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Two samurai fight in black and white in Ghost of Tsushima Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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Ghost of Tsushima, Kurosawa, and the political myth of the samurai

Unpacking the baggage of well-intentioned homage

Ghost of Tsushima opens with a grand wide shot of samurai, adorned with impressively detailed suits of armor, sitting atop their horses. There we find Jin, the protagonist, ruminating on how he will die for his country. As he traverses Tsushima, our hero fights back the invading Mongolian army to protect his people, and wrestles with the tenets of the Bushido code. Standoffs take advantage of perspective and a wide field of view to frame both the samurai and his opponent in something that, more often than not, feels truly cinematic. The artists behind the game have an equally impeccable reference point for the visuals: the works of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

“We really wanted to pay respect to the fact that this game is so totally inspired by the work of this master,” director Nate Fox said in a recent interview with IndieWire. At Entertainment Weekly, Fox explained how his team at Sucker Punch Productions suggested that the influence ran broadly, including the playable black-and-white “Kurosawa Mode” and even in picking a title. More specifically, he noted that Seven Samurai, one of Kurosawa’s most well-known works, defined Fox’s “concept of what a samurai is.” All of this work went toward the hope that players would “experience the game in a way as close to the source material as possible.”

But in embracing “Kurosawa” as an eponymous style for samurai adventures, the creatives behind Ghost of Tsushima enter into an arena of identity and cultural understanding that they never grapple with. The conversation surrounding samurai did not begin or end with Kurosawa’s films, as Japan’s current political forces continue to reinterpret history for their own benefit.

Kurosawa earned a reputation for samurai films as he worked steadily from 1943 to 1993. Opinions of the director in Japan are largely mixed; criticism ranges from the discussion of his family background coming from generations of samurai to accusations of pandering to Western audiences. Whether intentional or not, Kurosawa became the face of Japanese film in the critical circles of the 1950s. But he wasn’t just a samurai stylist: Many of the director’s films frame themselves around a central conflict of personal ideology in the face of violence that often goes without answer — and not always through the lives of samurai. In works like Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, or his 1944 propaganda film The Most Beautiful, Kurosawa tackles the interpersonal struggles of characters dealing with sickness, alcoholism, and other challenges.

His films endure today, and not just through critical preservation; since breaking through to the West, his visual ideas and themes have become fodder for reinterpretation. You can see this keenly in Western cinema through films like The Magnificent Seven, whose narrative was largely inspired by Seven Samurai. Or even A Fistful of Dollars, a Western epic that cleaved so closely to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that director Sergio Leone ended up in a lawsuit with Toho Productions over rights issues. George Lucas turned to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress in preparation for Star Wars; he’d eventually repay Kurosawa by helping to produce his surreal drama Dreams.

Ghost of Tsushima is part of that lineage, packing in action and drama to echo Kurosawa’s legacy. “We will face death and defend our home,” Shimura, the Lord of Tsushima, says within the first few minutes of the game. “Tradition. Courage. Honor. These are what make us.” He rallies his men with this reminder of what comprises the belief of the samurai: They will die for their country, they will die for their people, but doing so will bring them honor. And honor, tradition, and courage, above all else, are what make the samurai.

Except that wasn’t always the belief, it wasn’t what Kurosawa bought whole cloth, and none of the message can be untangled from how center- and alt-right politicians in modern Japan talk about “the code” today.

A battalion of samurai sit around a campfire at night Images: The Criterion Collection

Shots from Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai

The “modern” Bushido code — or rather, the interpretation of the Bushido code coined in the 1900s by Inazō Nitobe — was utilized in, and thus deeply ingrained into, Japanese military culture. An easy example of how the code influenced Imperial Japan’s military would be the kamikaze pilots, officially known as the Tokubetsu Kōgekitai. While these extremes (loyalty and honor until death, or capture) aren’t as present in the myth of the samurai that has ingrained itself into modern ultranationalist circles, they manifest in different yet still insidious ways.

In 2019, to celebrate the ushering in of the Reiwa Era, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party commissioned Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano to depict Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a samurai. Though described as being center-right, various members of the LDP have engaged in or have been in full support of historical revisionism, including the editing of textbooks to either soften or completely omit the language surrounding war crimes committed by Imperial Japan. Abe himself has been linked to supporting xenophobic curriculums, with his wife donating $9,000 to set up an ultranationalist school that pushed anti-Korean and anti-Chinese rhetoric. The prime minister is also a member of Japan’s ultraconservative Nippon Kaigi, which a U.S. congressional report on Japan-U.S. relations cited as one of several organizations that believe that “Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers, that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by Imperial Japanese troops during the 1937 ‘Nanjing massacre’ were exaggerated or fabricated.” The Nippon Kaigi, like Abe, have also pushed for the revision of Japan’s constitution — specifically, Article 9 — to allow Japan to reinstate its standing military.

This has been a major goal for Abe as his time as prime minister comes to a definite close in 2021. And from 2013 onward, the politician has made yearly trips to the Yasukuni shrine to honor the memory of war criminals, a status of which his own grandfather was accused, that died with the ethos of the modern Bushido code. Abe’s exoneration of these ideals has continued to spark reactionary nationalist sentiment, as illustrated with the Nippon Kaigi and their ultranationalist ideology. These traditionalist values have encouraged xenophobic sentiment in Japan, which was seen in the 2020 Tokyo elections with 178,784 votes going to Makoto Sakurai, leader of the Japan First Party, another ultranationalist group. Sakurai has participated in numerous hate speech demonstrations in Tokyo, often targeting Korean diaspora groups.

The preservation of the Bushido code that was highly popularized and utilized by Imperial Japan lives on through promotion by history revisionists, who elevate samurai to a status similar to that of the chivalric knight seen in Western media. They are portrayed as an honor-bound and noble group of people that cared deeply for the peasantry, when that was often not the case.

The samurai as a concept, versus who the samurai actually were, has become so deeply intertwined with Japanese imperialist beliefs that it has become difficult to separate the two. This is where cultural and historical understanding are important when approaching the mythology of the samurai as replicated in the West. Kurosawa’s later body of work — like the color-saturated Ran, which was a Japanese adaptation of King Lear, and Kagemusha, the story of a lower-class criminal impersonating a feudal lord — deeply criticized the samurai and the class system they enforced. While some films were inspired by Western plays, specifically Shakespeare, these works were critical of the samurai and their role in the Sengoku Period. They dismantled the notion of samurai by showing that they were a group of people capable of the same failings as the lower class, and were not bound to arbitrary notions of honor and chivalry.

Unlike Kurosawa’s blockbusters, his late-career critical message didn’t cross over with as much ease. In Western films like 2003’s The Last Samurai, the audience is presented with the picture of a venerable and noble samurai lord who cares only for his people and wants to preserve traditionalist values and ways of living. The portrait was, again, a highly romanticized and incorrect image of who these people were in feudal Japanese society. Other such works inspired by Kurosawa’s samurai in modern pop culture include Adult Swim’s animated production Samurai Jack and reinterpretations of his work like Seven Samurai 20XX developed by Dimps and Polygon Magic, which had also received the Kurosawa Estate’s blessing but resulted in a massive failure. The narratives of the lone ronin and the sharpshooter in American Westerns, for example, almost run in parallel.

A samurai stands on a hill overlooking a desolate town in Ghost of Tsushima Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Then there’s Ghost of Tsushima. Kurosawa’s work is littered with close-ups focused on capturing the emotionality of every individual actor’s performance, and panoramic shots showcasing sprawling environments or small feudal villages. Fox and his team recreate that. But after playing through the story of Jin, Ghost of Tsushima is as much of an homage to an Akira Kurosawa film as any general black-and-white film could be. The Kurosawa Mode in the game doesn’t necessarily reflect the director’s signatures, as the narrative hook and tropes found in Kurosawa’s work — and through much of the samurai film genre — are equally as important as the framing of specific shots.

“I don’t think a lot of white Western academics have the context to talk about Japanese national identity,” Tori Huynh, a Vietnamese woman and art director in Los Angeles, said about the Western discussion of Kurosawa’s aesthetic. “Their context for Japanese nationalism will be very different from Japanese and other Asian people. My experience with Orientalism in film itself is, that there is a really weird fascination with Japanese suffering and guilt, which is focused on in academic circles … I don’t think there is anything wrong with referencing his aesthetic. But that’s a very different conversation when referencing his ideology.”

Ghost of Tsushima features beautifully framed shots before duels that illustrate the tension between Jin and whomever he’s about to face off against, usually in areas populated by floating lanterns or vibrant and colorful flowers. The shots clearly draw inspiration from Kurosawa films, but these moments are usually preceded by a misunderstanding on Jin’s part — stumbling into a situation he’d otherwise have no business participating in if it weren’t for laid-out side quests to get mythical sword techniques or armor. Issues like this undermine the visual flair; the duels are repeated over and over in tedium as more of a set-piece than something that should have a component of storytelling and add tension to the narrative.

A samurai stands in a field with a wispy cloud in the background in Ghost of Tsushima Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Fox and Sucker Punch’s game lacks a script that can see the samurai as Japanese society’s violent landlords. Instead of examining the samurai’s role, Ghost of Tsushima lionizes their existence as the true protectors of feudal Japan. Jin must protect and reclaim Tsushima from the foreign invaders. He must defend the peasantry from errant bandits taking advantage of the turmoil currently engulfing the island. Even if that means that the samurai in question must discard his sense of honor, or moral righteousness, to stoop to the level of the invading forces he must defeat.

Jin’s honor and the cost of the lives he must protect are in constant battle, until this struggle no longer becomes important to the story, and his tale whittles down to an inevitable and morally murky end. To what lengths will he go to preserve his own honor, as well as that of those around him? Ghost of Tsushima asks these questions without a truly introspective look at what that entails in relation to the very concept of the samurai and their Bushido code. This manifests in flashbacks to Jin’s uncle, Shimura, reprimanding him for taking the coward’s path when doing his first assassination outside of forced stealth segments. Or in story beats where the Khan of the opposing Mongol force informs Shimura that Jin has been stabbing enemies in the back. Even if you could avoid participating in these systems, the narrative is fixated on Jin’s struggle with maintaining his honor while ultimately trying to serve his people.

I do not believe Ghost of Tsushima was designed to empower a nationalist fantasy. At a glance, and through my time playing the game, however, it feels like it was made by outsiders looking into an otherwise complex culture through the flattening lens of an old black-and-white film. The gameplay is slick and the hero moments are grand, but the game lacks the nuance and understanding of what it ultimately tries to reference. As it stands, being a cool pseudo-historical drama is, indeed, what Ghost of Tsushima’s creators seemingly aimed to accomplish. In an interview with Famitsu, Chris Zimmerman of Sucker Punch said that “if Japanese players think the game is cool, or like a historical drama, then that’s a compliment.” And if there is one thing Ghost of Tsushima did succeed in, it was creating a “cool” aesthetic — encompassed by one-on-one showdowns with a lot of cinematic framing.

In an interview with The Verge, Fox said that “our game is inspired by history, but we’re not strictly historically accurate.” That’s keenly felt throughout the story and in its portrayal of the samurai. The imagery and iconography of the samurai carry a burden that Sucker Punch perhaps did not reckon with during the creation of Ghost of Tsushima. While the game doesn’t have to remain true to the events that transpired in Tsushima, the symbol of the samurai propagates a nationalist message by presenting a glossed-over retelling of that same history. Were, at any point, Ghost of Tsushima to wrestle with the internal conflict between the various class systems that existed in Japan at the time, it might have been truer to the films that it draws deep inspiration from. However, Ghost of Tsushima is what it set out to be: a “cool” period piece that doesn’t dwell on the reasonings or intricacies of the existing period pieces it references.

A game that so heavily carries itself on the laurels of one of the most prolific Japanese filmmakers should investigate and reflect on his work in the same way that the audience engages with other pieces of media like film and literature. What is the intent of the creator versus the work’s broader meaning in relation to current events, or the history of the culture that is ultimately serving as a backdrop to yet another open-world romp? And how do these things intertwine and create something that can flirt on an edge of misunderstanding? Ghost of Tsushima is a surface-level reflection of these questions and quandaries, sporting a lens through which to experience Kurosawa, but not to understand his work. It ultimately doesn’t deal with the politics of the country it uses as a backdrop. For the makers of the game, recreating Kurosawa is just black and white.