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Drag-on Dragoon 2: Hitori - Mika Nakashima :: Review by Chris

Drag-on Dragoon 2: Hitori - Mika Nakashima Album Title: Drag-on Dragoon 2: Hitori - Mika Nakashima
Record Label: Sony Music
Catalog No.: AICL-1616
Release Date: June 8, 2005
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


Many listeners think that vocal ballads are the most remarkable components to many Square Enix soundtracks, as reflected by extraordinary popularity of themes like "Broken Mirror," "Eyes on Me," "Melodies of Life," "Hikari," and "Treasure Chest of the Heart." This principle baffles me. Call me elitist if you wish, but I've always found the majority of such ballads skindeep. These themes seem incapable of expressing anything but the most blatant emotion in a fairly unartistic way, feature nothing spectacular instrumentally, and constantly utilise hackneyed musical formats. Do not get me wrong; I do not necessarily find them necessarily unenjoyable — they're pleasant melodically and are usually led by competent artists — but they do nothing to stir me emotionally or intellectually. Fans of pop will love them, but I was never one of those and still find the concept of wanting to buy a typical Square Enix vocal ballad single completely alien.

The generalisation that all Square Enix singles are sappy and musically boring is a little strong, as shown by a considerable string of exceptions. Parasite Eve's "Somnia Memorias" convincingly integrated an exotic feel to a vocal theme, Final Fantasy X-2's "real Emotion" and Kingdom Hearts's "Hikari - PLANITb Remix" were both impressive examples of upbeat J-Pop, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles' "Kaze No Ne" and Romancing SaGa's "Minuet" had a more organic feel, both due to unusual instrument use and the unique voices that carried them. The original Drakengard's "Exhausted" really took the biscuit for uniqueness, though, combining a fascinating and dreamy vocal line with heavily dissonant and repetitive string accompaniment. Notice the trend, though? As the themes become more experimental, intellectually stimulating, or deemphasise the concept of love, they also become less accessible.

After such an extraordinary yet often loathed predecessing vocal theme, who could predict what its successor, Drakengard 2's "Hitori," would bring? Would it be something equally strange or a more accessible creation? Did the producers learn a lesson from "Exhausted" and the rest of the original Drakengard soundtracks that avoiding oppression while experimenting is a strong idea? Whatever choice the producers made, they ran the risk of either alienating their target audience or producing a theme that betrayed the series' progressive roots and bored strange folk like me. Yet, what was achieved, in fact, did quite the opposite.


"Hitori" becomes, in many ways, Mika Nakashima's song, the album being her 15th single. This is evident from the start, as she opens the 'single version' unaccompanied, singing in her distinct style in the lower range of her wide register. Having one of the most unique voices to ever feature in a video game, Nakashima's singing is just smoky enough to represent the deeper emotion of "Hitori" and carry the meaning of the Japanese lyrics passionately, only exacerbated by some highly effective vibrato on the sustained notes, but is controlled perfectly and has a smooth and seamless quality about it that makes the range of emotions she portrays so much more convincing. Unlike so many other Square Enix singers, it feels like she is truly singing from the heart, her voice feeling passionate yet somehow helpless and desperate, entirely sincere yet avoiding sappiness through suitable restraint. The way she interprets the chorus is especially beautiful, her voice loudening and growing more intense as she reaches the highest note of the piece at the start of it, the final statement of the chorus being so rich and heartening that you're not sure whether to cheer or cry. If you're already familiar with her from various anime works and singles, expect more of the same magic.

In stark contrast to "Exhausted," the instrumentals in the single version consistently complement the vocals, mostly taking a secondary role, yet being so finely crafted by Ryoki Matsumoto and arranger Ken Shima that they become quite remarkable even in their own right, largely because of the way they impressively build up through the theme. After Nakashima enters, she is soon accompanied by slowly moving low string notes that create a certain stillness, but develop in conjunction with the singer's vocal delivery growing more intense, as a violin countermelody and some easily unheard bells elegantly float over her voice. Even with the addition of some staple drum kit samples and light piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment, the strings continue to lead, the subtle interplay of further countermelodies with the vocal line creating the most stirring and musically engaging moments of the piece, particularly as they grow more passionate and complex as Nakashima's voice grows more engaging. The instrumentals are principally responsible for the buildup to the recapitulation of the chorus, the repetition of an almost majestic string motif adding to the mixture of buoyancy and strain that is created by the conclusion. After Nakashima's voice retires, instrumentals close the piece in a brief and sensitively written passage that leaves the theme on a wonderful 'suspended' note that has so much more depth than a clearcut conclusion.

Unlike many vocal singles, this one features no secondary themes, rather alternative versions of "Hitori," but they're simply magical, so it doesn't end up being a disappointment. The 'album version' features solo piano and voice only for the first 2 minutes, but is exquisitely written, the piano providing a solid harmonic framework and also providing lots of colour with its delicate secondary melodies, constituting a simple yet highly effectual line overall. String accompaniment eventually joins, and, though constantly subdued and largely secondary to the voice and piano, they provide a certain richness as a collective force and are involved in one especially evocative moment, as a string line from the 'single version' supporting Nakashima is mirrored but in an altogether more emotionally strained way — a direct instrumental representation of the desperation that embodies the theme, showing so much passion yet so much fragility. Indeed, the bare emotional bones of the theme are more than clear in this variation, richness, purity, delicacy, and beauty all underpinning it, and it is a sorrowful yet endearing story that makes the 'single version' even more meaningful. This is the true "Hitori," free from the Pop feel that tinges the original's integrity and emotional quality just a touch.

Two instrumental renditions of the "Hitori" theme constitute the remains of the single. One is simply the 'single version' with the vocal line directly cut, while the other 'endroll' version is "Hitori" interpreted in the form of a string quartet. Are all the instrumental features of "Hitori" enough to make its 'karaoke' version a recommended experience? Well, while the chorus sounds a little empty, there is more than enough interesting features elsewhere to make this typically redundant addition to a single actually quite revealing and fairly charming, far more satisfying than most 'karaoke' themes. The 'endroll' version is more recommended, though. It is a slow and saddening representation of the theme that is almost entirely led by the principle violin, with dense counterpoint from the other string forces, until the second minute when the fine melodic progression mentioned in 'album version' occurs on the solo violin before the cellos, viola, and, eventually, the two violins together individually interpret the principle melody in a sensitive and individual way. While there is no dramatic conclusion here and the affair remains quite melancholy throughout, it's the deepest interpretation of the theme and its largely continuous feel does disguise the amount and quality of the subtle features that lie beneath.


In the creation of "Hitori" and its arrangements, a reconciliation between experimentalists and traditionalists was created. The theme succeeds in being a subtle and stirring experiment that boasts incredible melodic prowess and emotional power at the same time, while just about avoiding schmaltziness in the process. As reflected above, the key features of the single — Mika Nakashima's unique voice and flawless delivery, the complementary and powerful instrumental use, and the integration of two highly interesting alternative takes on the theme — make it an experience that can only be cherished. The only Square Enix vocal single I have ever bought, I do not regret the decision for a moment, despite the 'single version' of "Hitori" being featured in the magnificent Drag-on Dragoon 2 Original Soundtrack, another purchase of mine. Why, you ask? It's principally because the 'album version' and 'endroll version' offer elements of musical and emotional depth that the 'single version', as marvellously as it is, does not offer. And, besides, at just over $8 to buy, it's an excellent extra to ship with another order and well worth the money. Yet this single is best as an add-on, not the defining Drag-on Dragoon 2 experience, as most should definitely consider the Original Soundtrack too.

Overall Score: 8/10