Okami Original Soundtrack
Okami Original Soundtrack
May 31, 2006
Buy at CDJapan
The critically acclaimed Okami was one of the last offerings from Capcom’s ill-fated Clover Studio. Okami earned vibrant praise for its accessible gameplay, and particularly for its beautiful, mystic art style. Masami Ueda, alongside fellow composers Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Rei Kondoh, and Akari Groves, draws upon classic Eastern musical traditions to accompany the game’s colourful visuals and godly atmosphere. How well does Capcom’s massive five disc release of Okami‘s soundtrack stand against the reputation of the landmark game it accompanied?
Initially, that figure — five discs — stands out. It seems massive. When you consider that the album, run start to finish, lasts nearly six hours, that figure sounds even more imposing. I have personally never listened to any other album, video game music or otherwise, that has contained so much music in one space that hasn’t been a compilation from smaller units. Even my longest Wagner opera is over an hour shorter than this soundtrack. Especially in this next gen era, when even RPG soundtracks, the traditional disc busters, have most often spawned two disc collections, Okami stands out. Even discounting the fifth disc, which is composed entirely of short jingles and promotional edits, the score still seems colossal, though moderately more manageable.
Fortunately for listeners, Ueda and company have done a very good job of providing the stylistic unity necessary to make a monstrous album such as this, which is difficult to conceive of being listened to in one setting, digestible. The bulk of the album draws from various spheres of traditional Japanese music. It has stately and lyrical tracks reminiscent of traditional court music, dynamic and percussive tracks reminiscent of traditional stage music, and light-hearted tracks reminiscent of traditional folk tunes.
Although Okami draws strongly from the aforementioned musical traditions, the soundtrack does not rely on simple mimicry for its effect. Some of the tracks use the traditional elements to set up the basic premise of the track, such as the instrumentation, the melodic material, and the general tempo and character of the piece, but then apply them within a Western harmonic or rhythmic context drawn equally from classical and popular tradition. Select pieces even exhibit exotic melodic devices such as the whole-tone scale, and the harmonic minor scale, though they appear in rare character pieces that are not representative of the whole album.
Despite the relatively low number of styles that Okami draws upon for its musical inspiration, which adds to the album’s cohesiveness, the album is emotionally diverse. The soundtrack has its share of extroverted moments, its share of mysterious moments, and its share of jubilant moments. It has its share of introverted mutterings, its share of simple jingles, and its share of tragedies. There is a slight lean toward slow speaking, deliberately expressed tracks, which feel like watching a painter make careful brushstroke after careful brushstroke, and only having a vague sense of his intention before the picture finally appears before you. This introverted expression is where the soundtrack makes its most effective statements to me, but it is not at all exclusive toward them. Okami is a very flexible album.
Having examined the soundtrack generally, let’s take a look at some of the individual tracks that make up Okami. I’m not going to discuss even close to every track on the album. I don’t want to write that, and you don’t want to read it. Instead, I will sift out a handful of representative tracks on the album and examine them more closely.
As I said when discussing the soundtrack generally, I think Ueda and company are strongest in the game’s most lyrical moments. This is partially because Okami‘s lyrical style is unique, particularly within the realm of video game music. Most video games rely on pop and folk styled melodies, with quick harmonic rhythms, and memorable rhythmic patterns to create memorable and emotionally evocative melodies. While Okami certainly has its popular roots, there is more emphasis on simple textures with small ensembles and slow moving melodies than on other soundtracks.
“Cursed Shinshuu Plains I” is one of my personal favourite tracks on the album, and a great example of Okami‘s lyrical style. The melody draws principally from the pentatonic scale, which keeps the game’s Eastern flavour alive, while occasionally introducing stark harmonic shifts that would not sound out of place in a work by Debussy. However, as I had mentioned before, the piece speaks very slowly. Ueda goes beyond your typical expectations from a piece that speaks slowly, such as a slow tempo, and the use of long sustained tones, though both are present in this piece.
To further enhance the slow pace of the music, every phrase of the music is centered around a single pitch that comes across as a sustained tone, despite the fact that the melody is moving. This is not to discount the beauty of the motion within each individual phrase. Every phrase is a beautiful rendition of the plaintive theme. However, Ueda’s continued return to one especially important pitch gives over the course of longer phrases gives the impression that the phrase itself is one very long pitch with very elaborate vibrato. Aside from slowing the pace of the piece, this disciplined technique also allows for very emotional moments when the base pitch moves.
The whole effect of the piece, with its emotional melody, disciplined construction, and slow pace, seems a very appropriate musical setting for a curse. The theme itself speaks of sadness. But the circular phrases come with a sense of eternality, that this is an inevitable sadness that will not pass. The impression of the long sustained pitches Ueda creates give the sense of a lingering emotion, and the pitches which decorate it show that that emotion is actively considered. The small ensemble gives an introspective feeling, and makes the listener feel as if they are staring into the soul of the cursed valley. The few harmonic shifts that occur express a yearning for change, and the hope, no matter how small, that it may come.
Rei Kondoh’s “Dragon Palace” is another beautiful piece from the album’s lyrical side. Though it is by no means a hasty piece, compared to “Cursed Shinshuu Plains I”, it is definitely on a brisker pace. In addition to some beautiful harmonies, “Dragon Palace” brings us a harp line bubbling with energy, a rhythmically active guitar melody, and a flute melody that seems to call out to the heavens. While the piece does not use the type of mystic sound that the soundtrack most often exploits, it is still rich with magical energy, and Kondoh’s “Inside the Water Dragon” continues in that tradition.
There are many lyrical pieces on the album that express a variety of emotions, and carry the mystic qualities that make the mythic atmosphere of Okami convincing. They range in styles from the very direct, harmonically driven, and almost rock ‘n’ roll “Okikurmi’s Theme” to more subtle, but undeniably magical tracks such as “Constellation (Dragon Sketch)” or “Kamiki Village”, and tracks like “Kamiki Village’s Sorrowful Custom” or “Kaguya’s Theme”, which fall somewhere inbetween. But it almost always works. Rarely does Okami descend into obnoxious sentimentality. Even “Reset”, the album’s mandatory pure pop vocal theme, manages to sound relatively honest among its distorted guitar and strings. It doesn’t hurt Ayaka Hirahara’s vocal performance is one of the great ones I’ve heard on a video game album.
Of course, the soundtrack is not entirely defined by its expressive and slow-paced lyrical side. There is a lot to enjoy on the soundtrack in the form of character and action pieces. The character themes use a musical language quite similar to Koji Kondo, and while I don’t find myself quite as charmed by Okami‘s offerings as I do with some of the themes in Zelda, the material here is still high quality. “Shinshuu Plains” is an energetic track that gets me ready to adventure. “Practice-Ditching Susano-o” mixes the whole tone scale and a more explicitly eastern sounding melody to create a very interesting caricature of Susano-o’s character. “Seiankyou Commoners’ Quarter II” is another very fun track that sounds like a cross between traditional eastern music and the Godfather theme, and would not sound at all out of place at my local sushi restaurant.
On occasion, the character pieces can get simply obnoxious. For example “Digging Here Bow-Wow” and its inexplicable, almost identical repeat on the album “More Digging Here Bow-Wow” require more patience to get through their minute of music than it takes to get through most of the rest of the album combined. For the most part though, the character pieces are diverse and effective, including the over-the-top extroverted pieces I’ve already mentioned and tracks covering other wonderful character traits, such as the stealthy “There’s Something About Kokari” and the enigmatic “Granny Bokusen’s Theme”.
The one area in which Okami disappoints me relatively consistently throughout the album is in its more ambient side. I’m never all that attracted to sparse, slow-moving music, that relies on mostly on strange sounds to get its effects, and there are a few pieces on the album like that. “Tsutamaki Ruins” is among the worst of them. “Mysterious Power” is also a pretty bland and boring entry into the creeping music genre. Fortunately, not all that much of the soundtrack is in this ambient vein. Still, when it is, it loses my attention fairly quickly.
The battle music is the only area of the soundtrack that I have not really touched yet, and it is a mixed bag. Almost all of the battle tracks on the album suffer from an overdose of reverb, which can make some of the more complex rhythms blur over each other, and can frequently cause the percussion to vastly overpower the melodies. Some of the pieces also just aren’t that interesting. “Geisha Spider Extermination” starts off very intense, but quickly loses its effect by repeating the same pattern throughout the majority of the piece.
For the most part though, the battle themes manage to overcome their overdose of reverb to make for interesting listening. “Spirit Extermination” is remarkably dynamic, and combines the sound of court music to make a very interesting sound above the violent percussion. Interjections of purely dramatic music add further to the effect. “Yamato-no-Orochi’s Extermination II” is a real delight for the ears as well. Aside from the convincing dramatic percussion, the track boasts one of the best battle melodies that I have ever heard. Really, every battle theme on the album, with the exception of “Geisha Spider Extermination” is effective, and I’m sure there are those who will enjoy “Geisha Spider…”
The fifth disc of the album doesn’t add an awful lot that you have not experienced on the rest of the soundtrack, and why video game albums feel obliged to include all the game jingles with their soundtracks continues to confuse me. Are there actually people out there who listen to these? However, the presentation and prototype tracks are interesting listens for folks who are interested in getting a sense of the whole soundtrack in a few pieces.
The Okami soundtrack is not the type of soundtrack that you are going to pump through your car speakers on the way to work every morning. The battle tracks are adrenaline pumping, but take a while to develop, and by the time they get to the point where you will be satisfied by their energy level, you’ll probably have switched tracks. The character pieces are charming, but not nearly infectious enough to keep your attention over long periods of time. If you land on an ambient track, you’ll probably fall asleep at the wheel.
Still, for those with the patience, Okami‘s soundtrack is truly beautiful. My taste favours melody, but it absolutely does not favour the sort of slow moving meditative approach that Ueda, Yamaguchi, Kondoh, and Groves bring to the table here. Still, I found myself unable to turn away from these discs. What separates this soundtrack from others that adopt a similar pace is that the melody is here, and the melodies are well written too, they’re not simply thrown in for good measure. You are not just getting aimless harmonic soup, as with many slower paced albums. You just have to listen a little longer than you might expect to let the melodies speak.
This is an album that allows the ears to come into Okami‘s mythic tapestry along with the ears. I have not heard an album that has a celestial sound as convincing as this one, nor one that can infuse the earth with spirit as this one. However, beautiful as the soundtrack is, it’s character pieces do not quite reach the level of greatness for me, and ambient side of the album loses me every time it arrives. Still, with a little patience and the ruthlessness to skip those tracks that lag behind, this soundtrack is a delight.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Richard Walls. Last modified on August 1, 2012.