Here in the middle of 2020, a terrible year by nearly every measure, cultural authenticity is the name of the game. Pretending to be what you are not by appropriating anyone else’s identity will get you canceled in a TikTok minute.
Fortunately for Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) and developer Sucker Punch Productions, they have just released the year’s most celebrated transcultural video game, Ghost of Tsushima. The last major title created exclusively for Sony’s PS4 console platform and already a money-spinning international hit, Ghost of Tsushima earned its online street credentials through painstaking research and collaboration.
The game’s stunning visual depiction of feudal Japan under Mongol invasion in the year 1274 is rendered so convincingly that it has won praise from industry critics both here (Weekly Famitsu gave it a coveted perfect score) and abroad, as well as near-unanimous thumbs-ups from gamers on social media. The estate of the late director Akira Kurosawa, a seminal master of samurai epics, even granted naming rights for a special “Kurosawa mode” of gameplay in grainy ’50s-style black-and-white.
But what casual players may find most impressive is the game’s culture-meshing soundtrack.
Two composers, England’s Ilan Eshkeri and Japan’s Shigeru Umebayashi, blend Western orchestral ensembles with artists of traditional Japanese instruments — the biwa (lute), shakuhachi (bamboo flute), stringed koto and shamisen, and taiko drums. Japanese-Scottish singer Clare Uchima adds soaring Japanese vocals and hushed line readings, while Radik Tyulyush, a musician from the Republic of Tuva, performs traditional Tuvan throat-singing chants.
The process of writing, recording and implementing the music took over two years and spanned three cities: Tokyo, Los Angeles and London.
Unlike many of Hollywood’s Japan-themed movie scores (think “Memoirs of A Geisha” and “The Last Samurai”), whose pedigreed lushness either overwhelms less conventional strains or envelops them in orientalist cliches, the soundtrack of Ghost of Tsushima seamlessly integrates many of its Japanese source elements, such as pentatonic scales, thunderous taiko crescendos and passages of near-silence buoyed by a shakuhachi’s lone melodic line. It sometimes sounds more like Kyoto than California.
That’s no accident, of course, and the alchemy wasn’t easy. SIE producer Peter Scaturro says that while collaborating with the composers, musicians and arrangers — including Chad Cannon (who composed the score for the Academy Award-winning documentary, “American Factory”) and Bill Hemstapat (who did music editing for the critically acclaimed video game Death Stranding) — his international team was working across three languages: English, Japanese and the professional lingo of classical music.
The 34-year-old Cannon, who has lived and worked in Japan since college, is fluent in all of them. “One time during rehearsals in Tokyo, Umebayashi pulled me aside,” Cannon says via video call from his home in Los Angeles. “He said, ‘This is not working, Chad. We need it to be more spare. That’s what Japanese music is. This is just ‘American Japan.’”
The award-winning Umebayashi, 69, has scored top-shelf East-West blockbusters such as “House of Flying Daggers” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.” For Ghost of Tsushima, his greatest challenge was to ignore preconceptions about Eastern and Western musical tropes and focus on the energy and passion of the game’s core story: A 30-hour plot about an emotionally tormented warrior who must betray the samurai code of honor to save his village and survive.
“I drew my main inspiration from Japanese music prior to when it began being influenced by Western music,” Umebayashi says. “Even though it’s very simple, that music has a unique quality that strikes deep into your heart and really moves you.”
Eshkeri, who collaborated with Umebayashi once before on the 2007 horror film, “Hannibal Rising,” also immersed himself in the elemental qualities of traditional Japanese music, taking him far from his neoclassical comfort zone on what he describes as a huge learning curve.
“I spent a lot of time researching the Japanese scales and folk music from the 13th century and from the island of Tsushima itself, and then having the players explain to me how to write naturally for the instruments,” he says. “Traditional Japanese music does not use a system of chords like Western music does. In order to stay true to the notes of the Japanese scale, I had to create my own system of chords by stacking selected notes on top of each other.
“I really wanted to make sure that the Japanese instruments stayed iconic in their sound. The symphonic orchestra supports and adds grandeur to the music, but the Japanese instruments are always front and center.”
Adding a single soundtrack to the various levels and modes of a video game can make scoring a film sound like a cinch in comparison. A movie or a television show is a linear medium: You know what’s coming next and can match the prerecorded music accordingly. But with a video game, the music needs to suit the various inputs of the player, who is at once the audience, the protagonist and the director controlling the action.
Thai arranger Hemstapat, who is now based in the United States, is drawn to the unique challenges posed by video game soundtracks, which involve constructing complete compositions, then deconstructing and reconstructing them in an editing studio to accommodate divergent narratives. He believes that Ghost of Tsushima raises the bar for future projects by conveying subtler and more sophisticated emotional states, moving beyond what he calls the happy/sad, angry/fearful binaries commonly found in the action-adventure genre.
Previous Japan-themed games such as the “Yakuza” series and last year’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are based on fictional and mythical stories. Both take considerable liberties with their cultural source material.
But Ghost of Tsushima is firmly rooted in a specific time and place in Japanese history. The authenticity of its facts and musical character can be confirmed or debated by anyone with an internet connection. And in the uncertain turmoil of 2020, it’s the internet that is driving the desire for accurate cultural representation and making it possible to achieve.
Roland Kelts is author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.