After making a tremendous splash with his earlier compositions, Yasunori Mitsuda abruptly transitioned to smaller and more obscure (and presumably less stressful) projects in the 2000s after withdrawing from the Xenosaga series after the first entry. Many of his post-Xenosaga efforts didn’t get album releases, or comprised only a few tracks out of a much longer album, with the composer settling into a producing or programming role. In fact, between Sailing to the World in 2002 and Armodyne in 2007, Mitsuda only produced a single solo video game score album.
That effort was Hako No Niwa, the soundtrack to a rather obscure game released as Graffiti Kingdom stateside. The composer is still best known for his weighty scores Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross; while they weren’t without moments of levity, Hako No Niwa is an essentially lighthearted composition with a heavy emphasis on percussion instruments from start to finish. The amount of creativity on display is startling as well; there’s no hint of a Celtic sound or any sort of thematic material recycled from previous albums. One gets the feeling that Mitsuda had a ball writing this, and his enthusiasm is quite evident.
While he never quite abandons other orchestral elements, the percussion is the defining feature of the album. Whether xylophone and marimba, as in “Scribblings,” or the bongo and tambourine as in “Thoroughly Prepared,” complex rhythm is Hako No Niwa‘s hallmark. The number of specialty percussion instruments–dulcimer, tap shoes, hand claps, güiro–is amazing, and the way in which they and more traditional instruments are layered together is marvelously complex and immensely satisfying.
Most of the tracks are lighthearted swing-style tunes, often with quieter interludes, with few darker or more mysterious songs, with the notable exception of track 19, “Forest of Illusion,” which uses echo effects, piano, and güiro to create an off-kilter sounds that oozes mystery and strangeness.
Other standout tracks include the triple whammy of “The Story Starts Here,” “Chikuridori,” and “Scribblings,” which combine the innovative percussion with light melodies and the occasional serious interlude, and “Invisible Toy Box,” which uses a broken music box to create a whimsical yet unbalanced mood. “Toy box” is an excellent descriptor of the album as a whole; it’s as if Mitsuda emptied his own toy box in orchestrating his composition, resulting in a wide variety of creative tracks.
Best of all is the synth quality: much like Mitsuda’s earlier work for the PS1/PS2 eras, it’s excellent, and it takes an audiophile to notice that Hako no Niwa isn’t acoustic. As a result, there are no barriers to overcome in enjoying one of the best video game music works of 2004, a lighthearted and instrumentally creative listening experience different from Yasunori Mitsuda’s usual fare, and a delight for anyone looking for original orchestral efforts.