Sucker Punch confirmed the importance of the katana in Ghost of Tsushima, so as to make it irreplaceable: if it is true that the sword is the soul of a samurai, we find out more about a weapon considered the home of the gods
“There will be a progression for the sword, we want it to be an important tool for the protagonist and therefore for the player. The sword is said to be the soul of the samurai, so we don’t want you to throw it away to get another, it is an important object for Jin and his family. “ With these words Jason Connell, creative director of Ghost of Tsushima, expressed himself during our interview about the katana, the weapon par excellence of Jin Sakai which symbolizes the samurai heritage and will be faithfully at his side in the difficult path of liberation of the island from the Mongol invaders. Hardness, resistance, quality of cut and flexibility: of all weapons, there is no more elegant one for refinement and complexity. Blades so perfect that they do not seem even from this world, so much so that the ancients believed it to be the home of the gods, blessed with a power capable of defeating all evil.
And maybe a divine aura really do have it, if we believe that all legends have a pinch of truth but above all, even today, we can see the art of remote swordsmen handed down in absolute masterpieces of beauty and power. It is also not surprising how the stories and traditions that surround it the katana they are inseparable from the culture of those who wore and used them, because no cutting weapon in history has been more strongly associated with its owner of the Japanese samurai sword. While waiting to know how deep the bond between Jin Sakai and his katana will be, we allow ourselves to dive into the past to learn more about this unique weapon.
The soul of a samurai
In feudal Japan, noble warriors known as samurai they were in charge of governing the nation and protecting its people. Bound by an ironclad code of ethics known as Bushido, these fierce warriors faithfully served their master in times of war as well as of peace. Distinctive mark of a samurai was a pair of finely crafted swords: each blade was forged by an expert sword maker and often embellished with elaborate decorations that reflected the prowess of each warrior. The myths and legends surrounding the creation of these swords are not counted: made with the elements of the earth, brought to life through fire and water, it was believed as we have already mentioned that many of these held enormous power, as well as a real and proper divinity in their blades. The only ones who were granted the right to challenge them were the samurai, who used them with incredible skill and fearsome efficiency: armed with these elegant swords, but not only, the samurai have protected Japan for over fifteen centuries.
The katana was the symbol par excellence of these swordsmen. A weapon whose value and the deep bond that united it to its owner could not have found a better expression than the words of Tokugawa Ieyasu: the sword is the soul of the warrior. No samurai wandered without, no matter if he was in armor or wore civilian clothes, and a katana made by a renowned master sword maker was one of the most precious gifts that a warrior could receive. The katana, at rest tucked in the belt, revealed at a glance that whoever wore it was a samurai – therefore a member of a social and military elite – since people belonging to lower classes were not allowed to carry weapons. In line entirely theoretical, if nothing else.
When the katana was pulled out of its scabbard, an event that fortunately occurred less often than the movies led us to believe, it became the ultimate means by which to assert the authority of the samurai. The katana was also one of the rare cutting weapons in history that could be used both as a sword and as a shield: the elastic and resistant core allowed the blade to absorb a considerable impact. In a fight, the first blow of the samurai, brought directly from the sheath, could serve to parry the assault of the enemy or to guarantee a first, devastating blow, which was often the last for the opponent. The samurai was eventually a lone warrior and the Japanese swords had, likewise, their own individuality.
The Japanese sword over time
Japanese swords, like many other weapons of ancient cultures, have undergone considerable changes over time: where war and advances in metal forging techniques have undoubtedly contributed, the discriminating factors for this evolution are found in equal measure in the culture and politics. The Japanese swords they are often identified through the peculiarities typical of the historical period in which they were made. Some traits that still allow us to estimate the value of a sword and its time are the materials used to build the blade and the general design of the weapon itself, as well as the name of the sword maker to have dealt with the forging – very often engraved on the tang the blade right under the cutting edge. Swords forged between 987 and 1597 are defined Koto (ancient swords) while even before we find the so-called chokutō, straight and single-row swords inspired by the Chinese dao tang. After 500 AD sword forging techniques began to change in relation to the style of war: in this period hostilities between noble clans resulted in open hostilities on the battlefield. With the nation in constant risk of conflict, most of the battles were fought by warriors on horseback. These skirmishers, known in the future as samurai, were equipped with bows and arrows but their limitations led many to seek an alternative.
The samurai needed weapons that were easily usable in one hand and had a very sharp wire suitable for piercing, rather than piercing. The Japanese swordsmiths modified the original design of the Chinese swords in order to make them more suitable for the purpose: longer blades with an elegant curve and a thin tip were born. The style reached its maximum expression during the Heian period (794-1185 AD) with the development of the tachi sword, the first blade to possess the characteristics of the authentic Japanese sword. The Kamakura period (1185-1333 AD) marked the beginning of seven hundred years of military rule in Japan: the first shogun was given absolute power by the emperor in 1185. At the command of the new general, a known samurai military council was appointed as shogunate to maintain order in the nation. A significant change in the design of the sword occurred in the period following the attempted invasion by Mongolian forces.
Numerous encounters with heavily armed and armored foreign invaders caused irreparable damage to many swords: the delicate design of the thin Japanese blades and the length that once made them such excellent weapons proved ineffective in close encounters. These inauspicious developments quickly showed the need for a new approach forging and many swordsmiths began to experiment with different methods, in an attempt to solve the growing problem: consequently swords with hardened steel sheaths wrapped around ductile cores were developed that could be repaired if damaged. With this design, tachos became two-handed weapons with wider blades and piercing tips. Strong knives, tantos, and long one-handed swords, le katanas, were forged for close combat. The samurai armed with the new blades, side by side with the Ashigaru infantrymen, proved far more effective against the Mongols than the cavalry yet the defeats of the invaders did not derive from an improvement of the arsenal, since the Bushido code imposed one honorable clash unknown to the Mongols who retreated against the defenders: it was thanks to the violent storms nicknamed kamikaze, if the enemy forces were forced to retreat.
When the dissatisfaction of the feudal lords daimyō towards the military government supported by the Ashikaga shoguns went from being a civil conflict to Ōnin war in 1467 (starting the Sengoku period), the impact on the need for swords and different armaments was felt to the point that, due to the quantity of requests and the extent of the conflict, a partial replacement of the exceptional artistic process of realization of the katanas of the Kamakura period – also known as the “golden age of the manufacture of the sword” – in favor of coarser and expendable weapons. Fortunately, after the hostilities stopped a century later, the swordsmen again directed their efforts to perfect their art: between 1568 and 1603 shintō. Without the continuous fighting that had plagued the nation for a long time, the swords became a symbol of power and status, a brand of influential and prestigious personalities.
The blades of this period returned to being shorter and wider than in previous periods but their quality was decidedly superior. By this time, almost all the tachos had been replaced by the more functional katana, a trend consolidated by a shogunate decree that required all samurai to wear the so-called Daisho as a symbol of their rank and status within Japanese society. By daishō is meant the pair of swords worn on the belt, that is the katana and the shorter wakizashi: this would have been a distinctive sign of the samurai until the late nineteenth century, precisely in 1876, when the imperial edict, Haitōrei, prohibited carrying swords in public thus leading to the end of the samurai class and the production of these weapons. In the late Edo period (1603-1853) economic difficulties caused numerous social and political changes: the merchant class was gaining more power in Japanese society, while the influence of the samurai was instead decreasing. Many of those who were once noble warriors were forced to become mercenaries or Ronin and this led to a decline in the quality of the swords, so as to result in an unauthorized reproduction of the same. In spite of turbulent times, the wealthier samurai were able to request blades of fine workmanship.
In the 1780s, when civil war and foreign enemies still threatened the nation, the swordsmen returned to the old forging methods and the swords of this period are known as shinshinto, variable both in terms of quality and design. Despite this renewed interest in the past, internal and external pressures called a modernization of Japan and proved too strong for shogunate or samurai to stand up to. This led to the aforementioned imperial edict of 1876. Despite the evident decline in the production of swords, the Meiji revolution did not completely declare the end of samurai and bushido, since the appreciation for their weapons continued to grow: those made up to to 1945 they were called gendaitō or “modern swords” but their quality was very low due to the lack of both resources and capable craftsmen, a consequence of the difficult times that led to the end of the Second World War. Sword production came to a halt after Japan’s surrender to the United States, and then resumed in 1953 following the nation’s reconstruction after the war. Numerous swordsmen returned to their respective forges to revive the ancient traditions: each sword produced from 1945 to today is called shinsakutō but devoid of practical war use, the Japanese swords became national treasures, a symbol of the nation’s warrior spirit.
The katana, weapon of the gods
This dive into the past has helped us to better enter the context of Ghost of Tsushima: if it is true that the katana, as we know it, had its first developments thanks to the Mongol invasions, it is equally true that tachos were used until to the late Sengoku period when they were completely replaced by katanas. It is not a coincidence that, even in the search for historical fidelity, the co-director Chris Zimmerman has always specified that the model for the figure of Jin, which should have matched the most widespread idea of rōnin, is that of the 16th, 17th and even 18th centuries. This however does not remove the fact that our protagonist may, historically speaking, have contested a katana, one of the first forged (and perhaps precisely for this reason held in great consideration by the developers). After all, it is always Jin who symbolically speaking embodies those divine winds complicit in the Mongolian defeat and for a man considered as a divine emissary, what better weapon than the katana? Going back for a moment to the historical context, although the katana was, together with the wakizashi, the symbol par excellence of the samurai since only they were allowed to wear it, it was not so common in everyday life: both for practical purposes and for the many restrictions that prohibited the display of certain weapons in the presence of high-ranking samurai, many chose to carry only the wakizashi or the tantō for self-defense. The use of the katana was therefore reserved for an open conflict between samurai or in times of war. The samurai were also in constant search for perfect balance and this aspect is very important for the forging of katanas.
From a practical and warrior point of view, the length of the blade (nagasa) oscillates between sixty and seventy-five centimeters: being shorter and lighter than the tachi, the katana could be grasped in one hand by both foot soldiers and cavalry. It is also characterized by a slight curvature known as sori, which is measured with respect to the ideal line that connects the munemachi (notch on the rear edge apt to properly divide the blade from the tang) to the tip: this allows the swordsman to unleash it and hit the opponent in a single, fluid movement. This is no small advantage when the extraction speed can significantly influence the outcome of a close fight. The blades of the current shinsakutō, whose forging follows that of the feudal era, consist of a rigid outer sheath in high carbon steel and a soft inner core in low carbon steel, a combination that leads to different beneficial qualities . The union of the two metals results in a wide blade that adds a degree of strength and stability absent in many old swords. Furthermore, the properties of the different alloys used to manufacture the blade allowed the swordsmen to repair a sword damaged in battle: the hard outer sheath can be sharpened several times until it reaches that remarkable cutting edge that Japanese blades are known to possess, while the core soft interior allows you to deflect attacks with relative ease. They are all essential properties to produce a weapon worthy of a clash.
On the other hand, however, if it is true that in war the samurai were fierce warriors, in peacetime many dedicated themselves to arts such as poetry and painting. This ideology, this constant search for perfect balance, were reflected in the quality and beauty of their weapons. A katana was not only a tool of death but also A work of artTherefore, numerous aesthetic qualities influenced, and still do, the value of each blade in addition to its efficiency on the battlefield. Some of the most obvious characteristics of a katana are size, shape and design; when properly forged, it must give a general impression of graceful elegance or overwhelming power based on the length, width and curvature of the blade. Other distinguishing factors, but for which an even more expert eye is needed, include the quality of the steel used to produce the blade and the hamon that appears on the surface after polishing. For this reason the katana was not considered a simple weapon but a real distinctive symbol: the concrete expression of a nation and its people.