Video games based on real-life historical events are big business these days. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which drew on real-life figures from ancient Greek history to craft a fictional narrative, is one of my favorite recent games. When I saw Ghost of Tsushima called “Assassin’s Creed, but in feudal Japan,” I knew I had to check it out.
It did not disappoint.
The game takes place in the year 1274 during the first Mongol invasion of Japan. You play as Jin Sakai, a samurai lord of Tsushima Island, who lives to protect his lands and people from the Mongol horde. But just how much of this fascinating story actually happened?
Well, let’s look at a few key points.
Did The Mongols really invade Tsushima Island?
The Mongols did indeed invade Japan in 1274 (and again in 1281), but they did so under different leadership.
There was no Mongol leader known as Khotun Khan.
Although Genghis Khan fathered a vast number of children and grandchildren—estimates suggest 0.5% of the world’s current population is descended from him—there is no record of him having a grandson named Khotun. It was Kublai Khan, who led the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century. Kublai Khan was a grandson of Genghis Khan but is perhaps better known for his conquests in China, where he earned the title of Shizu, First Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.
The Mongols quickly overwhelmed the samurai of Tsushima.
Though the names differ from history, the game’s opening cinematic, depicting a heroic last stand for the Tsushima samurai at Komoda Beach, is accurate. It was here that Sukekuni So, leader of the So Clan, and around 80 samurai warriors made a heroic last stand against more than 8,000 invading Mongols. They knew that they stood no chance. Nevertheless, So and his men charged on horseback directly at the invaders.
Today, a monument stands on Komoda Beach, in tribute to those who gave their lives defending the island.
As portrayed in-game, the Mongols quickly overwhelmed the samurai of Tsushima, gaining complete control of the island in just a few days.
The Mongols eventually made it as far as Hakata Bay in modern-day Kyushu, before a severe storm was said to have decimated their fleet. Counting their blessings, some Japanese at the time called this storm a “divine wind,” or kamikaze in Japanese.
Were Jin Sakai and Lord Shimura real people?
Much like his Mongol counterpart, Jin Sakai, the titular Ghost of Tsushima, and his uncle, Shimura, Samurai Lord of Tsushima, are entirely fictional characters, created just for the game. While was a Sakai clan of samurai throughout Japan’s history, they did not exist until the end of the 14th century, at least 100 years after the game’s events.
While these characters themselves never existed, many of their traits and those of their comrades are highly indicative of people who did live at this time.
A game that captures the spirit of what it meant to be a samurai.
For example, early in his adventure, Jin seeks the counsel of Sensei Ishikawa, a master of the bow and arrow.
In truth, the character of Sensei Ishikawa is far closer to what a samurai in 1274 looked like than Jin Sakai. These were the days before the curved “katana” sword became the samurai weapon of choice. Armor was also much lighter and less elaborate at this time. Like Ishikawa, most samurai back then actually favored the ranged combat that came with a bow and arrows rather than getting up close and personal with their enemies.
Did Tsushima in the 13th Century really look like this?
The setting of Tsushima island is perhaps where the game is most accurate in its portrayal of the time in question. The designers have clearly done their research in crafting locales and settlements that reflect the Kamakura period.
The Inari shrines, natural hot springs, and lush forests draw clear inspiration from accounts of how Tsushima would have looked at that time. The sense of foreboding you have, as you wander the forests and fields, expecting to be set upon at any moment by bandits, ronin or invaders must also have been a concern for Tsushima’s residents back then.
Although it was part of Japan, 13th-century Tsushima was also quite isolated from the rest of the country. This comes across well in the game’s dialogue where characters often speak of “the mainland” as this far off, mysterious realm.
Were the samurai really fixated on honor?
The game’s portrayal of the hierarchy and politics of the samurai is also fairly accurate.
Although Tsushima’s de-facto ruler, Jin’s uncle Lord Shimura never actually existed, his character is based on those who did. At that point in Japanese history, most regions or major cities would have a lord in a castle who would oversee the whole area and clamp down quickly on any dissent.
However, it wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that these lords appeared as Shimura is depicted in the game.
However, the fear and sense of futility that the citizens of Tsushima feel throughout this game, in the face of seemingly impossible odds, would have been true back in the day too. The Mongols were the best-equipped and most lethal fighting force of their era.
As portrayed in the game, their invasion of Tsushima was the first time that gunpowder, munitions and simple explosives were deployed in war outside of China. Facing them in battle must have been utterly terrifying for the people of Tsushima, with their simple swords, bows and arrows.
And speaking of combat…
Does Jin Sakai fight like a real samurai?
This is a bit of a multi-faceted question and the simple answer is: yes and no.
Jin’s increasingly dirty war against the Mongols is perhaps closest to reality when we see him engage in stealth and subterfuge, taking down enemies from a distance or by surprise.
Actual sword combat between 13th-century samurai was a rare occasion. Samurai favored the bow over the sword. During gameplay, you can see why this makes sense. Would you rather be up close and personal with a sword, or safely picking off enemies from a distance?
Also, Jin’s 4 different styles of sword attacks are as graceful as they are totally unrealistic.
It draws inspiration from celebrated Japanese films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
The elaborate spinning, leaping, and sweeping motions our hero employs in many of his attacks are far too loose and open to be practical. Although it looks great on screen, an actual samurai would always favor short and direct attacks.
These days, anyone who has practiced or observed others practicing Kendo will know what I mean. Swinging your sword high above your head or twirling it around is a one-way ticket to swift impalement. I’m talking from my own experience here!
Ghost of Tsushima’s best quality is, undoubtedly, its atmosphere. The combination of audio and musical cues using authentic Japanese instruments with absolutely stunning visuals genuinely immerse the player in Japan’s past.
It draws inspirations from celebrated Japanese films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Ran, and other classic samurai movies. The game even has an optional “Kurosawa mode” where you play in black and white, and a filter is applied to the screen to give it that authentic 1950s cinema feel.
It may not pass as a source on your next history paper, but if you’re looking for a game that captures the spirit of what it meant to be a samurai and that tremendous intangible feeling that makes us all love Japan, then this is it!