I’m now composing the ongoing Dark Souls series while playing through Sekiro (slowly), and being able to note the similarities and differences, immersed as I am, is a pretty interesting experience. It’s also pretty plain at this point that getting at the juicy, literary meat of the game is going to be way harder for me this time around. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were riffing on philosophical frameworks (Christianity, Lovecraft, Nietzsche) that I am coincidentally familiar with. Sekiro has structurally similar roots in Buddhism and sort-of obscure 1960’s ninja-historical-fantasy, about which I know approximately fuck all. Accordingly, the following are working notes, a surface reading of a game I still haven’t finished, an attempt to get the ideas on paper where perhaps a pith might become more visible.
Miyazaki himself cites the manga Basilisk and the works of Futaro Yamada as an inspiration for elements of Sekiro’s world. For those unfamiliar (myself included), these began with a novel published in 1958 called Kōga Ninpōchō, a historical fantasy about rival clans of superhuman mutant ninjas who get caught up in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love triangle. I was totally unaware that this style of storytelling had roots that old (contemporary with Tolkien, even though the first English translation seems to have been published in 2006). More research is needed–discoveries like this keep me humble as to how little I really know.
The setup of the game is that near the end of the Sengoku period, Isshin Ashina stages a coup and takes over one of Japan’s warring regions. Twenty years later, the story begins. Neither Isshin, nor his grandson Genichiro appear to have been real people, but the Ashina clan was. Translating some historical details: The region, known also as Ashina in-game, was likely the Aizu region historically, and the aforementioned “end” of the Sengoku period is probably the first of such points recognized by historians–the conquest of Kyoto by Nobunaga Oda. Twenty years after this point, the Ashina clan was defeated decisively by Masamune Date who then seized control of the Aizu region. Timing checks out.
It’s also likely that the family personas are based on real people. Based on the timing and details of their life stories, it seems likely that Isshin and Genichiro are meant to parallel Moriuji and Moritaka Ashina respectively. Moriuji’s reign was considered to be a golden age for the clan, whereas Moritaka (not Moriuji’s grandson, but not his son either) succeeded him and, proving unpopular among his retainers, was assassinated. Spoiler: This is more than vaguely similar to Genichiro’s fate in the game.
I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism, and I hope to do more reading before formalizing any of this, but the narrative is clearly moist with its secretions. The repeated theme of death and rebirth seems to be a clear expression, but it almost certainly goes deeper. The Sculptor’s obsessive drive to carve the Buddha (and its relationship to his previous life as a shinobi), the relationship between Kuro and other sources of immortality, even the significance of Sekiro using a prosthetic for a left arm–they scream meaning, and I bet much of it is tied up in philosophical traditions very different from the earlier games.
Aside, Miyazaki apparently took a backseat on writing for this game, so it probably will not have the same tone anyway.
Sources for my information include the linked interview, Wikipedia, and Samurai Wiki.