Sekiro the Samurai Western
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
“I believed at that time that for Japan to recover it was necessary to place a high value on the self. I still believe this” -- Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s films were compared by western critics to the American Western. Both the films of Kurosawa and those of his Western counterparts featured anti-heroes, men of violence, during or just after a civil war or period of unrest (the American Civil War or the Sengoku era respectively). Kurosawa acknowledged his debt to the Western  but as Stephen Prince notes in his The Warrior’s Camera - paraphrasing David Desser’s response to Kurosawa - the differences between the two genres are as important as the apparent similarities. “Class identity, relations, and conflict are all central to the samurai film while being quite peripheral to the Western.”
The mythological appeal of the American West was precisely in its supposed classlessness : it was the region where failed Easterners or oppressed Europeans could find the space and the opportunity to build a new society free of the political and economic corruptions of the old world. Drawing on this mythology, Westerns are implicit celebrations of the building of civilization, dramatizing a future full of promise and optimism […] Either that, or they dramatize the collapse of the myth, the closing of the opportunities that it promised […]
The logic of these portrayals depends on the gunfighter as a catalyst, a character free of ties to the past, obligated to no-one, and thereby able to help usher in the golden future or, because of his “pure” isolation, able to bring down violently the old order. In either case, his actions are purifying and have an explicit social function. The gunfighter, because of his social isolation, is able to exercise choice. He may have to ride off into the mountains at the end, as in Shane, but his decision to intervene in the action has historically progressive consequences. It may, for example, permit the safe growth of a town in a formerly violent region. Nihilism is rarely the Western’s reply to history and society. (my emphasis)
Samurai, unlike their Western analogues are not classless and autonomous. Their actions are “ferociously constrained by giri, the social codes of obligation”. Violence in these films is not historically progressive but cyclical and futile:
The gunfighter rides away at the end of Westerns because, to American culture, this is the essence of freedom: the ability to shed social ties and move on. The samurai hero has a harder time doing this. The codes of giri are everywhere and have constituted his identity.
Arguably this applies even to the ronin, like the protagonist of Yojimbo or Sanjuro or the band of mercenary samurai in Seven Samurai. They may not have a lord or a dynasty to serve but are acutely conscious that they - and those around them, bandits, farmers, gangsters, civilians - are unable to extricate themselves from the same patterns of pointless conflict. Yojimbo, or Sanjuro or whatever his real name may be, is told by the chamberlain’s wife in the latter film that he is like a “glittering sword” but “the best sword stays in its sheath”. Sanjuro rubs his forehead and steps away. The woman instantly recognizes his flawed heroism, and terrible propensity for violence, and tries to dissuade him from violent solutions thereafter. Her reminder haunts him throughout and in the final duel. He insists he does not wish to fight Hanbei, but Hanbei will not be appeased, and demands satisfaction. Hanbei telegraphs his strike and Yojimbo is victorious. Before the bystanders can congratulate him on his victory Sanjuro reprimands them: “He was just like me. A naked sword. He didn’t stay in his sheath.” He then wanders off, and will no doubt be drawn into some other messy dispute, and will need yet another alias to distance himself from and repress memories of the past. Seven Samurai too ends on a similar note of hollow and, this time, pyrrhic victory. Kambei’s band successfully repel the bandits, but sustain four casualties. “Again we’ve survived” Kambei mutters at the end of the battle, and, then, while the farmers sing and work the fields, “Again, we are defeated … the winners are those farmers, not us”. Kambei is initially reluctant to take up the farmers on their offer but is won over by their sacrifice of the best rice in the village for any mercenary samurai that offers aid. Also the challenge of defending a weakly fortified village against a dozen bandits, and the bonds he will form with old and new friends. There’s no rejoicing, or even resentment, at the end. Kambei, like the ronin of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, willing or unwilling will become embroiled in these conflicts repeatedly, suffer more bereavements, until he, like his four comrades, is spent: “they stand before the graves” Joan Mellen writes in her essay on Seven Samurai, “which represent both their future and the destiny of their entire class”.
For all the things Samurai film and Westerns share, the core ethos of each is fundamentally different. To call the Samurai films of Kurosawa and his contemporaries Samurai Westerns would be to notice only the similarities in style and setting. The cowboy Western allows its amoral anti-hero protagonist to use their violent talents to realize American ideals of liberty and justice – if not always life or happiness. The Samurai film presents heroes that are distinctly unfree to act according to their conscience, but only according to the dictates of giri and the merciless forces of history.
Sekiro, I will argue, is a better, if not perfect, fit for the category of a Samurai Western. Sekiro like many Japanese RPGs and visual novels, has us play through the game a number of times to unlock multiple endings. And here, like in those other JRPGs, that cycle of replays functions as a story telling device. Sekiro’s shinobi Bushido, his fidelity to Kuro and to Owl, his violent campaign to destroy the Dragon’s Heritage, which has become a source of contagion and suffering for Ashina, is, like any other Samurai film, nihilistically cyclical. That is, unless the player makes a number of very deliberate choices and succeeds in unlocking a secret ending, which, I will argue, appears to consciously invoke the spirit of the Western.
For the benefit of those who have not played and will not play the game it is necessary to set the scene before discussing each ending in turn. Twenty years before the action commences, the country of Ashina has been seized by Isshin and his clan during the Sengoku warring states period. Isshin is a sword saint or ‘Kensei’, someone regarded as the master of swordsmanship for his era. He has successfully carved out and defended this territory for twenty years, but now in his dotage and in declining health, a rival power, the Interior Ministry, determined to conquer Ashina and unify Japan poses a great threat. Isshin has enemies within, the shinobi Owl, adoptive parent to the protagonist Wolf, who is conspiring with the Interior Ministry to betray Ashina. And there is also Isshin’s adoptive grandson, Genichiro, a war orphan deeply loyal to Ashina, who abducts Kuro of the Hirata clan, to whom the protagonist, Wolf, is sworn to protect. Kuro is of an ancient bloodline, the Dragon’s Heritage. He is immortal and can confer immortality on others. Genichiro hopes to use the Dragon’s Heritage to save the moribund Ashina clan. Kuro, on the other hand, is determined that no-one should have this power. The price of immortality is Dragon’s Rot, a general, terrible malaise, similar to what is found in other Dark Souls games. Kuro no doubt also recognises it as a catalyst for great conflict, Genichiro’s preparations against the Interior Ministry, as well as Owl’s machinations. He will deny both sides any aid whatsoever. The quest, then, is for Wolf to, one way or another, destroy it, while fulfilling his obligations of giri. Unlike Geraldo of the Riviera the morally ambiguous Witcher we have this code explicitly outlined or us in the SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER duel with Owl. It can be seen immediately the tension between each of the tenets and how Wolf, like the protagonist of the Samurai film, will struggle to fulfil all his obligations simultaneously:
HITOTSU! The parent is absolute their will must be obeyed HITOTSU! The master is absolute. You give your life to keep him safe. You bring him back at any cost HITOTSU! Fear is absolute. There is no shame in losing one battle. But you must take revenge by any means necessary.
As can be imagined, the parent who is absolute, asks the son to betray the master, who is also absolute. To obey the master means slaying the father, and proceeding to an incomplete half-victory (see discussion of all the endings below). Obeying the father and betraying the idealistic and noble young master is the last act of malice which completes the hero’s downfall. And from the third and final tenet it can be seen how the hero, regardless of his will, is committed to a perpetual cycle of violence whichever path he choses.
There are a number of ‘solutions’ to the problem of the Dragon’s Heritage, none of them entirely definitive or perfect. Or, at least, none of them entirely untragic. SPOILERS, SPOILERS, what are you reading this for if you don’t want spoilers, you fool, avert your eyes! SPOILERS! In the first ending Wolf does succeed in destroying the Dragon’s Heritage. However it also means executing his master, and he falls into a deep depression. Moreover, strangely enough, despite having solved the problem, albeit tragically, it is strongly implied that the events of the game will repeat indefinitely. After executing Kuro, the screen fades to black and cuts to the Dilapidated Temple (the starting point of the game). In this temple, until the final act of the game when the Interior Ministry moves on Ashina Castle, we would have found the sculptor, an NPC who, afflicted by Dragon Rot, spends all his days carving Buddha statutes and upgrading our shinobi prosthetic with gadgets. In this ending, the sculptor has become Shura, a wandering and all violent demon born of the chaos and civil war. Now, after sacrificing Kuro, we find Wolf in this role. Emma, doctor to Lord Isshin, and Kuro’s retainer, is kneeling in the corner and says “I think it is best that you have this” referring to the Shinobi prosthetic, the arm crafted for Sekiro when Genichiro removed his real one in the prologue. “No doubt the day will come—when a Shinobi arrives, seeking strength.” This gesture is a bit baffling. Is the sculptor we meet at the beginning of the game Wolf in a previous cycle? No, we know his name was Sekijo. He possessed a prosthetic arm because Lord Isshin took his real arm in a duel when he was about to succumb to Shura . It is peculiar that shinobi keep losing arms in this story but why does Emma think it inevitable, firstly that another shinobi will appear (the Interior Ministry has annexed Ashina, the Dragon’s Heritage has been eradicated), and secondly that it will be a one-armed shinobi? It’s certainly possible that Wolf and Kuro overlooked something and a new hero will rise, but Emma says “No doubt the day will come” with an odd certainty. The best answer is that the gesture, while not making complete narrative sense, means that the player will, literally, be starting up the game again as the one-armed Wolf we already know, and will perhaps be caught in an endless nihilistic cycle until they “solve” the game.
In the second ending, Wolf destroys the Dragon Heritage, saves Kuro, at the cost of sacrificing himself. Emma and Kuro pay their respects at Wolf’s grave:
Emma: So, you’re leaving. Kuro: Yes. I, to, will live for every moment and then I will pass on. Just as my Shinobi did for me. Lady Emma, I owe much to you as well.
As profound as his resolution is, one cannot help but wonder what Kuro’s fate will be. A mortal child with no retainers or protection wandering Sengoku Japan. In the third ending, Wolf is like a glittering sword that fails to stay in his sheath. He succumbs to Shura, becomes a demon who kills and kills without purpose.
Soldiers and townsfolk alike died by the thousands. Very few survived. Ashina became the setting for the most tragic massacre of the Sengoku period. And for a long time after, it was said a demon roamed the land.
The third, Shura ending – typically referred to as the ‘Bad’ ending – is probably the most likely and believable one. Throughout the game, and especially at the very end of the Shura playthrough, characters have been saying things that convey they suspect Wolf’s downfall is all but a given.
Emma: I have witnessed Shura once before. The very same stirs inside you. As such you must be destroyed.
And in the event the player loses the fight with Emma
Emma: Perhaps I should have killed you sooner.
Much earlier in the game, when Wolf offers Emma sake:
Wolf: …There’s something I’d like to ask you Emma: Of course? Wolf: Who trained you to fight with a blade? Emma: …A blade? I’m a doctor. Wolf: But who? Emma: …Lord Isshin. But I only have a passing interest. Wolf: I do not believe your skill counts… as a mere passing interest. Why did you learn. Emma: Well, not to kill people… Wolf: …what do you mean? Emma: No… I don’t have the slightest desire to kill anyone. It’s just I would want to kill a demon if one were to appear. Wolf: A demon? Emma: Don’t take me seriously, it was only a joke.
Isshin, when you slay Emma:
You were a most unkind and inauspicious man. But for some reason I could not bring myself to hate you. It seems, I must cut you down before you fall to shura.
Isshin and Emma, then, have been observing Wolf’s progress and predicted that he will be the next Shura. It is all but inevitable. There’s little they can do to dissuade him if this is the case, and nothing takes place to suggest they are trying. Emma upgrades your healing items, Isshin gives Wolf esoteric martial arts manuals – hardly anything that will check Wolf’s fall to Shura. They merely brace for it, while hoping for the best. Indeed, the ‘Bad’ ending is more accurately referred to as the ‘True’ ending if not the most desirable.
There is a fourth ending, which has been referred to by the community as the ‘True Ending’ but I feel it is more of a glitch. The ending is very much a secret ending, the player will have to execute very specific game mechanics at very specific moments in time, or else lose all opportunity of achieving it (at least in this cycle). The steps to acquire the items to achieve this ending will sound like nonsense to anyone who hasn’t played the game, but I will leave any readers with no experience of the game in confusion (except where explanation is necessary for the purposes of my argument) because it reinforces the point that the player needs to do a number of highly specific and unusual things. First the player will have to have unlocked all three above-described endings. Then in a fourth playthrough the player will need to acquire the Frozen Tears. To get the Frozen Tears, Wolf will need to dive into a pond at the bottom of a waterfall at Senpou Temple and find a heretical religious text, “Holy Chapter: Infested”. Wolf will need to give this to the Divine Child (a kind of synthetic Kuro, created to replicate the power of the Dragon’s Heritage, created via a series of unethical experiments). The player will then have to request rice from the Divine Child, rest at bonfire/sculptor’s idol (save points throughout the game) and request more rice until the Divine Child is exhausted and request a Persimmon. Wolf needs to get her a Persimmon, she will then give him rice to give to Kuro. Kuro will make the rice not a Sticky Rice Ball. He then needs to meet the Divine Child in the Hall Illusions.
Divine Child: I… don’t want to lose them. But… if I were to choose the path of Returning the Dragon’s Heritage… It may come to pass that I would have to leave all of you. Thank you for your kind words … My friends, listen … He is actually quite kind. He gave me this … Oh, Shinobi of the Divine Heir … I didn’t hear you come in. It is thanks to you that I’ve been able to have a deep… conversation with my friends.
Sekiro: With the children of the rejuvenating waters?
Divine Child: Yes. There is something I would like to discuss. I believe we should not aim to sever the Dragon’s Heritage, but instead return it to its rightful place.
Divine Child: That’s right. The Dragon’s Heritage was … set free from its homeland and it drifted here to Japan. Its power was never meant for this land. Until something is done, it will continue to corrupt the lives of those who encounter it. The Dragon’s Heritage and those connected to it… it’s only right they return home. To the West, to the birthplace of the Divine Dragon. However, there is one problem, I am unsure of the exact destination…
A Senpou monk would know, but he is long dead, Wolf needs to get the Holy Chapter: Dragon’s Return from a cave. Wolf and the Divine Child read the text and they discover that if the Divine Child eats the Dried Serpent Viscera and the Fresh Serpent Viscera she can be come a ‘cradle’ for Kuro and return him and his power to the West. These acquired, and eaten, the Divine Child gives Wolf the Frozen Tears, which Kuro must drink after Wolf defeats Sword Saint Isshin. Unlike in the previous two ‘successful’ endings, when Wolf gives Kuro the frozen tears along with the Dragon’s Tears, Kuro gasps and smiles softly. Technically, Wolf has disobeyed Kuro as well as his father, he will not sever Dragon’s Heritage, he has accomplished something different, and Kuro notices the difference. Wolf, instead of executing Kuro or himself, carries him off and the scene fades to black. We cut to Senpou temple, where the Divine Child absorbs and becomes a cradle to Kuro.
Lord Kuro, may you be at rest. Allow me to hold you in my heart. Everyone, it’s time. I must depart. The journey to severe our ties with fate … will be a very long one indeed. And yet, you still wish to join us?
Wolf: I do
Divine Child: You have my thanks, Shinobi of the Divine Dragon. Know that Kuro shares my joy. Let us depart to the West. To the birthplace of the Divine Dragon.
The decisions Wolf has made in this run have broken the cycle of violence and contagion, intrigue and conspiracy. All the destructive elements that prevent Ashina, like any troubled, fledgling town in a Clint Eastwood movie, from flourishing have been removed from the stage. Owl, Genichiro and Isshin are gone, the Interior Ministry has taken Ashina and Japan is on a secure path to unification. Wolf and the Divine Child get to ride off into the sunset and their quest, though probably as arduous and eventful as what we have witnessed, seems full of promise. As Kurosawa said speaking about Japan’s postwar recovery, the freedom and rights of the individual were essential for lasting change and progress. Wolf has defied his father and his master, the Divine Child has rejected her role and left the temple, they have sundered the obligations of giri and struck out on their own, for the betterment of not only themselves but the Japan they leave behind. Wolf is also at this point, probably free to die, and fail in his quest, but his status as mortal or immortal at this point has not been explicitly defined. It is – in David Desser’s words – a historically progressive ending, a happy one, albeit uncertain. If Kurosawa attempted a Western in the trappings of a Samurai movie, it would probably look something like Sekiro.
 Prince, S. (1999), The Warrior’s Camera, Princeton University press, p. 15
 Ibid, p. 15
 Ibid, p. 16
 Ibid, p. 16
 Mellen, J., BFI Film Classics: Seven Samurai, Bloomsbury, p. 91