Ni-Oh – More Than Just A Foreigner Hero
The following article contains the spoilers of Ni-Oh.
Team Ninja’s latest action game Ni-Oh is a dark fantasy action game which drew attention for its gameplay.
Being Souls-Like game based on history, Ni-Oh provides interesting lore and re-interpretation for each character. They are often shown in the form of cutscenes after each boss is defeated, and though short they express melancholy sentiments for the characters. This works to counter one of few accusations on Ni-Oh that it is another one of “westerner rules” type of story – after all, there is European character defeating Japanese characters in battle. But when examined more closely, Ni-Oh not only utilizes the cultural context of foreigner protagonist well, but also deviates from the pitfalls faced by the similar narratives.
Historical Context – The Battle That Changed The Fate Of Japan
The historical setting of the game is around the time of The Battle of Sekigahara, near the end of the Sengoku period. After the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu started to emerge as the biggest daimyo in Japan. Toyotomi loyalist Ishida Mitsunari wanted to keep the power under Toyotomi clan, and thus the two leaders faced off at Sekigahara to decide who will take the control of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu was experienced, shrewd, and ruthless warlord. Ishida Mitsunari was known to be rather strict(which earned animosity from other fellow samurais and caused them to join Tokugawa, just to kill Ishida) and very terrible general(he could not capture the Oshi castle even though his force was superior in number, and he blundered during the Battle of Haeng-Ju during the invasion of Korea. His win/loss record was quite pathetic). To compensate his weakness, Ishida Mitsunari employed the well-known samurai named Shima Sakon by giving him nearly half of his salary, and asked Mori Terumoto, one of other formidable warlord who was the grandson of Mori Motonari, to stand in as the leader. Ishida planned thoroughly and when the battle started his force surrounded Tokugawa Ieyasu. It seemed like Ishida had an upper hand.
But Tokugawa was even more cunning. Ieyasu had been corresponding with one of Ishida’s ally, Kobayakawa Hideaki, who ended up defecting to Tokugawa side during the battle. In addition to this, Ishida’s poor interpersonal skill and indirect line of command(Ishida had to relay the order through Terumoto and this was not very efficient way of command) weakened the overall fighting force while Tokugawa’s force fought in unity. Eventually the battle was over in just few hours, and Tokugawa emerged victorious. Some of Ishida’s allies such as Ootani Yoshitsugu were killed in battle, and Ishida Mitsunari was captured and executed. The power of Tokugawa Ieyasu grew larger, and he eventually wiped out the remnant of Toyotomi clan in the two battles in Osaka.
Ni-Oh is set during this time of chaos, but adds the supernaturals to the historical context.
One interesting aspect of the Sengoku era is that this was the period when Japan was exposed to the world outside Asia. Japan was aware of faraway lands like India, but the exposure to Europe shocked many. Not only they found the new weapon called “rifle” from the traders, the missionaries introduced Christianity to many Japanese and even some samurais(namely Otomo Sorin and Konishi Yukinaga) became devout Christians. So the Sengoku period was when Japan had the first taste of the world outside Asia. Yet the foreigners were rarely featured in significant roles, and Ni-Oh is one media that attempted to employ the historical context that was rarely utilized in games. If you want to use a foreigner character in Japanese setting, Sengoku would be a good setting to use. In a way, Kelley can be seen as the imperialistic force exploiting locals and their own people(such as William) to expand their empire, while Anjin can be seen as the man who seek to create harmony.
William Adams/Miura Anjin – The Guardian From The Far-Away Land
Ni-Oh features an unusual protagonist for samurai action game. It is none other than William Adams(Japanese name: Miura Anjin), the British sailor who became the samurai under Tokugawa Ieyasu. Though historical Adams served more as a diplomat, Team Ninja decided to portray him as a demon killer. While this can be seen as a simple attempt to sell the Japanese setting to the Western audiences, Team Ninja’s choice of the protagonist is actually rather clever when the cultural context of the title is considered.
The word Ni-Oh(仁王) is actually used in the Buddhism; the guardian deities named Kongorikishi(金剛力士) is sometimes referred to as Nio(仁王), the very title of the game. This guardian deity is considered to be the re-interpretation of Hercules; as Hellenistic art was transferred to the East through India, the images of Hercules was used to portray the guardian spirit that protected Buddha.
Now, let us examine Anjin in the game. In Ni-Oh, Anjin becomes more than a sailor-turned-samurai like in the history. He is a warrior who chased the evil sorcerer all the way to Japan to retrieve his guardian spirit, then ended up becoming the samurai serving Tokugawa Ieyasu. After his battle against Yasuke, the African Samurai(another historical figure), Anjin answers that he fights for the people who believe in the harmonious lives can be achieved between humans and spirits. Anjin becomes the guardian figure in this sense. Anjin’s journey reflects how Hercules’ image turned into the Buddhist guardian spirit; once the monster hunting hero from the West, he travels to the East and becomes the guardian of the people.
What differentiates Anjin from the typical “Westerner becomes the supreme warrior in other land” scenario often seen in Hollywood films is the narrative. While the Hollywood films often mystifies the other culture and emphasizes the western hero’s show of superiority over the locals(often by becoming messiah figure and claiming their best woman by defeating a local man), Ni-Oh diverts from such narrative in few ways; First of all, William Adams was already a trained warrior before coming to Japan. His first battle in the game is set in Europe where he meets the sorcerer Edward Kelley, the game’s main antagonist. While films like Avatar makes the novice outsider character easily overpowers the locals in their own ways after short training, Ni-Oh‘s story explains how Anjin stands as the warrior who can defeat the trained samurais by establishing his skills even before coming to Japan. In addition to this, Ieyasu orders that the truth behind Sekigahara should not be revealed to the public, which means that Anjin will not be treated like a messiah though he played pivotal role in bringing peace. The lack of overt romance also makes Anjin different from the Hollywood tropes too.
Perhaps the most important difference is that Anjin never becomes “more Japanese than Japanese”. Throughout the game, he learns from other Japanese characters, but their teachings are martial, not philosophical. Instead of focusing on Anjin learning the way of Bushido, the game’s narrative focuses on ending the chaos of Sengoku period, and reclaiming his own guardian spirit. The journey in Japan may enhanced Anjin’s resolve to fight against the manipulators like Kelley, but it does not make him suddenly more philosophical or mystified. Anjin is there to protect the people who share the same belief as himself, just like the guardian spirit.
Yasuke – The First Non-Japanese Samurai
The other character to notice is Yasuke, who appears as “Obsidian Samurai” in the game. Like Anjin, Yasuke’s character is based on the real historical figure. Yasuke was the African slave sold to Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga noticed Yasuke’s strength, then freed him to make him his warrior. Yasuke served Nobunaga loyally, and fought against Akechi Mitsuhide’s force when Akechi betrayed and attacked Nobunaga at Honnoji. Though Yasuke was captured, Akechi took pity on him and sent him to India instead of killing him.
Yasuke is one of the underused characters in many media set in the Sengoku era. There are very few live action media that features Yasuke, the most notable being NHK’s Taika drama Hideyoshi, where Yasuke appears as one of the warrior fought for Nobunaga during Honnoji(though he dies in this incarnation).
Ni-Oh‘s brilliance is that it gives underused yet intriguing character like Yasuke and gives him interesting narrative. After being defeated by Anjin, Yasuke tells his life story – being sold as a slave, Yasuke was freed by Nobunaga. In the cutscene, Nobunaga is portrayed as the white light figure contrary to the stereotypical images as a villain in many games. Yasuke tells his regret for not being able to save Nobunaga and his belief that why he believes his former lord to be the worthy ruler.
Yasuke’s role in the narrative might not be as significant as Ishida Mitsunari or others, but his symbolic position is brilliant. Here they are, the two samurais from the foreign lands fighting against each other for what they believe in. Anjin wanted to protect the harmony of the land he arrived, and Yasuke wanted to serve the man who gave him freedom. In this foreign land, these two outsiders were welcomed and fought to preserve the bliss they found. Usage of Yasuke’s character elevates the local character like Oda Nobunaga; with Yasuke’s character, the game shows that Japan is not like the stubborn traditional tribes depicted in similar narratives. Instead, Yasuke shows that Japan had people with open minds.
The Sorrow And Regrets
Ni-Oh has an advantage of the rich lores from the real Japanese history. The most of the bosses are based on historical figures, including the yokai characters; Yuki-Onna is revealed to be Nobunaga’s wife No-Hime, and the father of Hattori Hanzo appears as the toad demon boss. Though Ni-Oh features foreigner as the main protagonist, it shows emotional depth in the interpretation of Japanese characters.
After each boss is defeated, a short cutscene will narrate their history and motivations. Their narrations are used to humanize the characters and add to the dark atmosphere of the game. For example, No-Hime laments the loss of her husband after she was defeated, showing the dream crushed by betrayal.
By giving them humane moments after their defeats, Ni-Oh avoids the trap of becoming another narrative where the outsider tramples over the local. In fact, the post-battle cutscene after the battle with Oda Nobunaga shows Nobunaga clearly overpowering Anjin, but decide to accept death to foil Kelley’s plan rather than to become a pawn. In case of Honda Takakazu, his battle with Anjin serves as a new stimulant for the aged warrior to keep on training; Honda’s cutscene shows that he lamented the loss of worthy rivals to fight, but Anjin’s exploits rekindled his spirit. In Ni-Oh, the locals are not merely helpless crowds serve to decorate the foreigner’s exploits but characters shown with resolves and beliefs.
So what can be learned from Ni-Oh‘s use of characters? History can provide many underused gems if the developers/writers are willing to find, and adding the depth to the supporting characters can make the world even more attractive. Not only the characters fit the historical setting, but dark fantasy setting enhances the sentimental portrayals of characters. It is also a testament from “locals” showing how to do “foreigner comes to local” story right. Instead of turning the hero into a messiah, the game places him as the guardian who helps those who share beliefs and travels to retrieve his own spirit.
In short, Ni-Oh is more than what it seems.
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