Monday, July 2, 2018

Return of the Samurai

One of the surprises to come out of E3 2018 was a trio of big budget video games set in feudal Japan; Nioh 2, Sekiro, and Ghosts of Tsushima.  The first two are being made by Japanese studios, but the third is by a western developer.  If you ever try watching the films "The Last Samurai" and "The Twilight Samurai" back to back you'll probably notice some fundamental differences in approach.  This might seem strange considering both had theatrical releases less than a year apart, both are set in roughly the same in-fiction time period, and both even have the same Japanese actor in an important role (Hiroyuki Sanada).  The reason for the stylistic discrepancies really boils down to viewpoints, the former is looking at the subject from the outside while the latter is viewing it from within.

Samurai, much like their European counterparts (knights), have a long history that dates back nearly a millennium.  What they were, is hard to say in general terms because the nature of samurai changed over the centuries.  A lot of pop culture depictions of samurai tend to be based on the Hagakure, a collection of texts put together during a two-hundred year peace by supposed warriors who had never actually fought in a battle.  Unsurprisingly, it was largely ignored even within Japan until the lead up to World War 2, wherein it was resurrected as a piece of imperial propaganda.  Needless to say, samurai in pre-unification Japan were significantly different to what many typically think of them today.  For one, they were primarily horseback archers, not katana-wielding footmen.  For another they tended to expect immediate compensation for acts of merit.  Concepts such as honor and loyalty were a lot more fluid when the country was divided into numerous factions all rivaling for power.  A common practice in battle was to gather up the severed heads of defeated foes for presentation.  Beforehand, they tended to be washed by women who would also arrange the hair and apply cosmetics as needed.  For convince the heads were often mounted on small wooden boards with spikes sticking up through the center.  Sometimes a name tag would be affixed to the ear for ease of recognition as well.  A warlord who did not compensate his samurai (in cash or rice stipends) for bringing back the decapitated heads of slain foes would not stay a lord for long.  In fact, the collapse of the Kamakura Shogunate was in large part due to a lack of rewards for samurai who fought against invading mongols.

Death before dishonor is another concept that gets passed around a lot, but as numerous historical documents (Hogen, Heiji and Heikei) show samurai would often retreat from battle and live to fight another day.  Ritual suicide (seppuku) was another aspect of samurai that gets more notoriety than it probably deserves.  It happened, obviously, but blatant executions of unruly samurai were sometimes labeled as "seppuku" in order to preserve the status quo...such was the case with the 47 Ronin Incident.  Speaking of ronin (masterless samurai) and ritual suicide, Junshi, or "following one's liege lord into death" was not practiced as much as one might think considering how many ronin there were at various times in feudal Japan.  Some eventually entered the service of a lord and once again became samurai while others found new occupations as brigands, mercenaries and locally sponsored privateers.  Miyamoto Musashi, quite possibly the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, was a ronin who found employment much like a private contractor.  His impressive reputation as a skilled duelist was obtained, by his own admission, in large part because he was willing to fight dirty if it provided a significant advantage. 

There are some horror stories that are the bane of anyone wanting to portray samurai in a positive light.  Mimizuka is one such example...another is Inuoumono.  Test cutting (tameshigiri) conducted on condemned criminals is yet another example, although in most cases the victims were executed before being subjected to katana quality assurance procedures.  The most gruesome stories, in my opinion are about the materials used in the making of certain traditional Japanese musical instruments used to entertain samurai.  The shamisen was made from the skin of cats, while the best material for the otsuzumi was thought to be the horsehide of an unborn foal!  Just to be clear I'm not accusing Japan of being a cruel and barbaric nation here.  In fact, it's not hard to find similarly horrific (by modern sensibilities) parallels in the histories of other countries all over the world.  My point is the things I mentioned above are really only known well within Japan, hence the reason their media tends to favor shinobi, ninja, or ronin in lieu of samurai when it comes to the hero roles.  To a lot of Japanese people samurai were as much arrogant bullies as fearless swordsmen, and not the kind of folks who deserved idolization.

Moving on...I'm curious to see how these three games will differ in terms of mechanics, but also interpreting the historical context from which they are drawing inspiration.  There is a temptation to assume that "made in Japan" is synonymous with authenticity, but that isn't always the case.  Don't get me wrong James Clavell's "Shogun" is way off the mark, but then again so is "Lone Wolf and Cub."  Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the influence of either (or both) in these upcoming games.  After's not like Sekiro's clockwork prosthetic arm is realistic, nor is a yokai invasion particularly plausible...and yet both can be fun in their own way if handled deftly.

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