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Between different worlds – Locating “Finland” in Final Fantasy V Dear Friends

by Lasse Lehtonen

I still vividly remember how surprised I was when, more than 20 years ago, I first popped Final Fantasy V Dear Friends (1993) into my CD player. I was expecting to hear the energetic main theme with its iconic harp, strings and trumpet. Instead, the CD started with joik from Lapland – followed by a piece that begins with a kantele solo! Indeed, Dear Friends is one of the few game music albums to feature kantele and joik. But is there anything ‘Finnish’ about the album?

When Nobuo Uematsu came to Helsinki to record the arrangement album of the fifth entry in the Final Fantasy series, only a handful of Finns would have recognised his name. At that time, Final Fantasy was almost completely unknown to Finnish players, most of whom would only have encountered the title in imported game magazines. Today, this feels somewhat amazing, considering that Final Fantasy has become an internationally popular franchise that has made Uematsu himself a global superstar of game music (for example, his compositions have been listed in the Classic FM Hall of Fame since 2012). A visit to Finland would certainly not go unnoticed now, but times were different 30 years ago.  

It was probably just as unknown over here at the time that in Japan people had been performing video game music at concerts and releasing it on CD for several years. The Final Fantasy series, generally praised for Uematsu’s music, was no exception. Since its first instalments, it had become customary to release an official arrangement album of the music – a CD where tunes from the original game soundtrack were arranged as entire, stand-alone musical pieces for live instruments or advanced synthesisers. Dear Friends contains both approaches: recordings of Finnish musicians and synthesiser music produced in Japan.  

While the internet today is full of arrangements by fans, created in a plethora of styles, in the past an official arrangement album was often the only context where you could hear the music arranged for live instruments. Because of this, the choice of style and approach on those albums carried authority. With its elements of folk music, Dear Friends is a natural continuation from the previous arrangement album in the series, Final Fantasy IV Celtic Moon (1991), which was recorded in Ireland (Uematsu is known to be a fan of Celtic music). The following entry, Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale (1994) broke the chain of folk music arrangements, being recorded with the Milan Symphony Orchestra at Teatro alla Scala – obviously inspired by the iconic opera scene of the game.  

But one has to ask: why Final Fantasy V and Finland? While many might be familiar with the recent Japanese ‘Finland Boom’ – something we touched on in our previous Special Feature about musical connections between Finland and Japan – Finland and its ‘Nordic lifestyle’ were certainly not as cool in the Japan of the early 1990s that was just beginning to recover from a historical economic crash. And is there anything ‘Finnish’ about Dear Friends or Final Fantasy V in the first place?   

Kantele with joik and Finnish musicians

Virtually anyone familiar with the music scene in Finland will notice that the Japanese production team of Dear Friends knew what they were doing. For one, the album was recorded at the legendary Finnvox Studios in Helsinki, which is where countless internationally acclaimed Finnish musical acts from metal music to pop have made their recordings. The list of participating musicians consists of both veterans and rising stars, including names that almost anyone familiar with the Finnish music scene will recognise: Pekka Kuorikoski (fiddle), Jarmo Havukainen (guitar), Timo Väänänen (kantele), Angelin tytöt (later Angelit; vocals), Perttu Paappanen (accordion), Pekka Hemmi (production manager)…  

In fact, it appears that it was the preference to use these particular musicians that inspired the decision to record the album in Helsinki. In the liner notes of Dear Friends, Uematsu explains that there were two reasons for him to record in Finland. The first was the kantele, whose sound fascinated the composer. The second was the joik group Angelin tytöt. Uematsu notes that he took pride in the fact that Dear Friends was probably the first to officially introduce the group to Japanese audiences.

Add to this mix the use of synthesisers and Finnish musicians playing various acoustic instruments, and we have an eclectic combination of cultures. This is best exemplified in ‘My Home, Sweet Home’, which Angelin tytöt sing in both English and Sámi to the accompaniment of the kantele, with a joik part toward the end of the song. While both the kantele and joik are stereotypically seen as ‘Finnish’, the reality is more complex. The joik is specifically a cultural practice of the Sámi people of Lapland, the northern part of the Nordic countries, while the kantele – albeit having evolved into an important symbol of Finnishness – belongs to a broader family of instruments in the Baltic region. Uematsu himself notes that he only learned about the oppression of the Sámi by the Finnish state after coming to Finland.

Screenshot of the scene with ‘Waltz Suomi’ playing in Final Fantasy V (1992) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. © Squaresoft

An encounter of several worlds 

While the ‘Finnishness’ of the kantele and joik in particular can certainly be questioned, to me it seems that Dear Friends does not, in fact, aim at evoking a particularly Finnish mood. ‘Finland’ seems to be symbolised by the soft and soothing sound of acoustic instruments and vocals – a perfect match for Uematsu’s observation about Finland being a “simple and modest” country with a people who do not have to worry about the anxieties of such a competitive society as Japan. There is certainly something healing about the kantele in ‘Lenna’s Theme’, and one can almost sense being calmed by being in a Nordic forest while listening to the meditative Sámi-language narration in ‘As I Feel, You Feel’ (a track which in the game does actually play in a forest scene).

This tenderness is especially underlined when constantly contrasted with the more aggressive synthesiser pieces such as the quirky ‘Pirates Ahoy’, the strange ‘Intension of the Heart’, the dreamy ‘Fate in Haze’ and the destructive ‘Musica Machina’. These are highly surprising choices to be featured on an arrangement album in the first place, considering that the soundtrack of Final Fantasy V boasts significantly catchier tunes, including such classics as ‘Battle of the Big Bridge’. 

But perhaps this mismatch was intentional. It seems to underline the combination that the use of kantele and joik already represents: a merging of worlds that lie far apart. In this interpretation, the musical narrative of Dear Friends is in fact true to the story of the game as well. The world of Final Fantasy V has been split into two in the past, only to be reunited during the events of the game. The music of Dear Friends – with its international team of producers and musicians, eclectic stylistic choices, strong emotional contrasts and surprising combinations of instruments – represent a similar merger. Whether Uematsu and his production team actually had this in mind may, of course, remain open to speculation; but true or not, this interpretation does add a fascinating layer to the album.  

While Dear Friends is thus more about a mixture of elements than about evoking a specifically Finnish mood, there is one unmistakably ‘Finnish-style’ track on the album: ‘Waltz Suomi’ [Waltz Finland], which recalls the beloved waltzes of Oskar Merikanto. Titled ‘Waltz Tycoon in F Major’ on the original soundtrack of Final Fantasy V, in the game the music accompanies elegant dancing at a royal banquet in the kingdom of Tycoon. By contrast, ‘Waltz Suomi’, scored for a small ensemble of acoustic instruments, evokes an image of a Finnish open-air dance pavilion – a special feature of Finnish folk culture, particularly in the countryside. Transforming the royal banquet to a casual gathering where one can simply enjoy life, the song perfectly reflects Uematsu’s observation of Finland as a plain and laid-back country with a people who are similarly relaxed in their non-competitive society. In this respect, Dear Friends certainly embodies a meeting of worlds.

Featured photo: Cover of the first edition of Final Fantasy V Dear Friends. © Squaresoft