header is screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima
A Shallow Understanding
Haru Nicol

Though videogames often yearn to be considered as culturally significant as film, this is a futile task considering the significant differences, technologically and artistically, between the two mediums. Yet, Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima requires us to have this conversation again, focusing this time on a single director, Akira Kurosawa, and, more broadly, Japanese samurai cinema (hereafter called chanbara). Ghost of Tsushima fumbles in its attempt to pay homage to both director and genre, showing that maybe games shouldn’t want to emulate cinema, but rather try and create their own unique prestige and quality divorced from other mediums’ aspects.

To begin with the most facile argument, Tsushima only cares about Kurosawa in a broad, aesthetic sense. The now-infamous “Kurosawa Filter” only superficially changes how the game is played. In a write up from Indiewire, the game’s creators state that “[they] knew early on that [they] wanted to include a black and white filter so that [the player can] experience the game in a way as close to the source material as possible.” But this simply translates to a monochrome filter, various film scratches, audio effects that imitate '50’s sound technology, and “gusty weather effects.” It suggests that Co-director Nate Fox and his team only took the general pop culture knowledge that Kurosawa made black and white chanbara films and turned that into a kind of Photoshop filter. This is problematic for two major reasons: the first is that it does a massive visual disservice to the game. When played in, I suppose, "normal mode," Tsushima’s visuals are vibrant, gorgeous and painterly. The game wasn’t made to be played in monochrome (a fact that Fox even admits himself). The other is that a lot of Kurosawa’s best work was actually in colour, not black and white. Films such as RAN, with its expert use of colour in battlefields, and Dreams with its eerie use of colour to denote nuclear radiation, showcase how much of a master he was when not working in just black and white. The Kurosawa Mode is such a limited viewpoint that it becomes an insult to both the game and the breadth of work created by the legendary director for which it is named.

More disappointing than this optional mode, however, is Sucker Punch's sheer misunderstanding of the meaning of cinematic methods. Yes, it is clear the developers have watched some Kurosawa films, but they seemed to have taken notes only from the superficial aspects of his cinematography. The two most prominent cases of this in Tsushima are the use of wide shots of environments and close-ups during duels. While both of these techniques are impactful at first, they quickly lose their potency. Initially, the wide shots enhance the awe-inspiring landscapes of Tsushima's version of Japan, showing off the genuine care and attention put into the game's environments. The first few duels create a genuine sense of tension accented by the close-ups—the player is able to see the subtle actions made by both duelists, which shows how tense both are in the moments before they clash. But when these methods become tools made dull through their endless repetition in-game, they lose their ability to visually excite as Kurosawa’s shots do. Instead, the wide shot and close up simply become rote, mainly because they present the same angle and shot composition over and over, regardless of narrative context.

Possibly the most significant mistake Tsushima makes in trying to emulate Kurosawa is the choice of inspiration himself—and the political baggage his work brings with it. I'm not saying he was a right-wing chud, but Akira Kurosawa wasn't necessarily the most revolutionary artist of the 20th century. In Stephen Price’s The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, the eponymous auteur is noted to have committed entirely “to linear narrative[s],” had no interest “in Brechtian distancing devices,” refused “to develop a rigorous mode of political filmmaking, and … [was not able] to move beyond a method of social analysis centred on the individual.” Kurosawa always wanted to play it safe, to the point where he ignored the innovative cinematic techniques and overt social messages of his contemporaries, the mainly leftist New Wave directors, to maintain this simplicity. He simply did not care enough about the political struggle as an artist to engage with it in his work. (To give him some credit, he does touch on political themes in films such as High and Low, which details the moral complexity of being a bourgeois manager.)

Ultimately, Kurosawa publicly voiced his disdain for having any political message, saying, “A film is not supposed to be a lecture.” This may seem like a non-issue, but in 2020 it is quite a troubling stance to take, especially while right-wing fascism rises behind the cover of centrism. By not saying anything—by trying to be ‘apolitical’—the status-quo is reinforced, and nothing needs to be challenged. This is a deeply irresponsible worldview, and it does sour my viewings of his work a bit. It also clarifies what sort of political message Tsushima wishes to have: one where nothing's really said. This is further troubling considering the already slippery-slope Tsushima is on with regards to it echoing the right-wing politics, classism, and iconography of Japanese nationalism. 

It could be appropriate to evoke such an “apolitical” director considering how the game fits into the space of mass-market games that don’t ever want to alienate any audience, no matter how terrible their politics are. Rather than lose anyone who  “doesn't want politics” in their games, Tsushima (and the wider AAA games space as a whole) will strive to say nothing of importance to maintain a larger market share. Maybe, considering this, Sucker Punch unintentionally made the right choice of auteur for their apoliticism. Note, however, that I said “unintentionally.” The production as a whole is interested in simply appropriating Kurosawa’s straightforward storytelling and iconography, thus losing any of Kurosawa’s accidental political meaning.

Still, even if Tsushima had successfully modelled itself on a different director's work, is cinema really a medium videogames should be striving to emulate in the first place? After all, even Kurosawa, the great filmmaker who Tsushima adores, thinks each medium should strive to be its own thing, as mentioned in his autobiography:   

“For me, filmmaking combines everything … That’s the reason I’ve made cinema my life’s work. In films, painting and literature and theatre and music come together. But a film is still a film.”

This stance is further supported by previous academic work within games studies. Steven Poole, in his book Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, notes that “a purely filmic notion of camerawork cannot work in a videogame context [as] … film manipulates the viewer, but a game depends on being manipulable.” If a videogame’s perspective/camera kept changing and cutting away like in a film montage, this would disorient the player and lead to unfavourable results. The player needs “a continuous, unbroken viewpoint.” The dissonance caused by forcing these two mediums together is demonstrated within Ghost of Tsushima itself. In an early mission, the player is tasked with defending a small village à la Seven Samurai. Within the film, Kurosawa teaches the viewer of the landscape and geography of the town with subtle cinematic techniques; this leads to a more natural understanding of the setting's layout as the film progresses. However, in Tsushima, to maintain the control the player has over the “continuous, unbroken viewpoint,” they are simply walked through the town by an NPC, which is quite dull since it's a long continuous moment with no interesting breaks or changes. It feels forced and dry.  

Unlike in Seven Samurai, once the battle begins, all the player needs to do is use their previous knowledge of the game’s combat mechanics to beat as many Mongols as they can. There was no point to reconnoitering the town in the first place; it was just another interchangeable game environment to fight within. To quote Indiewire again, “By too literally trying to recreate a cinematic element from the movie that most inspired it, Ghost of Tsushima only underscores its fundamental gaminess.” Because this medium can only allow a certain kind of interaction with its environment and enemies, adopting cinematic methods leads to less effective outcomes.

Ghost of Tsushima, more than most mainstream videogames, shows how unsuitable cinematic approaches are to most styles of game design. It's a straightforward emulation of film that doesn't seem to understand the meaning behind the cinematic method, and its choice of Kurosawa as creative inspiration carries poor political implications. Most of all, it's the fundamental friction of using cinematic technique in videogames that leads to Ghost of Tsushima being genuinely, deeply flawed.


Haru Nicol is a media critic originally from Tokyo currently residing in the UK. They are usually found @SmilingRider on Twitter, complaining about the latest discourse surrounding Japanese culture and probably Kamen Rider.