I can barely hear what he is playing! The orchestra sounds otherwise full and loud enough, but the strings are indeed quieter than they probably should be.
A second encore ensues: “Robomi”. The conductor signals the audience to clap to the beat. At the end, he turns towards us to conduct us – and at the very end he makes a final downward movement with his hands so that everyone stops clapping at the very same beat! What a wonderful man! I loved how he played the audience before the encores, and how he then played with the audience at the end. What a wonderful ending!
Granblue Fantasy is a lot bigger than I thought. I listened to the soundtrack when the game first came out, but I didn’t know anything about the franchise until this concert. There have been several album releases related to the game, there is official merchandise on sale, and an anime is coming out in 2017. I even saw a video commercial of Granblue Fantasy in the subway. Remember, this is a mobile browser game! Cygames are really pushing it from different directions and fans at the concert seemed happy. A good deal for everyone.
My two favourite pieces from the concert were “Battle with the Great Primal Beast” by Tsutomu Narita and “Tragic” by Nobuo Uematsu. Most pieces were good or great, but there were a few mediocre ones. The string section was sometimes lacking in power, but otherwise the orchestra sounded full and satisfying. I especially liked the brass and percussion. I hope that Narita and Uematsu continue composing great music, especially of the kind that warrants orchestral performances!
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on January 5, 2017 by Nikolas Broman. Last modified on January 5, 2017.