You didn’t need to tell me much about Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima to already get me on the hype train, as hearing it was basically an Assassin’s Creed game set in feudal Japan was enough to lock me in. I doubled down on this curiosity when I started seeing it marketed as a homage to samurai cinema. Most notably, the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was a name cited a lot by the developers. Kurosawa is considered to be one of the best filmmakers of all time, with his reputation leading him to be called “the greatest living example of all that an author of the cinema should be” by his peers and fans alike.
As a fan of the genre myself, I was fascinated to see learn the game would pay tribute to the director, both in style and in substance. I grew interested in knowing more about the visual techniques, audio rhythms and narrative devices that Sucker Punch would utilise to best reflect Kurosawa’s legacy. The developer, most known for the Sly Cooper and Infamous series, has marketed this influence as a core element of Tsushima’s spirit, even gaining the blessing of Kurosawa’s estate in the process.
Jason Connell, art director at Sucker Punch, has not shied away from these inspirations, stating in an interview with EW: “We have this great game that transports people back to feudal Japan and Akira Kurosawa was one of our reference guides, especially early on about how we wanted it to feel.”
The result is a little… wobbly at best.
Ghost of Tsushima’s main problem is it doesn’t really feel like it employs any of the filmmaking techniques that Kurosawa used in his films. Cutscenes look extremely flat, with protagonist Jin and his comrades usually standing around as they work through pointless expository dialogue, and there are very few interesting things happening in each shot. In his video ‘Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement’, film critic Tony Zhou posited that Kurosawa’s greatest legacy was his use of movement on the screen.
Shots have a lot of visual interest. Even when people are still, there’s rain in the background to draw your eye. Second, there’s the movement of groups. Kurosawa films usually feature large groups of people who band together or split apart […] which brings us to #3: the movement of individuals. One of my favourite things about Kurosawa is that his blocking is unrealistic and exaggerated. If someone is nervous, they pace left and right. If they’re outraged, they stand straight up. He would often tell his actors to pick one gesture for their character and repeat it throughout the film. That way, the audience can quickly see who’s who and how they’re feeling.
Kurosawa knew the charisma of his actors. He was an expert in knowing how to direct specific people and how to play them off against each other. Jin is boring. He spends hours and hours talking about his “honour” and I don’t really get a sense for who he is besides being a samurai. One needs only to look at some of the greatest performances Kurosawa elicited; the astute stratagem of Takashi Shimura in Seven Samurai (1954), the muscular heroism of Toshiro Mifune in The Hidden Fortress (1958), and the emotive stillness of Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran (1985), to see how memorable his screenwriting was. We spend a lot more time with Jin than we ever have with these characters, and yet he still comes out as unremarkable as ever.
Zhou’s mention of visual interest holds a little more weight for times when you’re exploring Tsushima Island. The movement of wind is heavily emphasised to the point Sucker Punch created an entire game mechanic out of it, substituting waypoints and dotted lines in favour of wind patterns that show the direction you must go. This is a brilliant feature from a mechanical perspective but stylistically, it’s very hollow. Kurosawa’s shots were so carefully orchestrated, with attention paid to every detail, but these winds are dynamic and therefore aren’t placed deliberately by a director. It feels like it completely undermines the process through which he achieved effective cinematography in his films.
Then there’s the much-advertised ‘Kurosawa mode’, which really just applies a black and white filter with an old-timey grain effect. This already feels wrong. Tsushima island is beautiful. Its landscapes are vibrant and colourful, and I may even be tempted to say this is one of the prettiest games on the PlayStation 4. Sucker Punch made a lot of deliberate choices in designing this world, it’s handcrafted in a way that it sparkles with life, like the stuff dreams are made of. To suddenly play the game with a filter that removes most of that magic is a disservice to the hard work put into it.
“We actually did some research on the curves that may have existed on that kind of film that [Kurosawa] might’ve used,” Connell states, however the results still look very flat. Lighting for black and white video is different than lighting for colour. You need to pay closer attention to contrast, the reflection of shadows, and the clash between light and dark tones. This all influences how certain things on the image pop. It’s the same as before, but the dynamic and interactive aspect of 3D games means this effect is much harder to achieve consistently, and most of the time it just ends up looking wrong.
Check out the below shot from Red Beard (1965). Note how the light hits the actors’ faces and the shadows behind them. It’s an effective scene, and it was achieved because the director specifically orchestrated this shot knowing what it would be filmed in black and white. Since Ghost of Tsushima’s Kurosawa mode is presented as an optional feature, it means the cutscenes and gameplay sequences are designed with colour in mind with the non-colour version applied later, resulting in a lesser experience for anyone who chooses to play this way.
I haven’t even mentioned the accessibility issue here either. There’s an early mission that involves tracking down a specific area of the map, and the clue you’re given is to pay attention to the colour of the flowers. Obviously, this isn’t possible while using Kurosawa mode. This also extends to the combat, where certain enemy moves are anticipated by the colour of a little icon that appears onscreen (blue or red depending on the attack). Without that piece of information, it makes some action scenarios hard to play.
We also need to remember that Kurosawa shot period pieces in colour too. Ran and Kagemusha (1980) are among his finest work, and simply labelling a greyscale filter as a definitive ‘Kurosawa mode’ erases these films from his collection entirely.
I’m enjoying Ghost of Tsushima a lot, but it can’t be denied its unwillingness to separate itself from its influences has held it back. The Kurosawa mode especially feels like a cheap marketing gimmick rather than an authentic tribute to the legendary filmmaker, and there’s very little content in the game that actually makes me feel like I’m experiencing a story inspired by his work. No style, no substance.