The Height of Cultural Appreciation: A praise of Ghost of Tsushima

Game like no other

Love for Japanese Culture

 By Americans

Often in this day and age, there is a lot of talk about cultural appropriation, where one culture, usually of a higher economic or socio-political standing, takes aspects of another culture without thought or care on how they do it. Given that our world is one that is increasingly more global and interconnected, this concern is certainly a valid one, as there can be times when a person wants to use some part of another culture simply out of a “coolness” factor without understanding the context or care that goes into these aspects. However, as can often happen, those that are most sensitive to the possibility of cultural appropriation sometimes misinterpret a person’s earnest desire to honor another culture as them wishing to steal it. An example appeared online when a young girl was shown in a kimono and classical Japanese makeup, only to be attacked by someone accusing her of appropriating Japanese culture. A commentor spoke up and noted that great care was taken to accurately reflect the style of dress, makeup and even hair style, as to be as close to the actual style it was emulating.

This is but a small drop compared to the downpour that surrounded the game Ghost of Tsushima, a recently released adventure game for the PS4, made by Sucker Punch. While the game was showered with praise from many game outlets, there was also a significant number of Western game journalists that criticized what they saw was cultural appropriation. After all, it is an American studio making a game set in Japan, that covers many aspects of Japanese culture. To these critics, it seems like an out of place decision: shouldn’t this be a game made by a Japanese studio? The game is made to look and feel authentically Japanese, and yet is made by Americans! Some are even saying that the game only plays lip service to Japanese culture, but misses key aspects that a Japanese studio wouldn’t have missed. Yet the more I played the game, I started to realize something, a thought that stuck with me throughout the entire game, and one that still stays with me now: “Wow, Sucker Punch really loves Japanese culture!”

I have learned that, when someone loves another culture, it soon becomes obvious in the detail that goes into everything in the world. When I watched the movie Coco, within the first 5 minutes, I knew the creators loved Mexican Culture, from the level of detail that went into every frame and everything that I learned just by watching it. It might seem strange, but many times you can feel the passion and heart that goes into a piece of art. Ghost of Tsushima has passion in spades, from the beautiful scenery, haunting soundtrack (that often employ traditional Japanese instruments) and touching stories of the Islanders. The designs of the armors, sword cases, and saddles all look authentic and appropriate for the age, while still having a distinct feel for this game.

 But the most important moments, the ones that really spoke volumes to how much Sucker Punch was willing to honor Japanese culture, were the small moments in the exploration of the island. Around the island, there are hundreds of individual points of interest, be they hot springs, bamboo stands, fox dens or shinto shrines. Each one gives the player something in return for finding it, an advantage in the game: Hot springs increase the player’s max life slightly; Bamboo stands increase max resolve; Fox dens lead you to small shrines to increase charm capacity and power; and shrines give you unique and powerful charms, along with rare crafting items. 

Now, if Sucker Punch had just done that, it would’ve been charming, but nothing special. However, they went the extra step by adding unique actions for each of these to claim the prize: when you go to the hot spring, you step in and then thoughtfully meditate on a subject, showing that hot springs are a place to reflect and refocus the mind and soothe the body; bamboo stands prompt you with a series of button prompts, requiring both speed and precision, as a real samurai must have in order to cut all the bamboo in a single stroke; fox dens have you follow a fox to the shrine, as Inari is the player’s patron kami (or god) and foxes are his messengers; and shinto shrines have you honor them before you are granted their charm, often at the end of an arduous climb to get to it, to show you are worthy of the god’s blessing. There are also legendary skills, weapons and armor to find, and all of them start with a musician telling a fantastical tale, depicted through black and white painted scenes, reminiscent of traditional Japanese art work. There are also monuments to the fallen, where the sword cases can be found, crickets in the cemeteries to sing to the dead, and Sashimono banners, wielded by the Japanese factions, to honor the great clans of the island.

But nothing compares to what I would say is the single most important feature that honors the Samurai and Japanese culture as a whole: Haikus. Throughout the map, there are vistas overlooking breathtaking natural beauty, where the player can stop and compose a haiku. Gameplay wise, these are essentially pointless, as all you get is a headband with you haiku on it. However, I couldn’t wait to do these every time I found them. Because it wasn’t about the headband; it was about the meaning behind haikus and their role in samurai life. The haiku is a simple poem structure, 5 syllables on the first and third lines, with 7 in the middle. But for a samurai, haikus were a chance to reflect, to ponder and often were the last words he wrote before going into battle. He often wrote about nature, life and death, and the passing of this world. So much emotion and thought, all boiled down into those 3 lines.

And every time I found a haiku spot, I could feel it. The calm reflection, the deep introspection, and a sense of peace that comes with it. When one could die at any moment, it is these moments that make it so a warrior can face death with a calm and collected spirit. Haiku is used to great effect in the story as well, as before a tragic battle, both combatants write haikus, saying these could be the last written words of their clans. Sucker Punch didn’t need to do this. They didn’t need to put this much thought and effort into this game. But the fact that they did, and it resonated so much with me, and millions of other people, show that they knew and cared for Japanese culture.

The ironic state of this whole affair is that, while there are some Western Journalists that find what Sucker Punch did to be offensive, Japanese journalists, meanwhile, are praising the game. The one that stuck out the most is that one Japanese game site gave the game a perfect 40/40, and said that the game truly embodies the meaning of the word, Samurai. What is significant is that they use both the word samurai and the original Japanese Kanji () in the article, and say that Sucker Punch understood and honored the original meaning of the word. The director of the game series Yakuza was quoted in saying ”it’s the kind of work made by non-Japanese people that makes you feel they’re even more Japanese than us. I think it’s amazing. We often believe Western people would never get certain Japanese things, but the game shows this way of thinking is wrong in the first place.”

To love another culture is a beautiful thing; to emulate that culture so precisely and so reverently that you make it a part of yourself is the highest form of praise. We shouldn’t be afraid to embrace other cultures if we truly respect and love them. More often than not, people want to share their culture with others. When my family went to Japan to pick my brother from a mission for the Church, we felt the love the people had for him. My mother in particular, who was given a kimono from the women in the area, as a thank you for my brother’s service. We should not let our fear of appropriation stop us from appreciating the cultures that others often freely give. We must be diligent, respectful and reverent, but if we do this, then we can truly begin to understand the wonderful cultures that surround us.

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