Review Summary: Nobuo Uematsu visits his Final Fantasy.
In 1947, renowned English author J.R.R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame) published a sixty-page essay within the confines of a festschrift volume entitled "Essays Presented to Charles Williams". The essay, entitled "On Fairy Stories", was Tolkien's attempt to explain and defend the genre of fairy tales (or Märchen) - a form of writing which he felt had been gradually and undeservedly relegated to become mere “stories for children” over time. In furthering his defense of the realm of Märchen, Tolkien presents three essential touchstones of the authentic fairy tale: he writes that derivative works of the genre are always a.) presented as wholly credible; b.) a form of escapist pleasure, and c.) wholly capable of providing moral or emotional consolation through their happy ending - an event which he terms "eucatastrophe". I will posit here that compliance to the archetype of Märchen is where Nobuo Uematsu's 10 Short Stories
finds its final, eternal niche - even if it is in no way of the form that Tolkien intended to defend back in 1947.
10 Short Stories
was initially conceived as a solo project to celebrate Uematsu's 50th birthday, and strongly reflects his (newfound) freedom to decide on the direction of an album of his for the first time. As Uematsu (who is perhaps best-known as the long-time composer of the Final Fantasy video game soundtracks) himself explained during an interview, "I am often expected to create serious classically-oriented works. However, this isn't really my true character and I wanted to create something that reflects my underlying enthusiasm instead. As a result, I took a very light-hearted and comical approach throughout 10 Short Stories
". This purposeful intent of creating a ball of cheerful fuzz certainly looms large over several parts of the album: for example, during the final third of opener "Here Comes Conga Boy", a child who sounds like he's got his lips wrapped around the back teeth randomly appears and mumbles, "But how can you be so sure, my pretty?". It's odd to be sure; yet the truly remarkable thing is that the whole affair comes across as being wholly credible, and completely believable.
Apart from the odd guest contribution, Japanese singer CHiCO of ACE is the main person performing singing duties on 10 Short Stories
. Her youthful voice is the perfect match for our enchanting ride through Uematsu's wonderland of conga beats, tinkling metal triangles, and Oriental swagger. She transfers from sombre to quirky to wistful without ever missing a beat, imbibing the songs' characters with a sensation that they are actually real - that they're actually there
. With her help, we find traces of the escapism that Uematsu has so delicately packaged for us: in songs like "Every New Morning", the music is breathtakingly delicate, with an overall Asian/Celtic/Folk atmosphere gently strumming in the background, and occasional intersperses of the shakuhachi and the shamisen are also thrown into the mix to add some Japanese flavor. Ultimately, it all fits in very well with the everlasting desire for simplicity in every day. Then there are the more poignant numbers: take "The Incredible Flying Natsuhiko" - a tale of two star-crossed lovers separated by the length of the Milky Way. Perhaps the most solemnly introduced tale of the lot, our promised eucatastrophe finally comes in the middle of the story (in trademark Uematsu silliness) when we are told that our story's tragic hero has fashioned a "shiny, new spaceship" which will allow him to see his beloved "each and every day (and night!)". Yet again Uematsu and Tolkien find themselves in parallel circuits.
It should also be noted somewhere that this album does the world's perception of Japanese culture no favours, filled as it is to the brim with spasms of cuteness and a method of delivery that constantly threatens the usage of Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting as subtitles. Indeed, the effect is so strong that at times, you half-expect a tambourine-wielding Hello Kitty to crawl out of your speakers a la
The Ring. In addition, if one goes for the physical version of 10 Short Stories
(I didn't), one will become the proud owner of an enhanced CD that contains animated videos to accompany each song; I've watched one, and the characters therein are barely more than sombrero-wearing potatoes with over-enthusiastic grins, with what looks like a fighting yam in the background.
Clearly, weird sh*t still comes from Japan.
But ultimately, how does 10 Short Stories
fare as an album? Now, I am not entirely sure whether Nobuo Uematsu is in any way familiar with Tolkien's landmark essay, but it almost seems as if he was building this whole album up to finish in tandem with Tolkien's storied conclusion. In other words, 10 Short Stories
is that rare thing - the oddity in your CD cabinet that you pick up and plonk in the player every time you need to be whisked away to a far-off land; it may just be the most delightful thing you hear all year - it is your personal eucatastrophy. The album captures the spirit of Tolkien's plea so perfectly that it may very well be the leading candidate to become the official score for "On Fairy Stories", should Hollywood ever decide to port it to the silver screen - so similar the two works are in fronting the three touchstones of Märchen.
The grizzly mane that Peter Jackson calls his facial hair has just turned my way, ears cocked and looking all sprightly -
I'd best get out of the way.
Author's Note: This review may also be found on my personal blog (at the address http://snuffleupagush.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/whistle-a-song-ill-sing-along/).