Okami Piano Arrange
Okami was Clover Studios' magnum opus. Its original soundtrack was a mystifying release, with some of the best Eastern-tinged lyricism I've encountered in video games. With the Okami Piano Arrange, arranged and performed by Mika Matsuura, ten of the massive original soundtrack's pieces receive video game music's mandatory solo piano treatment.
After really digging into the Okami Original Soundtrack, the stranger the prospect of an Okami piano album seemed. I wondered how an arranger could possibly transfer a soundtrack so dominated by slow moving melodies, with harmony often being a barely audible afterthought, on to an instrument that is at its best playing harmonically rich music with a decent amount of rhythmic activity. However, having heard Masashi Hamauzu's transformation of the very sparse "Besaid Island" into its Final Fantasy X Piano Collections tour de force, I had hope for the album. Unfortunately, this soundtrack does not quite make the leap from more idealized instrumentation to the piano nearly as well.
There are three main problems with the arranging on this album, and while they are not always found working in conjunction with one another, they often do overlap. The first is that Matsuura does not do enough to make tracks that were rhythmically inactive speak on the piano. The second is that, when Matsuura does elect to adapt a piece to play to the piano's strengths, she does so in such a way that the piece's original character is lost. The third is that the arrangements themselves are often dramatically inert.
The first issue is most apparent in Matsuura's treatment of Okami's vocal theme, "Reset". For the first two minutes of the piece, as well as for a restatement of the main theme about three-quarters of the way through, whole note block chords are all that support the melody. While I respect the decision to preserve the melodic focus of the track, no matter how hard you push down on the sustain pedal or how expressively you play a melody, the piano does not have the sustaining power to make this texture interesting over an extended period of time. It is a wonderful colour in moderation, but this sound dominates "Reset" and it makes the piece feel empty, save for an outburst of life four minutes and nine seconds into the music.
Matsuura's rendition of "Cursed Shinshu Field" reflects my second major complaint. Two-thirds of the way through the piece, Matsuura brings the piece to a climax with very pianistic harmonic figuration powering below the melody. While this works on a dramatic level, it disappoints me because it takes away almost everything that was special about "Cursed Shinshu Field". The original was special because of how beautiful the melody was and how slowly it spoke. It drew emotion out of the listener as if it were their last breath.
In this rendition, the harmonies come to the front. They move briskly and regularly. On the first forte statement of Matsuura's waltz, you have already figured out the lay for the next couple statements of the main theme. The tonal surprise when the pentatonic melodies shifted to pitches foreign to the established pentatonic scale is gone now, because the harmonies are so clearly heptatonic, and the pitches that were once novel are just the inevitable consequences of a cadence. While "Cursed Shinshu Field" works well dramatically, it takes what was a very beautiful, uniquely expressive piece of music and turns it into just another pretty tune.
Of the three issues on the album, the third is doubtlessly the most pervasive. At least half of the tracks on the album begin with aimless introductory passages that, at best, do little to prepare the listener for what awaits and, at worst, completely bore the listener. I value dynamic and textural variation as much as the next guy, but there are some formula that hardly ever work and they are at full force on this album. Admittedly, some of the problem isn't with the introductions themselves as it is with the prevalence of the same introductory formula for the entire album. With the exception of "The Emperor of Eternal Darkness", every single piece on the album begins quietly. Slightly fewer, but still the vast majority of the tracks, begin rhythmically sparsely. The only track on the entire album that actually seems to start at the actual beginning of the music is "Kaguya's Journey", and it has its own problems, which I will deal with shortly.
Again, I stress that there's nothing wrong with having an intro, or electing to start slowly, or quietly. What bothers me is the prevalent pattern of starting every piece in the same way. Take that a bit further and observe that almost every piece on the album ends in exactly the same way, and all of a sudden, you don't have any flow to the album. A piece starts, it builds up and comes back down, the piece ends. Repeat ten times. This formula leaves the listener spending a lot of time waiting for something in the music to happen, but because the structure of the pieces is all so similar, once you get through two or three pieces, there is no longer any tension in the sparser sections of music, so they wind up simply boring.
Issues with the generalized form of the album aside, two pieces on the album stand out as especially poor use of form. The first is "Kaguya's Journey". The arrangement actually starts out quite nicely, dropping the listener right into the first structurally relevant phrase of the music without any filler. The problem with this piece is that it is divided into two sections (three if you count the repeat of the first section), neither of which really seem to have any relevance to the other. This is mostly an issue with arrangement. The music actually sounds like it would go together quite well in a better arrangement. However, as it is written, each section builds to a climax, comes back down, and completely stops. When the new section begins, it sounds as if a new piece should be starting. I would be more at peace with this decision if Matsuura had come to a complete stop the first time, and then pressed right through the second section into the repeat of the first section, or if the album itself weren't already such a start and stop affair. But in this context, the completely delineated sections sound plodding.
The other track whose form bothered me is "The Tribe of Heavenly Gods' Theme". Aside from the issue I mention, it is actually one of my favourite tracks on the album. For the first half of the piece the track develops in a very engaging way, however, again as Matsuura gets to the end of the B section, which had been growing continuously, she opts to completely stall the piece's momentum and repeat the main theme almost exactly as it had been played the first time. Why go through all that development in the B section just to land exactly where you started the piece? Why not spend a little bit of time on the main theme with the momentum you picked up earlier and then pull the rhythm back as you get closer to the end? Why not just end the piece triumphantly and add some contrast to the album? It is such an anti-climax to go through everything the piece does up to that moment, just to arrive back at square one.
One other minor problem with the album is that it doesn't really seem to know what audience it is trying to hook. The predominant style is definitely pop. I would not at all be surprised if I were listening to Coldplay and encountered a piano line that sounds similar to something out of the Okami Piano Arrange. However, the pseudo-classical structures of the pieces draw the length of the pieces beyond what you would expect from pop instrumentals. But then these structures aren't executed well enough to draw in the classical crowd. On top of all of that, there are (very) occasional flourishes that draw on jazz. It seems to me that Matsuura is trying to please everyone, but ultimately has created something that will not really appeal to anyone.
Negativity aside, the album does have some strong moments. "The Emperor of Eternal Darkness" is a lot of fun to listen to, and its loud, full, and percussive chords sound great on the piano. "The Sun Rises" is the best structured piece on the album, and does a good job of translating the big sound of the original into a piano reduction. It also earns major points for breaking the routine of the rest of the album and ending on an emphatic note. "Inside the Water Dragon" has some very beautiful moments, although its dramatic shape leaves much to be desired.
Despite all of my negativity, Okami Piano Arrange is not a dreadful album. I can imagine worse ways to spend my musical time. However, it is an album with flaws, and unfortunately, most of its flaws have the effect of making the music very boring. It takes an album with a melodic focus and puts the emphasis on harmonies. But the harmonies chosen aren't all that interesting, and are pretty strongly based in Western music, taking away a lot of the original's unique Eastern character. It takes an album that speaks very slowly, and tries to force it onto an instrument of limited sustaining power.
For everything I've said in this review, what really ends up making Okami Piano Arrange so unspectacular is that it took an album that was so special — something that had character — and it turned it into something very derivative and near soulless. Over half of the album was full of music that passed right through my ears, touching absolutely nothing on its way through. In a one minute jingle, the Okami Original Soundtrack could conjure a mystical dragon. In listening to the entire Okami Piano Arrange, all I ever saw was a vague pair of hands playing a piano in an apartment, doing their best to make sure their neighbors couldn't hear them.
Producer: Mareo Yamada (Capcom)
A & R: Keishin Itsukaichi (Capcom)
Product Manager: Tetsuya Ohno (Capcom)
Composer: Masami Ueda, Rei Kondoh (T's Music), JUN
Arrange & Piano: Mika Matsuura
Producer & Director: Horishi "Roze" Horiguchi (Two Five)
Assistant Director: Bungo Fujiwara (Two Five)
Recording Engineer: Yasuo Hiruma (SOUND INN Mixer's Crew)
Recording Studio: SOUND INN STUDIO
Mastering Engineer: Hiroyuki Shiotsuki (Sony Music Communication)
Mastering Studio: Sony Music Studio
Package Coordinator: Koji Kinuwaki (Sony Music Communications)
Art Direction & Design: Akira Kasa (Brahman), Ayumi Satoh (Brahman)
Special Thanks: Creative Media Agency, All Capcom Staff, And All "O-KAMI" Lovers!!
Cursed Shinshu Plains
Inside the Water Dragon
The Tribe of Heavenly Gods' Theme
The Emperor of Eternal Darkness
The Sun Rises
The Journey Continues