“Hako no Niwa”, roughly translated to “The Box Garden”, is the original soundtrack to the game “Rakugaki Oukoku 2”, a.k.a. “Magic Pengel 2.” This is not the first time Mitsuda released a soundtrack to a game and given it a separate title (Tsugunai had the same thing happen to it).
A lot of people were disappointed with this soundtrack from the start. I think this is because, when people read the name “Yasunori Mitsuda”, they expect nothing less than or different from the styles used in Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Xenogears. This soundtrack’s style is as far away from those older compositions as the east is from the west. You’ve never heard a soundtrack like this one before. Never.
And this is how it should be, when you consider what kind of game “Magic Pengel 2” is. In the game, you actually draw the characters you will use in battle. That’s right, you draw them. This is a pretty different aspect of gameplay, one that we haven’t ever seen before. The music then fits with the game rather nicely.
The music immediately makes me think “toys.” What sort of music do we associate with toys? First of all, we associate the “toy” sound with mallet/pitched percussion (vibraphones, xylophones, marimbas, orchestra bells). We find plenty of these instruments on the soundtrack. Next, we think of music that is “fun”: syncopation, staccato, repetition, speed, simplicity. We also think of “childish” forms of music, since children play with toys. Lullabies, sing-a-longs, all those songs you were forced to sing in elementary school music class: all of these songs have a certain style to them. Mitsuda captures all of this and more in Hako no Niwa.
Keep in mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all this music is “simple”; on the contrary, there are many pieces on this soundtrack that have complex melodies and rhythms. For example, listen to the country-western piece, “Cactus”. After the harmonica solo, the strings get their chance to show off their own melody. In the background, Mitsuda goes nuts on some hand drums, and the result is magnificent (note that Mitsuda plays every instrument on this entire album: it’s all him).
Mitsuda makes perfect use of a number of classical instruments (strings, piano, bells, flutes) on track 16, but he also adds in the occasional electronic background noise. The snare drum comes in and then goes out at just the right times, building and then tearing down the intensity of this steady 3/4 piece.
Listening to this whole album in one sitting can be a bit too much of the sort of novelty style “toy” music for me. I once listened to the entire disc while driving, and at track 22, I started to feel quite nauseous, and I had a raging headache on top of it. To recover, I hit pause for five minutes and rolled down the windows in winter weather. Somehow this helped, and then I continued listening to the music, this time even more appreciative of the style.
Not that each song is so eccentric that it can be hazardous to your health. For example, listen to the sample of track 4, “Careful Preparation”. This sort of song is reminiscent of music we all know and love from Chrono Cross and Xenogears. Even when trying to do something new, Mitsuda cannot entirely escape his roots in this sort of earthy, Celtic/world-fusion tradition.
The colorful packaging to the soundtrack also helps to enrich the music on the album. Instead of having an insert book, there are simply three cards that can be pulled out of the slit on this digipack case. Each card has a photograph on the front with white-line characters drawn on it (making reference to the game); the back of these three cards contain the tracklist, the composer’s comments (which are quite interesting if you can find the English translation), and the production/release information. I was very well pleased with the images and the unique form of packaging given here. It is simple, it is detached: in a word, beautiful.
This album might not be what Mitsuda fans wanted, but it’s what they got, and I think we owe it to ourselves and to the VGM world to “give it a chance”, so to speak. I did, and I think I have really learned a lot from the experience. It is all very enjoyable, and just listening to it does make you feel young and small again. I give this soundtrack high recommendations, with one reservation: if you don’t like the samples provided here, you probably won’t like anything else on the album.