Soundtrack Central The best classic game music and more

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layzee Aug 17, 2016 (edited Aug 17, 2016)

The Oriental riff, also known as the Asian riff, is a musical riff or phrase that has often been used in Western culture as a trope or stereotype of orientalism to represent the idea of the Orient, China, Japan or a generic East Asian theme. The riff is sometimes accompanied by the sound of a gong.

When this riff is used by Westerners, I cannot help but cringe, even if it is supposedly a Western invention. A similar analogy would be non-Asian people and tattooing Chinese/Japanese characters on themselves. Similar cringe response from me for that scenario.

But when I hear it in (Japanese) game music, I don't cringe as much. Often quite the contrary, the Chinese riff seems to be incorporated in a more tasteful manner (usually). The best example would probably be "China Town" by Yuzo Koshiro from Bare Knuckle/Streets of Rage. Also, on that note, when I hear the "East Asian" riff, I very specifically associate China with it, not Japan, not any other East Asian country. It seems like Japanese composers agree because whenever they do use the "Oriental Riff", it almost always has a China/Chinese-related context in-game.

Here's a short list of Chinese Riffs in game music (yes, I merely did a search for "China" in my library. I'm not about to go searching through the whole thing):

China Town (by Yuzo Koshiro from Bare Knuckle)
Battle in China (by Yoko Shimomura from Live-A-Live)
China - Stage 8 (by Jaleco from City Connection)
Crowded Downtown Stage -China- (by Hideyuki Fukasawa from Street Fighter IV)
An Old Soldier (by Hyakutaro Tsukumo from Haganebushi)
China (by Takayuki Nakamura from OutRun)

Now for two avenues of discussion.

The first avenue of discussion: So far, we've established that the "Oriental Riff" is a riff that Westerners associates "Asia" (at worst) or "China" to (at best) while Japanese, I'm guessing, associates China and China only. If the Oriental Riff is truly a Chinese Riff in practice, then what is the Japanese version of an oriental riff? What is a short musical riff or phrase that would have you respond "you can't get any more Japanese than that!" If the Oriental Riff is a stereotype Chinese sound, then what is the stereotype Japanese sound?

I can offer two suggestions:

1) Ondo

Ondo (音頭 Ondō?) is a type of Japanese folk music genre.

The "Ondo" is easily identified in the first few seconds by its drumming and I think Shakuhachi (Japanese flute). The flute might be substituted with another instrument but the drum is always there.

Here are a few examples (yes, I took the lazy route again and did a search for "ondo"):

DoDonPachi Dai-Ondo (by Natsuko Naitou from DO-DON-PACHI DAI-FUKKATSU)
Persona Ondo (by Takehito Koyasu from Persona 2 Innocent Sin)
Choi Bounge Ondo (from The King of Fighters)
Through the Day (by Falcom Sound Team jdk from VM Japan)
VM March (by Falcom Sound Team jdk from VM Japan)

2) "Super Sentai" music

For an explanation/more info, check the thread here: … mes/tp6893

In this case, it's less about an actual identifiable riff/phrase and more about "style" or "feeling". When I hear Super Sentai-style music, I think "well this is obviously Japanese".

The second avenue of discussion: is there in reality a difference between "Chinese-sounding" music and "Japanese-sounding" music? You could say, "well of course there is you *****! traditional Japanese songs have like your typical Shamisens and stuff and as for traditional Chinese music, you can't get any more Chinese than the Erhu (violin)."

Okay, but this being a video game music forum, suppose we're now dealing with 8-bit/16-bit chiptune music. Can the unique-ness of traditional Japanese music and traditional Chinese music be retained? Or does their individual styles become so downgraded/diluted that they end up falling under one umbrella: "traditional Oriental-sounding music"? In the case of chiptune, it's obviously less a question of instruments and more a question of style, riff, phrasing.

Let's use an example: Live-A-Live. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of the game whatsoever, as long as you're not completely ignorant about music or the world in general, you should be able to identify one set of songs as being Japanese-sounding (the Ninja scenario music) and the other set of songs as being Chinese-sounding (the Kung-Fu master chapter music) - even if you ignore the "Oriental Riff". While you're at it, you might as well identify another set of songs as being "Spaghetti Western Cowboy"-sounding (the uhh, Spaghetti Western Cowboy chapter).

It's completely obvious that Yoko Shimomura had a look at the Ninja and Kung-Fu chapters of the game and she thought "okay, I'm going to make this Japanese-sounding and this one Chinese-sounding" even if they might sound the same to Westerners or look the same (Ancient China vs Feudal Era Japan) to Westerners.

Though to be fair, using Live-A-Live is a bit cheating because the Ninja music does indeed use synthesised Shamisens and Taikos (drums) so that hint helps the differentiation/identification.

So this avenue of discussion is mainly for the Asian music experts. What makes Japanese-sounding music Japanese-sounding and Chinese-sounding music Chinese-sounding to you? Or even, what makes them the same, if you're that way inclined. Try to answer this question without reference to Japanese or Chinese instruments.

TerraEpon Aug 17, 2016

Slightly off topic to this, but did you ever read this (which is linked from your first Wikipedia link) ? It's a great look into the history of the 'riff'.

layzee May 3, 2018

layzee wrote:

Ondo (音頭 Ondō)

DoDonPachi Dai-Ondo (by Natsuko Naitou from DO-DON-PACHI DAI-FUKKATSU)
Persona Ondo (by Takehito Koyasu from Persona 2 Innocent Sin)
Choi Bounge Ondo (from The King of Fighters)
Through the Day (by Falcom Sound Team jdk from VM Japan)
VM March (by Falcom Sound Team jdk from VM Japan)

More game music examples here: … tcount=123

This particular set of notes is obviously an integral part of Japanese culture.

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