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The Brilliant Music of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Welcome to the SCORESCOPE, a look at some of the best soundtracks, scores, and music across the nerdish domains that crowd our worldtree. Today we’ll take a look at the OST (original sound track) for 2013’s outstanding Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

For JRPG fans, Wrath of the White Witchwas a lovely surprise. The release rate of Japanese role-playing games (must less great or even just good JRPGs) has dropped dramatically since the genre’s heyday in the late 1990s. Level-5’s game combined tight gameplay with gorgeous graphics, a whimsical and melancholy story, and excellent character and cutscene design by the legendary artists of Studio Ghibli.

The game was a critically acclaimed bestseller and spawned several sequels and an anime movie, so Bandai Namco’s announcement last month of an impending remaster for PC, PS4, and Switch was greeted with much thanksgiving among gamers. 

I’m as excited as the next Drippy-was-the-real-hero true believer about the chance to revisit the world of Oliver and company in their fight to defeat the evil Shadar, but the real source of my excitement is the chance players old and new will have to experience the best part of the Wrath of the White Witch: its incredible soundtrack

Full credit for Ni No Kuni’smusical brilliance goes to composer Joe Hisaishi, composer for most of Studio Ghibli’s best films (Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, anyone?). Hisaishi’s lush score occupies the same neoromantic space as some of John Williams’ best scores for “children’s” films, like Hook and his scores for the first three Harry Potter films.

In normal parlance this means that Hisaishi’s soundtrack for Ni No Kuni is passionate and often quite moving; composers like Hisaishi (and Williams) attempt to evoke emotional responses in listeners in a similar fashion to works by 19th-century compositions like “From the New World” by Antonín Dvořák. 

Hisaishi composed the score for the game knowing that expressive music would heighten the impact of Ni No Kuni’s story (a boy’s quest to revive his dead mother, heal other broken-hearted people like himself, and defeat a succession of evil sorcerer and sorceresses) and add to the overall quality and longevity of the game.

Level-5 designed a top-shelf game, paired it with a first-class soundtrack, and created a masterpiece. Other games have similarly achieved masterpiece status with the help of a great score—think of Jeremy Soule’s haunting Skyrim soundtrack by or Tomb Raider’s timeless theme by Nathan McCree. What makes Hisaishi’s score stand out?

A well-designed video game requires thoughtful music that fits the story. Serious scenes call for somber music; carnivals need a festive air; travelling the world should inspire wonder and adventure. Hisaishi gives Wrath of the White Witch a piece of music for every situation. Here are some of my favorites.

  • The “Main Theme” soars with brass and cymbals bravely charging in before retreating into a more thoughtful, youthful melody played by the strings. The piece’s instrumentation hints at Oliver’s journey from childhood innocence into a larger, more complicated world. 
  • One Fine Morning” scores the beginning scenes of the game. Oliver navigates a peaceful, quiet existence under the protection of his beloved mother, Allie, in the town of Motorville as the piece stirs with flute trills and ringing high tones on celeste-like instrument. The main theme is carried by calm, warm strings that communicate the safety and love that Oliver feels. 
  • Drippy” is the theme of Oliver’s magical companion, a toy that comes to life after the death of Allie. The suspiciously Welsh-sound wizard also provides a link to a magical world and a chance to bring her back to life. When you consider interesting dialect choice for the English localization, the hints of Russian-style marching music are geographically mismatched but right on for Drippy’s bluster and bravado. 
  •  “Al Mamoon: Court of the Cowlipha” is another piece that conjures a very specific aural background. Oliver and crew enter the mysterious Cowlipha’s satrap pretty early in the game, and the vaguely eastern melody and instrumentation—sitar, oboe, and gong, among others—add to the impression that players are just scratching the surface of a colorful, mysterious world. 
  • Mummy’s Tummy” plays while the gang is literally stuck inside a giant fairy godmother (who just so happens to be Drippy’s dear old muvver). While Ni No Kuni has its fair share of those Serious Moments of Great Import that are legally required in all JRPGs, this interlude inside “the Faycare Center” is scored by a suitably silly piece. The penny whistle, the clickety-clack of the triangle and blocks, and the accordion-like instrument of Hisaishi’s piece all add to the whimsy of the scene.
  • Battle” is Hisaishi’s spin on a standard of all JRPGs: fightin’ music. Think about the context of this music: players will hear it hundreds of times in the background, often on repeat for longer or boss battles. We can see that it’s meant to be stirring but not distracting, driving but not intrusive. It conveys the focus of battle with piping flutes and woodwinds, urgent strings, and pulsating timpani action.
  • The other thing a great JRPG needs is overworld music, the kind that makes you want to know what lies over the next hill or what might be found in that mysterious cave. Hisaishi rises to the occasion with “World Map,” one of the loveliest songs in any video game. It gives players a sense of excitement and exploration without hitting them over the head about it. He weaves in several of the motifs heard in other pieces as well. The brass and percussion really send this into the upper atmostphere of heroic inspiration—the music makes it easy to imagine the wind blowing through your hair, traversing this beautiful, Ghibli-inspired world in search of adventure.

These are my personal faves from Ni No Kuni’s OST, but they’re far from the only great pieces in the score. “A Battle with Creatures” is carnivalesque and playful, “Labyrinth” manages to make a maze sound intriguing and, dare I say it, homey, and “Blithe” wouldn’t sound out of place at the end of Beauty and the Beast. The game’s theme song, “Kokoro no Kakera,” is gorgeous in either the Japanese (performed by Mai Fujisawa, Hisaishi’s daughter) or English version, though I prefer the original to the translation.

If you haven’t played Ni No Kuni, or at the very least listened to the soundtrack, do yourself a favor and either A) pick up the game on the cheap for PS3, B) wait for the remaster to drop in September, C) cough up some dineros up for the official OST, or D) listen to the whole thing for free on YouTube. You’ll be happy whatever you do.

That’s all for this month’s SCORESCOPE. Come back again for more deep dives into the best music in TV, games, and films!

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