Ever since Yasunori Mitsuda has become a freelancer, he has gone from strength to strength, releasing several scores every year. Along with KiRite and Moonlit Shadow, Hako no Niwa is one of his three main stand-out scores released over the last year. While the game it was released for, Taito's Rakugaki Kingdom 2, was rare and released only in Japan, its score has become rather reputable. This is largely because it is so unique; while it shares Celtic styles similar to the Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack and An Cinniùint, it features many new styles that have not been heard from any of his previous scores. Though it has a positive vibe overall and features many simple tracks, it progressively darkens and features many more complex tracks. Even though it is occasionally a little hit-and-miss, there are plenty of stand-out tracks that make this score a must-have. Let's look at it in some more detail...
The first track on Hako no Niwa, "The Story Starts Here", is a remarkable one. While not as dramatic as his other RPG openers, it features beautiful organic instrumentation to establish the childish and frivolous sound. Mitsuda continues to surprise and inspire me with "Sand Tower". The track reminds me of a story's prologue: It starts off as a steady string clash, which then brews itself into a more 'Arabic styled' piece with the sitar. It then further develops by combining both strings and sitar and creates an emotional but short performance which really touches deep. And if you thought it couldn't get any better, Mitsuda uses his trademark flute to add the finishing touches. At this part, we are present to the happy and bouncy part of the prologue before it reaches the string and sitar climax were the prologue ends and the main story starts.
Developing on a youthful sound, "Chikuridori" was a very nice surprise when I first heard it. It is incredibly emotional, switching from sad to happy to innocent in a way that mirrors the temperament of a child. "Scribblings" is a refreshingly simple track too — I love how Mitsuda chose to use tuned percussion and solo woodwind to represent this, like a child's first composition. "Hill on Which the Windmills Can Be Seen" is a lovely and flowing track by Mitsuda that would easily be a candidate for a world map theme. The pleasant strings and a bouncy tuba interact in a delightful fashion here, while the part from 0:52 seconds to the end of the first loop is just magical.
We all know that Mitsuda composes some excellent forest themes, but "Forest of Illusion" is different. Not only does it convey a forest setting more appropriately than his previous themes, but Mitsuda adds on to the composition by putting some of the styles he adapted from Hako no Niwa. The composition itself is interesting, as it adds some elements from the previous scores Mitsuda has composed, and stands out differently to the other tracks. First off, the track begins with eerie and mysterious ambient noises with some fluttery piano, which surprisingly plays some really emotional notes and also serves as a basis image for the forest. After the introduction, the forest then shows its 'true self' by intensifying the piece. This track is one of the more complex pieces on the album, showing that Mitsuda knows a great deal of knowledge about composing complex pieces with simple ideas. "Forest of Illusion" is the epitome of Mitsuda
The battle theme "Testing My Ability" has a slightly darker tone than the rest and emphasises a sensse of action with its wicked drum rolls. The violins are nicely fitted, as they along with the weird sound effects, work at intensifying the mood. As satisfying as this track is, I still don't think that it has the epic feeling that battle tracks need, but then again it is a light-hearted game. "Revolving Disc" sounds like a classic hurray track. It's fast, furious and... well, nothing too great. Other than its fast tempo, there are no other interesting features, and it is easily skipable with the help of your trusty CD player. "Harape Colosseum" is actually quite grand, yet suitably exaggerated too. It perfectly fits the image of a fun Colosseum, which you really have to picture when you listen to this track.
"Gallery of Ice and Flame" probably the track that reminds me the most of the Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack because of the magnificent Celtic flute that is present during the majority of the track. While extremely simple in form, it is definitely one of the more memorable tracks in Hako no Niwa given its nostalgic flavour. "The Boy's Small Hope and Weak Breaths", on the other hand, particularly resembles Mitsuda's one and only "Guardia Millennial Fair" from Chrono Trigger. Mitsuda once again offers a slightly folksy arrangement combined with a light-hearted melody. "Transparent Sadness" is a clichéd Mitsuda symphonic track, which means nothing remotely new is evident when listening to this track if you have listened to other Mitsuda scores. It's a simple orchestral string passage that lasts for less than a minute, but nevertheless makes an impact within the game.
Yehaw! Crack that whip! Wild, Wild Western Style's and harmonicas represent another first Mitsuda's career in "Catcus". It's great that Mitsuda is getting back on his synthesizer and creating his great guitar sounds again, and although they don't sound as authentic as his Chrono Cross work, it still sounds great. Among other anomalies, "Scorching Flow" is a little track with a big soul, notable for its use of distorted synthesized guitar and irregular bongos. "Wagon Tracks" is interesting too for its minimalistic development upon a compelling percussion line. "Treasure Chest of the Wind" is too ambient for my taste and its only notable feature is the didgeridoo to emphasise the tribal and barren feel.
Among the more emotional pieces, "A Lonely Heart and Inner Ambitions" is an extremely dark and brooding piano and flute arrangement. This track is an arrangement of "Testing My Ability," the 'supposed' battle theme, and it does the original track complete justice. "The Selfish Girl" is the first of the two 'special' piano solos on the album. Though not quite as accomplished as Mitsuda's other piano solos, it still carries his characteristic sentimental sound. "The Smug Gentleman" is clearly a little bit worse than the previous piano solo. This is mainly because the melody isn't as thoughtful as the previous piano track and the arrangement is somewhat generic.
As we pass into the second half of Hako no Niwa, we come across some of the really odd pieces. "In Search of a Falling Star" is one of those odd pieces. It's a confusing melody which may, at times, sound rather epic then suddenly change in an instance and sound eerie and playful. Of course, the weird spaceship noises really help the track become stranger than it already is. Once again, the little Mitsuda piano solo towards the end of the track is the best part, because it swoops through the emotions really easily. "Invisible Toy Box" is the scariest box on the album. The music box that plays in the intro is absolutely frightening with its slight distortion. As the track progresses towards the end, there is a little battle between piano and the accordion that is light-hearted yet disturbing.
The image inspired by "Awaking from Sleep" is a bad guy being wakened up from their eternal, everlasting sleep. The track starts off convincingly with the harp, but then loses the magic because of the badly synthesized violin which really sounds like a slightly upgraded PlayStation violin. The rest of the track is really great, with the mysterious qualities and action-packed scenes."A Perpetual Recurrence" is one of the more chaotic themes on the album, evolving from its slow start towards its fast conclusion. After the track gets to its full potential, wailing vocals come out of nowhere and add greatly to the experience. Alas, we arrive at the most evil track on the album, "A Worthy Rival's Trap", and also the most lavishly orchestration. It is another very good arrangement of "Testing My Ability," as Mitsuda takes the melody from the previous track and adds so much more depth into it, but it is unintentionally lightened by the toy sounds necessary for the context.
Mitsuda and the words final battle don't mix very well together, and in "Final Decisive Battle," it's much the same. Once again, Mitsuda remixes and arranges the melody from "Testing My Ability," but also adds the piano arranged version, "A Lonely Heart and Inner Ambitions" in the introduction. As the track starts, the first thing you will hear is the piano and percussion which you don't usually find in an epic final battle, but it serves its purpose well. I would say that this track is based on the same structure as previous Mitsuda final battle tracks as it first starts slow and repetitive and slowly builds composition until it reaches the bridge and then expands to its fullest potential. In a way, I can see this theme working in the game, as I see this theme playing just before the epic battle, but it may be underwhelming on a stand-alone basis.
Mitsuda decided to compose something in "Sealed Key" on the lines of an ending theme with many transitions. The introduction is rather dark and gloomy with its funereal strings, but it quickly, in the flick of your wrists, turns light and happy after the introduction. If I had to pick out one part in this track that I would listen to over and over again, it would have to be the piano parts towards the middle of the track. They just sound so heartfelt and inspired that it brings great memories of the previous pieces on the album. After the slightly misfitting "A Small Friendship", "Box Garden" concludes the childish journey magically. The duet string samples that play at the introduction connect listeners emotionally and the middle section sounds incredibly beautiful with all the different kinds of instruments blending in together sensationally. But, sadly, the piano-led conclusion is a little abrupt for an ending theme. Grudges aside, this track is stunning and wraps up the album wonderfully.
After listening to the whole album of Hako no Niwa, the first thing that you should be aware of is the fact that Mitsuda has never, that's right, composed music like this before. While many tracks are familiar in musicality or nostalgic in stylings, the playful and explorative quality of the album is entirely unique. A set of scribblings, rather than a cohesive work. This won't always appeal to listeners expecting a conventional album experience, but it works delightfully for the game and is potentially fascinating too.