Motion Pixels: The movies to watch before playing Sekiro


Motion Pixels is a series of haphazard articles hoping to link the passions of gaming and films. Through recommendations, general chicanery, and, sometimes!, analysis our hope is to set you, dear reader, on a path of exploration you might not have previously undergone.

What do you get when you cross a visionary game director and his team, a modern gaming legacy, and Feudal Japan? Sekiro! From the team at From Software and the direction of Hidetaka Miyazaki comes the Sengoku-set stealth saga of a scarred shinobi seeking salvation such that he’ll slice and slay his way through samurai and supernatural beasties for a sip of that sweet sauce called revenge. They should hire me to write their box art blurbs.

Out this Friday, Sekiro is shaping up to be the evolution of From’s Souls games that we’ve all been clamoring for (regardless of how much you want ‘Bloodborne II’), and its bold commitment to the clashing forces of a beautifully-realized 16th century Japan not the least of its appealing qualities. 

Set during the Sengoku or Warring States period, the era, as astute readers might ascertain, was marked by in-fighting among leading daimyō (feudal lords), who were sworn to the Japanese emperor and his shogunate enforcement division, but really all just wanted a bigger piece of the pie. Swords were drawn, blood was spilled, and the countryside was torn up by violence and unease until predominant, powerful lords accumulated enough land and control that a final showdown led to a unified Japanese state. Sounds like a perfect place to set your action game! Also a perfect place to set your movie!

“War-torn” has become a cliched non-descriptor across more mediums than just gaming, sometimes to the disservice of those who’ve had to actually endure conflict. With Sekiro, From Software seems to be fully immersing the player in a deeply-personal story of revenge, but also a world marked by conflict and misery. Whereas Dark Souls and Bloodborne allude to a bigger picture, the nature of the Sengoku era and its all-encompassing violence would look to say loud and clear, “You’re not the only one hurtin’ here, buster.”

Though rooted in historical conflict, the murk of history yields a lot of leeway and “what-ifs,” with a century of violence ripe for all sorts of horror and exhilarating retellings to make sense of so much death. We’ve caught glimpses of the supernatural stalking the castle grounds of Sekiro; the Japanese love their ghost stories, making Sengoku-set horror practically a genre in itself. So for those sharpening their swords (or maybe making early burial plans? this is the Dark Souls of ninja games after all harhar) I humbly suggest a host of films to keep you sharp and steady until that day of judgement comes calling.

The Third Shadow Warrior (1963) Umetsugu Inoue

“Man, I don’t want to be a peasant! Being a peasant is laaame! I wanna fight and be a samurai!” “You there, young man, you bear a striking resemblance to our lord. You shall serve as one of his body doubles.” “So I’m a samurai?!” “… Sure.” “Sold!”

(Note that the above is not actual dialogue from Inoue’s Third Shadow Warrior, and is instead an excellently-scripted summation of early scenes in said film by Sam van der Meer.)

The rigid class structure of Japanese history has come under cinematic scrutiny across the decades (Kurosawa’s Rashōmon; Sam’s choice for greatest-film-ever-made, Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi), but Shadow Warrior uses Kyunosuke the peasant’s desire for action and riches as a jumping off point for more introspective explorations. In becoming a double for feudal lord Yasutaka, Kyunosuke’s identity begins to slip. He acts as the lord, but is subjected to strong-armed politics behind closed doors, where the managers of Yasutaka’s forces bend the young peasant to their needs. Things become increasingly personal as we sink deeper into the deception, so I won’t veer too far into Spoilerville.

The struggle for identity is an interesting thing in Japanese film, and something I think I’m starting to understand. A culture that so values rigor and social protocol must have a way of “lobotomizing” an individual’s sense of self. This an exaggeration of course; I don’t believe the Japanese are all just incredibly advanced robots. Surely a human mind can assemble sushi as well as that! Surely. But where conformity is valued more than in, say, the United States, anxious assertions of “who I am” must be more pressing in some minds. The Third Shadow Warrior manages to discuss this while delivering all sorts of rad samurai action and deception.

And hey guess what? You can watch it for free on YouTube!

Kuroneko (1968) Kaneto Shindo

Kuroneko (Black Cat) - Original Japanese Trailer (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)

If you watch just one of these, watch Kuroneko. And then track down everything else directed by Kaneto Shindo, an unsung master who was incredibly prolific as a screenwriter and director in the Japanese film industry, whose work ranges from somber, wordless experiments like Naked Island to atmospheric ghost stories like Kuroneko.

Opening with a ruthless act of savagery by crazed soldiers, Kuroneko tells the folkloric story of two women (Kiwako Taichi and Nobuko Otowa) brutalized by war, now murdering samurai across the bamboo forests of Southern Japan. Specifically, they appear near Rajōmon, the main gate of then-capital city Heian-kyō, or modern Kyoto. The kanji was originally interpreted as Rashōmon, which eagle-eyes will recognize as the setting for the incredibly-famous Akira Kurosawa film of the same name. I digress, but you can already see how bursting with history Shindo’s film is!

The women continue their murders while Hachi (Nakamura Kichiemon II), husband and son to the pair of women, returns from war to find his wife and mother disappeared, unaware of their murder and resurrection, while receiving orders from above to hunt these killer ghosts which fly in the face of law and order. You see the dilemma brewing, yes?

Kuroneko is a ghost story in the classic sense, but Shindo’s film is a bitter criticism of Japanese classicism, and the ways in which war can destroy people’s lives beyond simple battles. Hachi is raised from peasant to samurai by war; his family murdered by soldiers and made into monsters. Eventually he’s tasked, now a samurai of discipline, with destroying the monsters. The rigors of Japanese etiquette ask Hachi to kill his family, his ascension to a higher class more of a curse than blessing. The beauty of Shindo’s script is that Kuroneko can be enjoyed as a simple ghost story, with its copious layers there for those with an interest in history. And besides its story, ‘60s radicalism in filmmaking persists in Kuroneko.

The mood is made unsettling by strange, abrupt edits and interesting lapses in audio; double-exposure, melting images, and wuxia-like scenes of ghosts gliding through the air. It’s a masterpiece and needs more viewers, so get to it!

*A slight addendum: In 1964, before Kuroneko, Shindo wrote and directed Onibaba, which is one of my personal top-five favorite films of all-time. To a similar end, that film relates the ravages of war on two peasant women, and how they’re forced into savagery and deceit while encountering supernatural forces. Unlike Kuroneko, it is not set in our Sengoku time slot, taking place instead during the 14th century, during another period of Japanese civil war. I feel the need to mention it though, as like all of Shindo’s work it often goes woefully unmentioned!

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) Guillermo del Toro

Three Reasons: The Devil's Backbone

“Whaaat are you talking about…” Wait! I can explain! We aren’t jumping from 16th century Japan to Civil War-era Spain for nothing! In fact, you probably already see where this is headed.

The third feature film by lovable nerd and master of the macabre Guillermo del Toro centers around the spooky happenings at a remote Spanish orphanage, with the country’s political strife delivering strong arch support to the story’s bite. Franco’s fascists were winning the war in the early months of 1939 when young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is dropped unceremoniously at the desert home, a war orphan whose father fought against the nationalists. Quickly we’re greeted by the institution’s dark history in the form of a ghostly child stalking the halls, and a large unexploded warhead sitting precariously in its courtyard. As if these kids needed a reminder that violence was always overhead!

As our ghostly beats play out, we find our ghost story to revolve around classic human faults, greed being an old favorite. Greed leads to anger, then to violence, violence to murder, murder to… crazy ghost kids with smoke spewing from their heads. Backbone is another early indicator of del Toro’s incredible eye for unique “monsters,” and absolutely my favorite film of his for the Spielbergesque layering of detail; characters hint and allude to things in their environment that eventually tie in nicely to the story’s drama. There’s an economy to del Toro’s locations and plot beats that almost gives the impression of a cosy story, with some clear and satisfactory foreshadowing and character reveals.

“Neat… but where are the samurai?” What The Devil’s Backbone doesn’t share with Sekiro and these other films is the setting, but what it sure does do similarly is immerse the viewer in a story tinged by violent conflict. The way the women in Kuroneko are made to prey on samurai is almost like Backbone‘s ghostly child, an indirect casualty of war; an innocent bystander embroiled in conflict. Who’s the real monster here, am I right? Sekiro looks to tell a personal story of revenge set amidst a larger conflict, and Backbone tells an intimate ghost story on the outskirts of a country tearing itself apart. 

Ran (1985) Akira Kurosawa

Ran | Official Trailer

How could I not talk samurai and Japanese war and not bring up good ‘ol boy Akira Kurosawa? Possibly Japan’s most-iconic filmmaker, and one of the most-lauded of all-time, you could go with Seven Samurai or Kagemusha if you want to talk Sengoku-set Kurosawa, but I have to mention AK’s large-scale Shakespeare foray.

Based on King LearRan stars the man the myth the legend Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Ichimonji, our Sengoku warlord-equivalent of Shakespeare’s character. Aging and cranky, Ichimonji is in the process of bequeathing his estate to his three sons. Jealousy and violence ensue, as you can imagine.

Although Sekiro looks to be down and dirty with its grimy monsters and footsoldiers, Ran almost manages to make its civil war setting seem elegant; a testament to that Kurosawa guy, who was pretty good. Lush color and open, natural spaces make war seem almost peaceful! Not really, but Ran has always stayed with me as the Kurosawa film that most-appreciates nature.

Scenes are often book-ended by beautiful vistas, or listless clouds, almost as if the whole realm is watching these warlords just mess everything up. It’s in keeping with ol’ Willy’s original Lear, and the sort of distance kept from characters as we watch their hopes and dreams squished and squashed by petty grievances.

The presence of war today is inescapable, hopefully never reaching beyond secondhand brushes through the news, but for many it becomes a daily reality. The perpetuation of conflict and violence in our entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to be a cheap or secondary aspect, with films like these committing to depicting war’s ravishes and side effects in a number of different ways. Japan’s history is one rife with conflict, making Sekiro‘s historical setting almost an obvious choice for From Software’s game. Whether the aim here is to educate players on the brutality and pointlessness of large-scale conflict, jury’s out. But the effort seems present to at least create a vivid and grim atmosphere, representing a dark time in history, and sometimes a feeling is the best education you can have.