Ihatovo Monogatari Soundtrack, Tsukasa Tawada, 1993
Looking at Japanese developer Hect’s gameography, it’s easy to assume they produced few titles that were in any noteworthy, instead focusing on undistinguished simulation games. But look more closely, and you’ll find Moon Crystal, a surprisingly polished NES platformer, released in 1992. And then there’s the following year’s Ihatovo Monogatari, easily Hect’s most ambitious – and unusual – release. An adventure purely built around exploration – no riddles, battles or other interruptions present – Ihatovo Monogatari was based on Japanese author Kenji Miyazawa’s writings. The game’s locations and characters drew upon several of Miyazawa’s stories, while “Ihatovo” was a made-up word Miyazawa had created to refer to a rural utopia inspired by his hometown of Iwate. Naturally only released in Japan, Ihatovo Monogatari’s distinctive nature has seen it continuously garnering praise as one of the SNES’ hidden gems.
Few of the online reviews praising Ihatovo Monogatari years after its initial release fail to mention the game’s soundtrack and for good reason, as it truly is one of the 16-bit era’s most intriguing scores. It was the work of Tsukasa Tawada, who by 1993 had already amassed a significant body of work on the NES, Game Boy and TurboGrafx. However, not much of his discography stood out much – his most substantial works so far had been Earth Defense Force, the SNES port of Dungeon Master (written with Hikoshi Hashimoto) and the aforementioned Moon Crystal. However, Ihatovo Monogatari catapulted Tawada into the limelight – his following assignments would include sound designer on the Dragon Quest franchise, before becoming one of Nintendo’s go-to composers for Pokémon games. And clearly, the Ihatovo Monogatari soundtrack still holds special meaning for Tawada, made evident by his 2019 piano arrangements uploaded to his Youtube channel.
Like for his colleagues at Hect, there must have been something about this project that inspired Tawada to go above and beyond – there really isn’t anything in his body of work that resembles the Ihatovo Monogatari soundtrack. Opening track “Title” already indicates that this score is something special. An elating violin lead proceeds with strong, regular accents, giving the melody a ceremonial, almost spiritual quality. Underneath, a lively flute ostinato bubbles along in an ear-catchingly different meter than the lead melody, while the brass provide soft chordal support. The result is music that feels simultaneously regal, welcoming and playful – a surprisingly complex mix of emotions that Tawada will mine throughout the score.
Indeed, his imaginative orchestrations and harmonic structures – mixed with excellent melodic sensibilities – make the Ihatovo Monogatari soundtrack such a delight. Take “Volcano Centre”, the score’s most fascinating and best-developed cue. It shares its feeling of wistfulness with several other compositions on the score, but at the same time drifts through a haze of surreal calm. Tawada perfects one of his signature techniques here that helps lend the soundtrack its peculiar character. His melodic and rhythmic progressions are fairly even and predictable – but what makes “Volcano Centre” so spellbinding are the heady chromatic intervals Tawada generates as his woodwind melodies harmonise. “Snow Passage Village” takes this approach further still, relying almost entirely on the hypnotic, repetitive melodic motion of its harmonising flute lines, which thankfully prove haunting rather than tiresome.
These pieces are a good showcase for how Tawada’s work manages to combine earthiness with hints of an otherworldly, dream-like state – very much appropriate, given the magical realism of Miyazawa’s books. Like Ihatovo Monogatari’s visuals, Tawada’s music doesn’t imbue the game with as strong a sense of surrealism as one might expect, considering the nature of their literary inspiration. However, the music still inhabits a world very few other game scores of its era do.
For example, the gorgeously pastoral melodies of “Ihatovo City” initially mark the composition as a first-rate, if stylistically typical RPG town theme. But then Tawada passes the melody to divided violins playing in their highest registers, creating a glistening string tone that subtly tweaks the music’s initially homey atmosphere into something more removed and elusive. “Kenjuu’s Village 1” uses a similar approach, cladding its plaintive harmonica lead in loads of echo – so its usually down-to-earth tone falls in line with the spaciousness suggested by the distant strings. Again, the result is a successful combination of contrasts – music that sounds lonesome yet hopeful.
What “Ihatovo City” and “Kenjuu Village 1” also evidence is the influence of folk and pop music on some of the soundtrack’s melodies – something that “Romantic Movie” brings to a head. The track turns out to be a country-rock ballad, with its acoustic guitar lead and deep rumbling bass. Such contemporary sounds are a surprise, but they fit very well into the Ihatovo Monogatari soundtrack’s stylistic palette that Tawada has carefully developed. “Music Festival” uses another popular musical format, this time to highlight the score’s underlying sense of nostalgia – a waltz. First heard on a play organ that evokes the carnivals of yore, the cue switches (somewhat abruptly) to an orchestral waltz, made intriguing once more by Tawada’s melodies and attention to detail. Listen to how the string pizzicati play on the third rather than first beat, keeping the often rigid rhythms of the ¾ waltz meter enticingly off-kilter.
Occasionally, the score also travels into darker regions – those places of Ihatovo Monogatari’s world that are furthest removed from the cosiness and hospitality suggested by most of the music. “Cave” wonderfully evokes its eerie location through gleaming strings and an oboe melody that sounds like a bird call echoing in the darkness. More interesting still is “Phenomenon IV”, which turns the score’s dreamy mood nightmarish through the spectral unease of its static, dissonant violin chords – and yet there are enough hints of melodicism to soften the edges of this harsh composition. Closing track “Galaxy Express” then marks a return from the unsettling beyond to the here and now, as another splendid oboe melody – leading violins and solo cello – bids farewell. And when that last nostalgic oboe note finally fades away, it’s hard not to feel that Tawada has perfectly encapsulated Miyazawa’s “Ihatovo” – the sweet yet impossible yearning for utopia.
- 01 - Title Tawada, Tsukasa 1:46
- 02 - Ihatovo City Tawada, Tsukasa 3:22
- 03 - Fire Stone Forest Tawada, Tsukasa 1:32
- 04 - Cave Tawada, Tsukasa 2:10
- 05 - Kenjuu's Village 1 Tawada, Tsukasa 2:22
- 06 - Kenjuu's Village 2 Tawada, Tsukasa 2:22
- 07 - Volcano Center Tawada, Tsukasa 3:49
- 08 - Music Festival Tawada, Tsukasa 2:58
- 10 - Snow Passage Village Tawada, Tsukasa 2:15
- 11 - Phenomenon IV Tawada, Tsukasa 2:29
- 12 - Galaxy Express Tawada, Tsukasa 2:33