Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden Soundtrack (PC-98), Yoko Kanno, 1992
As with previous instalments of the Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise, Koei only tweaked details for its fifth instalment, Haouden. Clearly, Koei had hit upon a winning formula, happy to churn these games out to an audience hungry for their fix of historical strategy games that prioritised gameplay depth over fancy graphics. Not surprisingly, what stood out most about Haouden’s presentation was its soundtrack, provided by series regular Yoko Kanno.
Kanno had been given the opportunity to record previous franchise scores with live performers – a rare occurrence in video game music at the time. And thankfully, Koei seemed willing to increase the music budget for each subsequent Nobunaga’s Ambition title. Bushou Fuuunroku had benefited from a mostly live ensemble – a chamber music-sized orchestra supplemented by a few solo performers and synths. For the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden soundtrack, Koei went one step further and hired a larger ensemble, now amounting to a small symphony orchestra.
Since Bushou Fuuunroko, Kanno had only become more confident in her writing, delivering what was arguably her first masterpiece with The Creation in 1991. And Haouden bears out the fact that the early 1990s saw Kanno quickly maturing as a composer. Bushou Fuuunroku – despite its creative treatment of its subject matter – was easily read as the score for a history game set in medieval Japan, based on a tasteful mix of classical Japanese and Western music with dashes of electronica.
The Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden soundtrack sees Kanno expanding her palette further, coming up with timbre and instrument combinations she hadn’t tapped into before. Haouden is an important work in Kanno’s transition towards her trademark eclecticism, while showcasing her ability to deliver a stylistically consistent work (1990’s Uncharted Waters was arguably more diverse than Haouden, but also quite disjointed). As a result, Haouden comes up with some unexpected but immaculately executed approaches to scoring its historical era.
Take “Beyond the Auspicious Clouds” and its gentle, languid flute solo set against a sparse backdrop of traditional Japanese percussion – and xylophone. Kanno constructs a long-spun, ravishing melody with a dreamy lull and full of subtle harmonic surprises, making the piece a constant delight. But there’s more to the composition still. On the one hand, its flute lead evokes pastoral images of serene landscape and plays into scoring conventions for period settings. On the other hand, there’s a jazzy undercurrent to the flute melody that becomes particularly obvious during the piece’s second half, aided by the xylophone’s warm, almost sensuous backing. It’s an elegant way to mix in genre influences you wouldn’t expect to see in a game about feuding Japanese warlords.
This sense of genial – and almost always successful – experimentation marks the entire Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden soundtrack. “Blue Whitecaps” furthers the game’s jazz credentials, switching to the sort of light jazz that would characterise Kanno’s Uncharted Waters II the following year. Any lingering thoughts of gravely serious historical subject matter are gone when a clipped, bouncy cello melody dances with catchy piano backing to charm listeners, before the piece leads into a laid-back guitar solo and hand percussion rhythms. There’s an easy-going feel of improvisation here that suits “Blue Whitecaps”’ jazzy inclinations perfectly.
“Unrecognised Genius” is equally light in its orchestration but turns out more impassioned. A nearly five-minute pan flute solo with gentle synth backing, “Unrecognised Genius” can’t avoid comparisons with Ennio Morricone’s masterful Once Upon a Time in America. However, the fact that Kanno’s composition is as moving – and arguable melodically more complex – than Morricone’s work speaks volumes about her melodic genius. Again, her choice of solo instrument is inspired, as it does evoke a sense of ancient history, but again using timbres not usually heard in games set in medieval Japan.
What “Unrecognised Genius” also proves is Kanno’s desire to develop her compositions beyond the confines of what was often feasible within game music at the time. Her compositions on Haouden run significantly longer than those on Bushou Fuuunroku. Also, many of the chiptune and live versions of that earlier soundtrack’s pieces were fairly similar. That’s not the case on Haouden. Here, Kanno usually opens her live piece by stating the melodic material of the respective chiptune cue, but then deviates significantly, composing entirely new material.
Setting the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden soundtrack further apart from typical period scores are a couple of compositions where synthesisers play a significant role. “Gathering Under the Pleiades” is the soundtrack’s most intriguing concoction. It pits a quena solo against a subdued, yet curiously unsettled synth background that doesn’t evoke benign starry skies, but instead an unsettling view of the otherworld. The cue’s heady effect is quite unexpected, and its emotional pull – pitting man against a threatening universe – is as strong as anything Kanno creates on this album. Closing vocal piece “Comet” evokes the same sense of uneasy wonder, evoking a similar mood to “Sóra” from Kanno’s Escaflowne: The Movie. If there is one thing that sets Haouden apart from previous Nobunaga’s Ambition scores then, it’s the album breadth of moods, ranging from the comical to the cosmic – achieving a sense of sweeping scale through unusual means.
That being said, Kanno does deliver some good old-fashioned orchestral bombast on the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden soundtrack as well. Album bookends “Supreme Ruler Introduction” and “Morning Bell” showcase how quickly Kanno has matured since Bushou Fuuunroku. Both compositions are full of youthful Sturm und Drang – sample the Tchaikovskian pathos of “Supreme Ruler Introduction”’s piano concerto-style introduction. Later on, rhythmically complex contrapuntal motions in the deep strings provide surprisingly hard-edged, exciting counterpoint to the romantic lead melody. However, it’s also here that the album’s most significant drawback becomes obvious. The recording sounds boxy and muddy, particularly affecting the album’s richly layered and densely orchestrated pieces. It’s a shortcoming that befalls many soundtracks recorded on Japanese soundstages and not a big surprise, but it’s still hard not to wish for a better representation of Kanno’s stellar work.
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that a composition like “Morning Bell” is among the greatest orchestral game music cues ever written, a piece of nearly symphonic scale that flows with astonishing confidence as it takes its theme through an impressive number of variations. Haouden’s remaining orchestral pieces are less breathtaking but still substantial. “Rainy Desolation” reprises the piano concerto-format, with an agitated string melody backed by a tightly woven piano line, sublimating the cue’s emotional turmoil into music of great elegance and riveting emotional tension.
“Destructive Army” is a fairly straightforward take on its chiptune equivalent. However, Kanno clads the cue’s relatively thin material in sufficiently dramatic orchestrations while also varying the composition’s substance just enough (the fact that the mid-section’s urging rhythms effectively pay homage to Richard Wagner’s perennial favourite “Ride of the Valkyries” helps). Interestingly, “Destructive Army” is the only battle cue on the album – then again, even the soundtrack’s longer chiptune equivalents only had three action pieces. It’s another sign that Kanno’s approach to scoring the Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise’s period setting kept changing, producing ever more intriguing results.
- 01 - Supreme Ruler Introduction Kanno, Yoko 3:22
- 02 - Unrecognised Genius Kanno, Yoko 4:58
- 03 - Blue Whitecaps Kanno, Yoko 4:10
- 04 - Beyond the Auspicious Clouds Kanno, Yoko 4:03
- 05 - Rainy Desolation Kanno, Yoko 1:39
- 06 - Destructive Army Kanno, Yoko 2:37
- 07 - Days of Sunshine Kanno, Yoko 2:43
- 08 - Gathering Under the Pleiades Kanno, Yoko 3:43
- 09 - Morning Bell Kanno, Yoko 5:42
- 10 - Comet Kanno, Yoko 3:34
- 11 - Unrecognised Genius (Reprise) Kanno, Yoko 1:52