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draqq_zyxx The meaning of life is to be aware.
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Title: Gagaku and Japanese Indigenous Instruments in Game Design
Posted: December 12, 2006 (07:51 AM)
So what has been going on with me lately? Academic projects and whatnot. Here I present a respectable (read: unnecessarily long) paper for Japanese court music class. However, perhaps it will open your eyes to a untapped world of music that has worked in game design but only for a spare few games, which just happen to be masterpieces.

Gagaku and Japanese Indigenous Instruments in Game Design

Gagaku instruments and Japanese indigenous instruments are not often used in mass mediums and even less so in video games. Their rare presence in a soundtrack is usually confined to simply identifying the work it is in to be set either in Japan's medieval history or ancient Japanese folklore. However, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Okami are not only examples of video games that are heralded as seminal works, but also clear examples of the effective use of gagaku instruments and their history in an interactive craft. Through the synergy of gameplay and music, they suggest that relatively unknown instruments can do more than just line the scene.

Due to the foreign nature of gagaku instruments to audiences outside of Japan, it is understandable that game developers, let alone most art mediums on the international market, do not want to include them. Sufficient knowledge of these court instruments is not common even on the local streets of Japan. Furthering the hesitation of game developers is the assumption that these instruments are so unusual in melodic form that they will distract from the game's artistic vision.

Alluding to a Japanese myth about a son who leaves his father with a sword, a bow, and a mystical instrument, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time surrounds a story about a boy named Link who must leave his village in the forest and fight the impending darkness in the land of Hyrule with a sword, a shield, and a fairy ocarina. The kingdom of Hyrule, inspired by the medieval ages of Western Europe, is a world filled with knights, castles, and open plains, so an ocarina is dangerously idiosyncratic. Relics of Japanese court music before the 7th century reveal that the ken, a clay flute or ocarina with several small holes, was practiced.

However, pairing the mysterious qualities of the myth and the relic's history, the ocarina in The Ocarina of Time has incredible powers that manage to fit inside the Westernized game environment. Link can learn supernatural melodies such as The Song of Storms, which can cause a thunderstorm to appear; Zelda's Lullaby, which can prove his connection to the royal family, thereby removing magical seals with the royal crest; and the Sun's Song, which can control the rising and setting of the sun.

Further into the game, Link finds Zelda escaping on horseback from the clutches of the evil wizard Ganondorf and sees her throwing the sacred royal treasure into the nearby riverbed. Jumping into the river, he discovers that the treasure is the Ocarina of Time, implying that an ancient gagaku instrument is considered royalty. More than this, the Ocarina of Time can move the flow of time back and forth, allowing Link to switch between being a child and an adult. But beyond these gameplay mechanics, much attention was given to the ocarina despite it being in game form. The ocarina has the same shape and same amount of holes as the ken artifact, and though players can play everyone note on the chromatic scale, each mystical melody are made of notes on the pentatonic scale, common to Oriental pieces. With attention to detail and seamlessness between foreign music and innovative interactivity, the Ocarina of Time shows that even an unfamiliar gagaku instrument can be put on center stage.

Whereas the use of a Japanese indigenous instrument in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would be considered an additional element that is central to the player's progression through the game, Okami (pronounced in Japanese as Ôkami) does not give gagaku instruments any main role, but treats them more seriously and with more subtlety as soundtrack music. On first impressions, an American observer would be surprised to find Okami on store shelves, mainly due to its subject matter. Furthermore, though American game critics expound on its exquisite scroll-painted graphics that envelop its ancient Japanese setting with strong watercolors and fluid brushstrokes, in addition to the its simplistic yet refined gameplay, they are unable to comment much on the game's storyline and music, which are both deeply rooted in Japanese mythology and culture.

Released in October 2007, Okami is a story about the wolf reincarnation of the Shinto god Amaterasu, and is a vivid re-interpretation of the famous legend between Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and her husband-brother Susanoo, The Storm God. The original myth details that one night, the Sun Goddess was so offended by the conduct of her uncouth husband-brother, who had destroyed her rice fields and even defecated in her palance, that she retreated into a cave, blocked its entrance by a boulder, and refused to reappear. As the whole world was plunged into darkness with the sun's disappearance, the other deities, particularly the goddess of entertainment Ame no uzume no mikoto, devised a lewd dance to lure her back out. With the divine music piquing the goddess's interest, she peeked out from her cave, but once she did, the god of power Tajikarao no mikoto, lifted the boulder with his powerful muscles and brought back the sun's light to the world.

Many Japanese court musicians pinpoint this Shinto myth as the origins of Japanese musical culture; however, only bits and pieces of this myth have been faithfully resurrected in Okami. Instead, the game rightfully focuses on deconstructing the original story and reassembling it into a plot that would appeal to both Japanese and American audiences without subjecting them to a myth that is heavily steeped in religious belief. Still, Okami utilizes numerous events, both historical and ritual, that are important to gagaku culture, and while the intersection between gagaku practice and commercial game is not directly presented, the connections are still present.

Extending the original myth, Japanese emperors claimed that they had the divine birth-right to ascend the throne, as the direct descendent of the Sun Goddess. The Shinto legend goes that Ninigi, a grandson of the Sun Goddess, settled in northern Kyûshû, bringing with him the three sacred imperial regalia: a mirror, a sword, and a jewel magatama. These three items were then passed down to Ninigi's grandson, who in turn fought his way successfully to Yamato, where as Emperor Jimmu, he founded the imperial line.

The current royal ceremony of accession of a new Japanese emperor involves the ritual inheritance of the three sacred items, and Okami does not fail to give these three items importance in its gameplay, perhaps unknowingly adding a touch of modernity in their inclusion. Looking at the big picture, this game brings all forms of Japanese culture together and elevates them as a new artform.

As most action-adventure titles, Okami is a rather long adventure that takes about 70 hours to complete, and so it is unlikely that any player would sit in one position and play this game for hours on end, or keep the game on as they slept. Save points, which are specific places in the game world that allow the player to save their progress, are commonly used to allow the game to be finished in multiple sittings. Where many games simply manifest save points as some random object like a save stone or crystal, Okami replaces the save points with a mirror, which is also a symbol of the sun. Additionally, if Okami Amaterasu touches one of these mirror, its power which reflects the rays of the sun or moon restores the wolf's health and magical powers.

As for the sword and the jewel, their presence has equal significance as allusions to Japanese myth. In Shinto belief, Susanoo discovered the sacred "herb-quelling great sword" in the body of a giant eight-headed serpent. This fearsome serpent, which the game names Orochi, is the main reason why Amaterasu has been brought back into the world. The game retells its own legend, in which the people revered Okami, a god who would fly through the fields like the wind and watch over the life that filled the verdant lands. One fateful night, however, Orochi, who had been sealed away since time long past, was resurrected and swallowed the world of the plants, animals and people until he engulfed even the sun itself in darkness. In Okami's quest to restore light in the world, she encounters a lazy warrior also by the name of Susano, except with the last syllable removed, who claims to be Japan's greatest warrior despite his lamentable work ethic. Fortunately with her help, Susano is able to wield the sacred sword of his descendants and slay Orochi in his lair. In addition, the strongest weapon that Okami can hold is a magical glaive or a large, wide sword that can be slung from her back.

After the eight-headed serpent is slain, Okami travels the countryside to the imperial city of Sei-an. Here, the last sacred item, the jewel, refers to Queen Himiko's crystal ball. Finding the way into her palace and into her chamber-room reveals that Queen Himiko is hidden from her people, even from her castle guards and attendants; this isolation indicative of her time period is recreated surprisingly well. The crystal ball allows her to see into the near future, which gives you information about evil's whereabouts.

These numerous references to Japanese myths lack specific reference to musical instruments, but they create an atmosphere in which these instruments can come to life, beyond just the story. Okami is also a symbol of the religious synergy between Buddhism and Shintoism. Specifically, the wolf's spirit is that of Raigo, or the Buddha's coming. Wherever Okami walks, the grass and flowers beneath her feet begin to grow and a beautiful fragrance leaves behind her in a trail of sparkling dust as she runs across the field. In fact, much of the player's goal is to purify the land from the cursed darkness that Orochi leaves in its wake. Traveling across Nippon, Okami frequently finds cursed zones where trees have been blackened, soil has been spoiled, and rivers have been polluted. By restoring Guardian Saplings, or large Sakura Trees spread throughout the land, Okami can revive the defiled earth and create the beautiful world of Amitabha Buddha, under the Pure Land belief. Every time Okami visits a cursed zone, melodies in minor keys that exude sadness and threat play to reflect the blackened landscape. But once her divine powers renew a Guardian Sapling, a cut-scene appears showing the land being restored in waves of color and a radiant melody played in a major key exemplifies the glory of her divine intervention by ending with an arpeggio from a koto.

The inclusion of gagaku instruments, however, is more than what this relatively minor example shows. Along her adventure through the forest, Okami encounters a prophet named Waka, which might refer to the literary waka, a poem written by the streamside. As a member of what the game calls the Moon Tribe, an ancient group of people whose charge is to guide the gods back to the celestial plane, Waka does not appear in physical form first, but alerts to his presence through the melody of a tranverse flute. Whether this flute is a ryuteki, komabue, or kagura-bue is difficult to discern; however, it is clear that the game is enforcing the symbolic reference of the flute to a prophet, which is a symbolic reference that comes from the beginnings of Japanese court music. Players hear a flute playing "Enter Waka" at certain stages in the adventure and are thereby alerted that Waka is about to appear with a mysterious augury of the future. At times, the sword-wielding prophet also bids you to fight against him, and during these trials, Waka's ryuteki theme is combined with a spirited drum beat and fast koto and shimasen melodies to form the piece "Playing with Waka" to indicate the intensity of the battle.

Environmentally, gagaku instruments can also indicate the social class of a particular quarter, as is with the separation of Sei-an City into the two areas: the aristocratic quarter and the common's quarter. Okami first enters the fictional capital city through the common's quarter, a squared town full of hustle and bustle with merchants, restaurants, parks, and trade shops. Percussion instruments, a low cello line, and a ryuteki melody line main comprise the theme for this area. By contrast, once Okami crosses the bridge over the lake and enters the aristocratic quarter, the background theme opens with the shô, and similar to the commonly practiced "Netori," the hichiriki and koto follow in suit. Entering Queen Himiko's palace also changes the music to a theme that extensively uses the shô and hichiriki. By carefully choosing the selection of instruments, the game's soundtrack implies that the aristocrats and the empress have private gagaku performances. In fact, Okami will find kotos organized across the floors of the aristocrats' home. This reflects the elitist air of the aristocratic quarter, considering the symbolic reference of strings being revered as instruments that are more closely associated to the gods than woodwinds and percussion instruments.

It is minute splashes of musical interest like this that help polish the game's aesthetics. Several imps, small monkey-like enemies that litter the battlefield, unexpectedly carry instruments. Green imps prance around with ryutekis; red imps use biwas to shield themselves from your attacks; yellow imps carry a large Japanese hand drum to create waves of earth; and black imps tap their hands on san no tsuzumis to manipulate burning skulls that skim around the air. Moreover, when Okami runs around the house of the fortune-teller Madame Fawn, an almost forgotten gagaku instruments can be discovered: a hôkyô. The synthesized melody for this metallophone, which sounds akin to several gamelan gongs, is played when you are in her house, giving an eerie yet numinous sentiment to the environment. Spreading the fictional land of Nippon with cascades of gagaku instruments adds a cultural mystique that is undeniably unique.

Gagaku and Japanese indigenous instruments bring an exoticism and an air of sophistication that no mainstream musical medium can offer. Whether they are given the role of background music as in Okami or a key mechanic as in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, clean execution can ensure that they will blend into the game world without a glitch. Assuredly, gagaku instruments probably don't belong in a futuristic adventure or a game of which the inclusion of such instruments would cause more incompatibilities in concept than potential artistic value. However, these two video games which included these Japanese instruments have succeeded internationally both in sales and in critics' opinion. Any hesitation that gagaku instruments are too foreign should be met with action.

Gagaku artists should look to video gaming as an easy way for foreigners to experience Japanese melodies. In the same vein as Konoe Naomaru, who succeeded in translating gagaku melodies into Western tastes, video games can serve as an ambassador of culture that, as shown by Okami, does not need to be watered down or removed from its contexts for players to appreciate. Though the subtleties of gagaku instruments will probably not be perceived by the general audience, its sounds can at least be appreciated by the international public and be preserved in an emergent artform that is already immersed in Japanese culture. Gagaku music can create a powerful experience in video games and that should not be left on the table.

silverishnessUser: silverishness
Posted: December 13, 2006 (09:36 AM)
That is a very spiffy essay. And I'm very happy that you included Okami. I heart that game. I knew only minor deatils about Amaterasu and Susano, but I'm happy that you went into detail about the legends behind them and just about everything else in Okami.

My God, if only I could write essays like that!

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