Ashina in flames
Death and Destruction abound
Where does the hate go?
Early in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, after defeating the Bandit Lord turned Ashina General Gyoubu Oniwa, Wolf has the opportunity to talk to an old woman who is helping to bury the dead. Though grateful that Gyoubu has fallen, she worries about where all of the hatred that the war is creating will go. She talks about it, not as an abstract concept, but as if it is real, that all the death and suffering are manifesting themselves as a force and must go somewhere. Soon enough, the hatred that she was worried about finds its vessel, a man with a troubled past, who for so many years tried to suppress it, until the vessel burst and the hatred took control. Sekiro is not only brilliant in its execution of gameplay, but also of its exploration of what war does to the people, what some men will sacrifice of their humanity in their pursuit of immortality and power, and how much some are willing to give in order to save others from a terrible fate. It also paints a tragic tale of a man, haunted and eventually consumed, by hatred.
Ashina: A land soaked in blood
The land of Ashina is not a peaceful one. The snowy peaks and deep valleys hide a variety of dangerous and gargantuan creatures: poison spewing geckos, ravenous man-eating fish, and not one, but two leviathan albino pythons. In the Sunken Valley, vicious monkeys attack any who enter, and some grow to be true giants, like the deadly Guardian Ape. In the depths of the Underground Dungeon and the corrupted Senpou Temple on Mt. Kongo are large black crickets, the size of dogs with an appetite for flesh, that skitter and leap at anything that passes.
In peacetime, these threats would be enough to deter anyone from venturing too far from the safety of the Castle. However, as the game opens things are not peaceful. The once mighty Ashina clan is under siege from the formidable Internal Ministry, who want nothing more than to claim the land for their own and burn Ashina Castle to the ground. As the game goes on, the Internal Ministry starts making more and more headway into Ashina Castle: at first, there are no Internal Ministry soldiers in the Castle itself, but there are numerous casualties that are mentioned and shown, meaning the Ministry is getting closer; at afternoon, the first of the Ministry soldiers have already shown up and are starting to do battle with the Ashina soldiers, along with a large number of Ministry Shinobi who have eliminated most of the Ashina Nightjar Shinobi; by nightfall, the Castle is ablaze, with the Ministry’s best soldiers running riot within the castle gates and most of Ashina’s forces have already fallen, and those that haven’t stand little chance against the superior forces of the Ministry.
The difference in strength between the Ashina and Ministry forces is clear: while Ashina has samurai, muskets, Nightjar Shinobi and some Sunken Valley Mortars, the Ministry has their soldiers dual wield swords, have heavy armor, utilizing 17th century shoulder fired rockets, and even have primitive flamethrowers. The Ministry Shinobi, the Lone Shadow (along with the poisonous Vile Hand variants), are far more dangerous than their Nightjar counterparts and it is little wonder how the Ministry has made such headway. Every encounter that the Ministry has with Ashina forces, if it is 1v1, always wins in the Ministry’s favor, usually by a considerable margin. It is easy to believe that the whole events of the game could take place in the space of a day, as the Ministry appears to be an unstoppable force, with nothing to halt their advance.
There is another factor of why the Ministry is so much more powerful than Ashina, though it has to do with a loss on the Ashina side. The leader of the Ashina clan is Lord Isshin Ashina, once feared as the deadliest man to ever wield a blade. But sadly, old age and disease has sapped his strength, making it so that even though he is still quite deadly, he cannot fight as he once did, and tires too quickly. He is also running out of time: his private doctor Emma, when asked his condition by his grandson, the acting leader of the Ashina clan Genichiro, she commented that “it’s a wonder he is still with us”, and by the end of the night, Isshin had succumbed to his illness. This didn’t stop him from striking against several Lone Shadows as the vengeful Tengu of Ashina, but that was all he could do. It is a drop in the bucket against a tsunami crashing against the Castle walls.
In Pursuit of Immortality
In times as desperate as these, men will look for any advantage they can, often with the phrase, “No matter the cost!” This was Genichiro’s perspective, as he looked at all of his dead soldiers, saw the Ministry’s advance, and worried over his adoptive grandfather’s eminent demise. All his life Genichiro lived by one mantra: I will give anything to save Ashina. Even from an early age, Genichiro trained and pushed himself to be the best, but also took steps that would be looked down on from those of the more conserative practitioners of the Ashina School of Swordcraft. He learned from Tomoe, a mysterious woman who has unknown connections with the Fountainhead Palace, the secret to summon and wield lightning, and a special sword combo designed to overwhelm opponents with a flurry of attacks. Later, he searched out the Rejuvenating Waters and drank from the Rejuvenating Sediment, a particularly concentrated strain of the Waters. When times became desperate, Genichiro even threw away his own sense of poise and dignity in order to overcome his foes. You can see this as Genichiro’s mental state deteriorates during the fight on the Castle roof. When he loses two health bars, his normally noble and composed manner are replaced by desperation, artfully shown by his armor falling off and seeing his disheveled hair and almost maniacal look in his eyes. A far cry from the leader of the Ashina Clan he wants to present himself as.
But his most daring and audacious act was to kidnap Lord Kuro, who belonged to the Ashina sub-house Hirata and was related to the Ashinas, and force him to use the Dragon’s Blood to make Genichiro essentially immortal. The Dragon’s Heritage that Kuro has allows him to never be hurt by most normal means, and he can bestow the power of the Dragon’s Blood on someone, allowing them to come back to life should they ever die. Many men have fought to obtain this power or to mimic it: the Senpou Monks corrupted themselves by trying to create a false Dragon’s Blood and did experiments on children which resulted in the Divine Child of the Rejuvenating Waters. The child, however, was the only one who survived and the Monks themselves are not only hostile to outsiders, but also a disturbing gray color, which in From Software games indicates undead. Worse still, some monks also show signs of being infested, with huge centipedes growing out of them, which bring them back to life as many times as they die. Whether this is due to the Rejuvenating Water or not is vague, as the Guardian Ape also has a centipede in him as well, but was far from the temple. What is known however is that the pursuit of immortality seems to corrupt everyone who seeks it.
It even touches Owl, the Shinobi who found, raised and trained Wolf as his son. During the Hirata flashback, Owl appears to die, and Wolf has to face Lady Butterfly, one of his shinobi teachers. But once he kills her, he is in turn stabbed in the back. Only later does Wolf find Owl alive and well, and meaning to take Lord Kuro away. Rather than for altruistic purposes, Owl sees that Wolf was able to survive the attack that night because of the Dragon’s Blood, and is more determined than ever to take Kuro and force him to use his blood on Owl, in order to be invincible. Later, with an alternate flashback, you find out it was Owl who told the bandits to come to the Estate and it was actually Owl that stabbed you in the back. The sad reality of the situation is that, through several pieces of dialog teased while sharing some sake, both Owl and Lady Butterfly were friends of Isshin, who along with other characters in or related to other characters in the story, all had drinking parties. To turn around and betray those that care about you is a disturbing low.
But the absolute lowest comes in the Shura ending of the game, where Wolf himself betrays his master and friends to side with Owl. When this happens, the normally kind and gentle Emma launches into a flurry of attacks, showing her expertise with a sword, even questioning if it was a mistake to save your life. As Wolf runs her through, the last word she says is, “Shu….ra….” A Shura is a being who has come to love killing so much, that it becomes the only thing he enjoys and kills simply because he enjoys it. Isshin claimed to have fought one before, and Emma had said that she had trained to kill a demon if she saw one. As Emma’s life slips away, Isshin laments to Wolf, “You were a most unkind and inauspicious man. Yet I could not bring myself to hate you. To think I would have to face the threat of Shura again…” These words stung the most because Isshin knew about Wolf’s past and how it connected to his own life. Wolf was the son of Owl, who had also betrayed him, and was using the prosthetic that Dogen, the doctor that adopted and raised Emma, had made. When Isshin first met Wolf, he was ready to cut him down, until he saw the prosthetic and recognized it. Knowing who it belonged to last, it was not hard to deduce who he was, and even gave Wolf a fitting name: Sekiro (One-armed Wolf). And now Wolf was turning against Isshin and everything else that had mattered. Though the battle is intense, eventually Isshin falls, and as Owl proclaims his victory and is about to shout his real name, Wolf stabs him in the back, in a fit of very poetic irony. You see Lord Kuro realize that now there is an immortal Shura on the loose and nothing can stop Wolf. A message appears and says that Ashina would be the site of the worst massacre in the history of Japan’s war. A truly dark fate.
However, the most surprising corruption comes from Isshin himself in one of the three normal endings. When Wolf beats Genichiro, Emma and the Shinobi are shocked to see the Ashina Lord rise seemingly from the dead, before disappearing over the railing of the top of Ashina Castle. Much later, as Wolf is helping Kuro escape in the same place in the Susuki grass as the beginning of the game, Genichiro reappears with a powerful weapon called the Black Mortal Blade, which has the power to bring people back from the dead. This fight is quick and relatively easy for this late in the game, and as an added note, Genichiro doesn’t use lightning in this fight. I have a suspicion why: In the earlier fight, he could use lightning just fine; When he “died” after his fight with Wolf, the Rejuvenating Sediment brought him back, but it brought him back wrong.
There are certain elements that are associated with different factions: Lightning is related to divine beings, like the Fountainhead Palace Okami warriors, the Divine Dragon and Genichiro before he “dies”, as he trained with Tomoe, who has a connection to the Fountainhead Palace; Fire is seen in connection with demonic forces, as both Wolf as he became a Shura and Isshin fighting him were shown with flames (I imagine it was a sense of fighting fire with fire); and evil spirits is terror, with purple beams and balls of faces. But for the undead, they have no element, since neither the Senpou monks, nor the Guardian Ape show any elemental leanings, with only the Terror coming out through an unsettling screech rather than energy. And thus we come to the crux of the issue: when Genichiro came back, he must have lost the ability to use lightning, as he was no longer living, and could not be even partially divine. He was in essence a living corpse, with blood in his veins but living a cursed existence. Yet another sign of what one loses to the corruption of immortality.
As he falls to Wolf, he reflects on how the only thing he cares about is that Ashina will survive and that this time it will have the Dragon’s Blood in its veins. He then cuts his own neck and from inside him comes Isshin Ashina, not the sick old man who had died not one hour ago, but Isshin Ashina, Sword Saint (or Kensei, the highest level of sword mastery one can achieve), in the prime of his life, perfectly healthy and a terrifying force to be reckoned with. And if that wasn’t enough, Isshin has gained the ability to wield lightning. He sees Wolf and simply says, “You’re here, Sekiro, which means I must destroy you. Face me, Sekiro!”
Now why would he suddenly turn on you, when he had been on your side the whole game? This is a little bit of supposition on my part, but it seems to follow: up until this point, Isshin had been wanting to help you get Lord Kuro away from Genichiro, but was no longer truly in power, given his illness. The reason he didn’t want the Dragon’s Blood for himself is because he saw no point in it: what was a sick frail man going to do with immortality? Keep on being sick and old forever? Isshin was a man who enjoyed life, both in fighting and sharing sake (seriously, the man loves his sake!), so for him, he wanted to spend what days he had left doing what he loved, knowing at this point Ashina couldn’t be saved. Had he been younger and healthy, he might’ve been tempted, but as he was, he would rather help Emma and Kuro than prolong the suffering anymore.
But when he is reborn through the Black Mortal Blade, he did so with the Dragon’s Blood. Genichiro had cut Lord Kuro just moments before, as Mortal Blades are the only weapons that can draw blood from the Divine Heir, and that blood was still on the Blade. This means that Isshin was now back to his prime with the Dragon’s Blood, the most powerful sword master ever who is also now immortal. Knowing what Wolf’s intentions are, Isshin sees Wolf as a threat, as now Isshin can single handedly save Ashina from the Internal Ministry, and he won’t let anything stop him, or Genichiro’s final wish. But in the end, even Isshin falls to Wolf’s blade. In defeat, Isshin demands that Wolf “Finish it!” and his last words are, “Well done… Se…ki…ro…”. Even in defeat, Isshin is a true gentleman.
Having seen so many people wanting the Dragon’s Blood and the depths they sink, how does Kuro react to all of this? With a firm determination to be rid of his power. Now why would someone want to give up immortality, or the immortality of his most loyal servant? It is because Lord Kuro can see what the Dragon’s Blood does to the world around him. Early in the game, after you die twice (get it?), you awake to the sound of coughing, and you see that the Sculptor, the man who saved Wolf and gave him the Shinobi Prosthetic to replace the arm that Genichiro so RUDELY cut off, is sick. Come to find out this is the side effect of the Dragon’s Blood: a condition known as Dragonrot. Dragonrot is what happens to everyone else around the servant of the Divine Heir whenever that servant dies: in order to bring the servant back to life, life must be taken from others. The Dragonrot victims’ blood stagnates in their veins, and causes horrid coughing and wheezing. Eventually those with Dragonrot will die, unless cured with a special ritual involving Dragon’s Blood Droplets.
However, this is only a cure for the symptoms and not the cause. Lord Kuro knows he is the cause, and sends Wolf on a mission to determine a way to end this curse. This leads Wolf to the Senpou Temple, where, in addition to meeting and befriending the Divine Child of the Rejuvenating Waters, finds and is able to wield the Red Mortal Blade. With it in hand, Wolf is able to put several immortal beings down permanently, including the now Headless Ape and eventually Isshin (Sword Saint). Also, in the normal course of the game, Wolf rejects Owl’s proposition and stays loyal to Kuro, showing that even though Wolf is exceptional at killing, he has things he cares about more, and this helps prevent him from being a Shura. Wolf learns that to sever the Dragon’s Heritage and end the curse, he will need tears from a Divine Dragon. To that end, after a series of fetch quests, sprinkled with a little murder, Wolf goes to the Fountainhead Palace, and after defeating a dragon there, gets the tears.
In the Severance ending, after he defeats Isshin, he presents the tears and learns that he must end Kuro’s life to stop the curse. He does so, and is next seen sometime later carving Buddhas, like the Sculptor did. Why, we don’t know, but he seems to be trying to live a peaceful life, though Emma gives him back his prosthetic, implying there is more killing to be done. In the Purification ending, after learning about a ritual involving a branch from the Everblossom tree, Wolf gives Kuro the tears and then, using the Mortal Blade, cuts his own head off. This severs the link between Wolf and Kuro, and purifies Kuro of the Dragon’s Blood. Later, Kuro and Emma go to his grave and Kuro dedicates himself to be a man Wolf would be proud of. The Return ending is the most involved, but also the best, as Wolf works with the Divine Child to turn her into a vessel (or “cradle” as they put it) to keep Kuro and the Dragon’s Blood safe until they go to the West and return the power to the Dragons from where it came from. This ending has the Divine Child suffering, as she ingests two giant snake visceras in order to be the cradle which, given her pained cries, is an excruciating process. This eventually makes her tears freeze, allowing the process to work. A fun note I observed is that the harder the ending to get, the better it is. The Severance (Normal) ending is simple, in that you complete the story, but Kuro dies; Purification ending, a little more involved, Wolf dies; Return ending, even more involved, but no one dies! But the Shura ending ends the game early, and EVERYBODY DIES!!!!!
It is comforting to see that Kuro is the type of upstanding young man that has a kind and compassionate heart, in spite of everything that is happening around him. He knows what the risks are to himself but only thinks of others, and is always looking to help Wolf, even if it is just making a few sweet rice balls. He sees immortality at the expense of others to be unacceptable and firmly believes that no one should have that kind of power. Even the Divine Child herself is impressive, that despite the experimentation that the Monks put her through, and watching all of her friends die, she still wants to help Kuro and Wolf, and is trying to make the world a better place. It is comforting to know that even in a land as terrifying as Ashina, there is still some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for.
The Flames of Hatred
Sadly, not all stories end well, and one of the saddest in Ashina is the story of the man known as the Sculptor. When you first meet him, he rescues Wolf after the latter’s defeat at the hands of Genichiro, and gives Wolf the Shinobi Prosthetic. A dour and taciturn man, the Sculptor spends his days carving statues of Buddha. But no matter how many he carves and how hard he tries they always come out the same: they all have faces of wrath.
Going through the game we can piece together a good chunk of his life, to reveal the tragedy of the past. He grew up as a masterless shinobi, known as Orangutan, in the Sunken Valley, alongside another shinobi known as Kingfisher. The two of them spent their days training, drinking fermented berry juice (Monkey booze, as it is called in game, and it is has an exorbitantly high alcohol content), and Kingfisher whistling a tune through her ring, somber but beautiful to Orangutan’s ears. At some point they parted ways, though Kingfisher eventually met her fate at the hands of the Guardian Ape, as we found her finger after we beat him, and later her ring in the den where we fought the Headless Ape. It is also of note that the sword stuck in the Guardian Ape’s neck (and then later wielded by the Headless Ape) most likely came from Kingfisher, where she wounded, but couldn’t kill the creature (but given he is infested, it wouldn’t have mattered).
While in Ashina, Orangutan became an expert in killing. He was so skilled and became so enamored with death that he started killing for the sheer enjoyment of it. He was on his way to becoming a Shura. However, intervention came at the hands of Isshin, who faced and stopped Orangutan from becoming a Shura by cutting off his left arm (an interesting parallel to what happened with Wolf, as it was Genichiro that cut off his left arm, but for less noble reasons). As the Sculptor, he later says that this act saved him, and seems to bear Isshin no ill will. He also saved Emma on the battlefield, by giving her a rice ball, and then later giving her to Dogen, the doctor, to adopt and raise her. Dogen, taking an interest in the now one armed shinobi, went about to develop a prosthetic to replace Orangutan’s missing arm. After countless tries, including a few adjustments that allowed Orangutan to make tops to delight Emma (which would later be incorporated into the spinning shuriken upgrade), Dogen made a modular, fully functional and upgradable prosthetic, complete with a grappling hook! As Dogen and Emma were frequent visitors (or maybe even residents) of Ashina Castle, it seems likely that Orangutan himself would also have visited, and probably knew Owl and the others personally. He also kept up with his shinobi techniques, and most likely was in the employ of Isshin for some time.
That is, until he developed a deadly technique: Living Force, a terrifyingly effective combo, where someone uses the Flame Vent tool to coat their blade with flames. As the flavor text tells us: “The Sculptor retired the Shinobi Prosthetic after developing this technique. He’d gone too far, killed too many. The flames of hatred had begun to manifest…” It stands to reason that Orangutan, after honing this technique and seeing how deadly effective it was in combat, realized that he was slipping back into his old ways: back to being like a Shura. But there is a strange condition that happens to those who do not become a Shura: they instead become vessels of hatred. He could feel the hatred building inside of him, consuming him, and so he put away Orangutan the Shinobi, and became the Sculptor, spending his days carving Buddhas.
But every Buddha he carved had the face of wrath, no matter how hard he tried or how many times he tried. When asked by Wolf what the Buddha showed him, he merely said, “Flames, everywhere, consuming all of Ashina”. As the day wears on, the Sculptor gets a visit from Emma, who reassures him that when the times come, she will take care of him. But when asked about it by Wolf, the Sculptor tells him that Wolf has to be the one to put the Sculptor down, as it would break Emma’s heart if she were the one to have to kill the Sculptor. Wolf also overhears that no matter how many Buddhas the Sculptor carves, the hatred never goes away, it is only held at bay. And it is a siege he is quickly losing.
As night falls, Wolf returns to the Dilapidated Temple, only to find the Sculptor is gone, and the Info Broker saying the Sculptor left, muttering about the flames and heading toward the battlefield. There is also a massive burn mark on the grapple point out of the temple, making it impossible to follow. However, by going by way of Ashina Castle and fighting through a whole horde of Ministry soldiers, all wielding fire weapons, you come across a different kind of holocaust: Ministry soldiers burned to death, and massive, burning claw marks all around, along with one of the Sculptor’s statues. You soon find yourself in front of Ashina Castle’s gate, where you fought Gyoubu at the beginning of the game. Instead you find a colossal, flaming Demon, flailing and scorching the Ministry soldiers. This is the Demon of Hatred.
While fighting him, however, something seems familiar: he has his left arm made of flame, he has a beard and seems to be covering his eyes during some of his fire attacks, almost as if he can’t bear to watch where (or whom) he is attacking. Finding the dialog options above point out the very sobering answer: that is the Sculptor. He lost his battle with Hatred and now is consumed by it. Wolf realizes it and, though mortified, fulfills the promise he made to the Sculptor. As you are bringing his last health bar down, the Demon says, “Please, finish it…” and afterwards, as you say goodbye to the Sculptor and deliver a Shinobi Execution, with his last words the Demon replies, “Wolf, thank you….” As you head inside the building, the same old lady as before is still there. She asks Wolf if he knew the Demon and he answers that he was a friend. She comforts him by saying that Wolf gave the Sculptor peace at the end, but worries about where the Hatred will go now, and warns him not to be the new vessel. After all, Wolf could’ve become a Shura, but didn’t. Although, I’m not worried: Wolf has his friends and a noble cause to help him avoid being a Demon. And in the end, Orangutan finally got to be with Kingfisher again.
The Cycle of Violence
Ashina was the site of so much death and hatred, but it was also the site of some of the most selfless acts that one could imagine. A land of corruption and lust for power, but also of kindness, loyalty and hope. A land that spawned a Demon driven by hatred, but also where a tormented soul finally found rest. What happens after is anyone’s guess: most likely the Internal Ministry will have to fight other armies that want Ashina, or the residents will rebel again sometime down the road. The secret of the Dragon’s Blood will be all but forgotten, and perhaps even the creatures of the land will begin to be docile. But what will never be forgotten, by those fought, bled and died, are the battles for the soul of Ashina: where some sold their souls for Immortality; some sold their immortality to save the souls of others; and one man, tragically, lost his battle with hatred. One question remains: After all of this is over, where does the hatred go?