Playing with History – seeking the Shinobi secrets of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

There are three eternal truths: water is wet, the grass is always greener on the other side and ninjas are awesome. Even though real life ninjas only existed in Japan for around two hundred years during the Sengoku period, they have none-the-less become part of our cultural consciousness. Ninjas are now legendary, thanks to their uncanny ability to leap out of shadowy scenery to stealth attack our unsuspecting media and art. Ninjas have been striking as if from nowhere to appear in movies, books, cartoons, comics and, of course, video games. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest big thing to have a Shinobi in a starring role and, by all accounts, it looks back-flippingly good.

There is undoubtedly a huge separation between the ninja of popular modern media and their historical counterparts. Indeed, this separation was even occurring within Japan itself in the nineteenth century. During the Meiji Restoration, the population began to fuse the factual Shinobi with Japanese folklore and mythology. Soon the ninja became a figure of mystery – capable of astonishing feats of agility that verged on the supernatural.

This is likely the mythos that FromSoftware have drawn upon in their creation of Sekiro. Certainly, the parallels are clear to see as their protagonist leaps with captivating grace, duels with supreme deadly confidence and even grapples to distant rooftops using a mechanical prosthetic arm. Yet what links can be drawn between Sekiro and the real-life Shinobi, those that fought and died during the Feudal period of Japan?

Sekiro looks like a Shinobi should look. His traditional outfit is not an exact replica of the distinctive black garb of the ‘Shinobi Shōzoku’, but the inspiration it draws from the iconic attire is still clear to see. However, that still means he looks nothing like an authentic ninja would. A ninja who looks like a ninja would be a terrible ninja, as everyone would know that they’re a ninja. How could a ninja perform their primary roles – set by their lord, a daimyōs – of espionage, sabotage and, sometimes, assassination, if their very clothing gave them away?

This is not an issue for a video game ninja of course, all they have to do is crouch down in a bush or behind crates to render themselves virtually invisible. Real world ninjas would act much more like Agent 47, for example, and don a disguise to conceal themselves. They would often take on the appearance of farmers to remain unnoticed in the predominately rural environment of Japan, or dress as priests and monks to travel unseen and undisturbed across political boundaries from one lord’s land to another’s. Not only was this an ideal method to conceal their true agenda but the loose robes of a priest could be used to hide weapons.

Speaking of weapons, would a real ninja wield a katana, such as the one that Sekiro waves around with such abandon? The answer is: yeah, probably, but it’s unlikely the katana would have been their preferred weapon of choice. The katana was the principal weapon of many warriors during the Sengoku period, but was certainly most closely linked to the Samurai and their code of honour, Bushido. Katana were difficult to obtain, often handed down from generation to generation as a Samurai’s birthright, and thus highly valued.

It goes without saying that it would be very suspicious indeed if a seemingly innocent farmer, priest or monk was found with a katana in their possession. Much better then to have a weapon that would arouse little to no suspicion. The ideal candidate for this would be a kusari-gama. This weapon consisted of a sickle and a chain, both items that could be disassembled into the sorts of possessions your typical run-of-the-mill farmer would own.

Then there’s Sekiro’s prosthetic limb; this incredible device can launch the super shinobi to usually inaccessible locations thanks to a handy grappling hook. A prosthetic of this sort gets a big nope on the authent-o-meter, but it does echo the arsenal of the real ninja, who would utilise both grappling hooks and ropes to scale walls. The ‘Bansenshukai’ (a book containing the knowledge of the the Iga and Kōga regions, who were responsible for training ninjas) even details the use of a collapsible ladder.

A Ninja’s obsession with climbing things doesn’t end there. Kunai were small metal spikes that are most commonly used by the video game ninja as a weapon to be thrown, yet their true use by ninjas was much less violent – they were intended to gouge holes in walls to provide handy places to grip. If ever your cat is stuck up a tree, forget the fire brigade, it’s a ninja you should be calling!

Sekrio’s replacement limb also has an assortment of other weapons and gadgets. It can come equipped with firecrackers, shuriken, and what looks like an umbrella. Is there any historical evidence to suggest that Shinobi would also use these items?

Shuriken, you’ll be pleased to know, really did exist. Though recent theories suggest that these deadly throwing stars were not used for throwing, rather their small size and concealability made them ideal for slashing a person’s delicate bits whilst at close quarters. The distinct holes in the centre of a Shuriken would perhaps have been used to string them together. In this way they could be worn as a belt, though having razor sharp objects so close to genitals sounds like folly to me.

Firecrackers would also be used. Explosive bombs had been a technological innovation resulting from the failed Moghul invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. Originally used against the samurai, these bombs were so enormous they had to be launched by catapults. In the following years, the use of gunpowder was significantly refined and improved. Hand held bombs, shrapnel spewing fragmentation explosives cased in pottery, and grenades made from paper or reed wrappers that would release smoke upon impact were now part of the ninja’s arsenal.

There are also some compelling theories that suggest ninjas would utilize any and all cutting edge technology to gain an upper-hand, not just explosive and gunpowder but even flintlock rifles. After all, why bother with all the hard work of being stealthy to get close to a target when you can simply shoot them from a safe distance?

So then, what about the big metal umbrella than unfurls from Sekiro’s arm to defend against attacks? Surely there isn’t any historical precedent for some sort of Mary Poppins of the ninjutsu scene to have really existed? Surprisingly the answer is a tenuous ‘yes there is’, though the real metal umbrella was much smaller and served a very different purpose from Sekiro’s impressively sized appendage. How on earth could this be possible? Allow me to set the scene…

Matchlock guns were first introduced in Japan by the Portuguese and proved astonishingly popular for a period of time – in the Battle of Sekigahara, it is estimated that some 60,000 guns were used. Ultimately, Japan would make the decision to turn away from this new technology and return to the sword as its preferred weapon of choice. Yet before this, there were many innovations on the standard matchlock gun, one being the introduction of – what I can only describe as – ‘A tiny metal umbrella’ that would protect the ignition mechanism from the rain.

Despite Sekiro’s mytho-technological abilities then, there are still many similarities between this one-armed wolf and the real ninjas of Japanese history. There’s also one other link they share: they’re both awesome.

Written by
Ade reviews video games. He writes Playing With History. Read more of Ade's stuff at www.adewritesstuff.com