So…this may lose me some credibility right off the bat, but the Ni no Kuni II Original Soundtrack was my first real dive into Joe Hisaishi’s work. Before this album, I was only vaguely familiar with his name, and I ironically assumed that he was a relatively new face in the industry. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. Joe Hisaishi may actually be one of the most prominent Japanese composers alive today, with a long and prolific career spanning studio releases, collaborations, and a staggering number of film soundtracks. Most famously, he scored almost all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. This strong working relationship with Studio Ghibli led to his work on the Ni no Kuni series, and while this series is not his first foray into video game composition, it’s easily his most high-profile work within the medium. Having learned a bit more about Joe Hisaishi’s background, I was curious to hear how his style would carry over in Ni no Kuni II.
Before we dive into Hisaishi’s compositions, however, I want to address the first thing you’ll notice when you start up the album, and that’s the orchestra. The tracks on this release were recorded by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and man, they knock it out of the park. The performances cover a wide expressive range, the musicianship is polished and crisp, and the sense of ensemble is so tight that I can picture Hisaishi conducting while I listen. Some of the tracks feature contributions from the Ritsuyukai Choir, and while it’s the same kind of unison chanting thing we’ve heard many times before, they have a focused, muscular sound that punches right through the orchestra. The sound engineering is top-notch, too. The album has a sense of space that often gets lost in orchestral recordings.
The other thing you’ll notice is that Hisaishi really comes charging out of the gate with the first track. “Theme from Ni no Kuni II” is a spectacular start — dynamic, energetic, and majestic. Very few of the album’s other tracks approach this one’s grandeur and length, but it makes for a nice overview of Hisaishi’s signature style. His orchestration is agile and complex. He rarely wields the full weight of the orchestra. Instead, the orchestra plays like a collection of smaller ensembles, and the tracks are full of sudden timbre changes and concurrent melodies winding around each other. Combined with the album’s brevity, this makes it a breezy listen in spite of its complexity, and it’s perfectly fitting for a lighthearted adventure like Ni no Kuni II.
And as you would expect for such a game, many of the tracks here are just bursting with charm and whimsy. “Let Battle Commence,” the main battle theme, almost feels like a medieval dance, with its modal main melody and tambourine. It’s refreshingly different from what you would expect for a JRPG battle track. “To Arms” sounds like a more cheerful variation on Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” “Kingdom by the Sea” rests an ethereal string melody on top of a habanera bassline. “The Boundless Skies” is absolutely buoyant, with its intertwining melodies and arpeggios. Hisaishi packs a wealth of clever stylistic touches into each of these tracks, despite their relatively short runtimes. He also demonstrates a delicate touch on some of the soundtrack’s slower pieces. “The Curious Boy” gets off to a tenuous and melancholy start, and while it gradually builds and incorporates more of the orchestra, it never reaches a point where it feels totally optimistic. It’s a beautifully ambiguous piece of music.
Unfortunately, while the music is consistently charming and generally well crafted, there isn’t a lot of intensity or urgency here. “Boss Battle,” despite the awesome opening percussion, is surprisingly tepid, as is “The Final Showdown.” If you are looking for some fist-pumping boss themes, you won’t find them here. Location tracks like “Treacherous Valley” and “The Lost Kingdom” lean more toward aimless than atmospheric. We do get a notable exception with “The Toppled Throne,” which manages to be perfectly tense from beginning to end, but none of the other tracks match its level of intensity. I also think some listeners will be disappointed by the lack of recurring themes here. We do get a few iterations of the main Ni no Kuni theme, but that’s about it. I tend to gravitate toward heavily thematic scores, so I’ll admit this initially impeded my enjoyment of this soundtrack a little bit. However, I hope this won’t turn away other listeners who prefer more thematic fare. Despite the lack of recurring melodies, the album still feels stylistically unified, and the individual tracks hold up on their own merits.
Despite these small critiques, the soundtrack for Ni no Kuni II is a thoroughly delightful album. It will naturally appeal more to fans of Koichi Sugiyama than Motoi Sakuraba or Falcom Sound Team, but even if you prefer your JRPG soundtracks to rock a little harder, you really should sample what this album has to offer. Hisaishi’s compositions are both exuberant and intricate, yielding new treasures with each listen, and they are elevated even further by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ritsuyukai Choir. This is simply excellent orchestral music, and I can imagine it appealing to fans of classical and film music just as much as it appeals to video game soundtrack enthusiasts like me.
Heck, my mother likes this soundtrack. I’m pretty sure that’s a first.