(Note: Discussion of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. No major story spoilers. Vague reference to some side quests.)
Today, we’re talking waltzes! Specifically, we’re talking about waltzes in 21st century Japanese soundtracks, the kind of waltzes that manage to be moving and heart-stirring while still staying true to the melancholy of the greater works they embody.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017) sets the player adrift in a vast and often lonely world. The kingdom of Hyrule has fallen; the countryside is scattered with the ruins of garrisons and towns.
As you wander from snowy peak to storm-swept marsh, you may hear the distant strains of an accordion. Follow the music to its source, and you meet Kass, a wandering minstrel. It’s rare to see another face out here in the wilderness, and the two of you strike up a conversation. He misses his wife and children, back home in Rito Village. He fondly remembers his late teacher, who taught him ancient songs. Perhaps you’d like to hear one?
When you finally part ways, he resumes playing the same forlorn tune that led you to him:
At first, I couldn’t figure out why this theme felt so familiar. It was stuck in my head until a few days later, when, staring out a window, I figured out what I’d been missing. Kass’s theme borrows strongly from the main theme to Howl’s Moving Castle (Studio Ghibli, 2004).
Howl’s Moving Castle (based on, but departing from, the Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name) tells a story of compassion and loyalty, set against a backdrop of war. The soundtrack, composed by Joe Hisaishi, draws heavily on classical music tradition1One gorgeous track, The Boy Who Drank Stars, is prototypical 20th-century woodwind composition, moving between big sweeping chords and atonal oboe, and is, of course, very, very pretty.
The film’s main theme, “The Merry-Go-Round of Life”, has the rhythm and voicing of a Viennese waltz, but a melody more reminiscent of modern soundtracks. Jazzy minor sevenths and ninths abound2the piano chords at 1:16 of the video above get me every time, complementing the early 20th-century cultural era the movie’s fantasy setting loosely draws from. The main musical line (e.g. 0:12-0:37 of the video above) ends on a dominant chord in a way that feels almost like a satisfying resolution3Indeed, the brief excursion to “D major” at 1:28-1:32 of the video above treats it as exactly that. Hisaishi’s writing draws strongly on classical traditions but is not beholden to them.
The main lines of each theme sound fascinatingly similar.
All this got me thinking how to compare the two. Breath of the Wild‘s art direction has drawn many Studio Ghibli comparisons (1, 2), with its plush oil-painting vistas and gentle palettes. Indeed, much of Studio Ghibli’s work explores the connection between humans and nature. In Princess Mononoke (Studio Ghibli, 1997), San and Lady Eboshi respectively represent a brutal-but-harmonious natural order and a cold-but-progressive industrial programme4Magic: the Gathering fans might call this a blue-green duality. My Neighbour Totoro (Studio Ghibli, 1988) and When Marnie was There (Studio Ghibli, 2014) open with moves to the countryside from the city; the protagonists’ (relative) solitude and exploration of nature is intertwined with introspective character development. Breath of the Wild trades in similar themes: much of the game’s emotional aesthetic is one of child-alone-in-nature:: exploration and discovery and trepidation and growth.
That said, I can’t say there’s particularly much in Howl’s Moving Castle that evokes these themes. Perhaps chalk this all up to coincidence.
Anyway, at writing I haven’t yet explored all the game’s content, so I was quite delighted to discover that the player can eventually befriend and help Kass. When the player has finished all Kass’s side-quests, he plays an extended version of his theme:
Delightful, no? Zelda fans may recognise the classic series Overworld theme at 1:185This is now my favourite Zelda Overworld allusion, supplanting the Wind Waker trailer theme (see 1:05 of linked video)..
I love the little bridge at 1:02-1:18 that connects Kass’s main theme to the Overworld theme. It fits the accordion ballad genre well; its chord progression6”Paganini-esque”? is angst and carthasis given form; it builds up to the Overworld theme and makes it sound really triumphant.
Anyway, compare that bridge to 1:50-2:08 of the Howl’s Moving Castle theme. Similar, no? It may be a coincidence, but it’s a very pretty and emotionally resonant coincidence.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||One gorgeous track, The Boy Who Drank Stars, is prototypical 20th-century woodwind composition, moving between big sweeping chords and atonal oboe|
|2.||↑||the piano chords at 1:16 of the video above get me every time|
|3.||↑||Indeed, the brief excursion to “D major” at 1:28-1:32 of the video above treats it as exactly that|
|4.||↑||Magic: the Gathering fans might call this a blue-green duality|
|5.||↑||This is now my favourite Zelda Overworld allusion, supplanting the Wind Waker trailer theme (see 1:05 of linked video).|