The World of Sekiro: Ashina Arts
Hi! It's been a while but now I'm back from my little trip, I've sorted out all the urgent stuff and so we're ready to discuss Ashina Arts! We've already researched Prosthetic Arts and Shinobi Arts so if you missed those, feel free to check them out in their corresponding posts.
The English text for SOME of the combat arts and skills is different depending on the menu you're in: Sculptor's Idol skill menu, skill equip menu or skill tab on the inventory screen. The Japanese is the exact same everywhere, however the localization can vary quite considerably between the three menus. In this post I will discuss the localization from the Skill tab of the Inventory screen, that's where all the screenshots are from. I found that those are more accurate in general and tend to have more of the original text localized so we'll go with those.
Disclaimer #0 — common sense is still everything. Please do not assume that I have access to some secret true knowledge; I'm just entertained by reading Sekiro in Japanese. My lore theories are just theories so treat them accordingly.
Disclaimer #1 —
trust me, I'm a professional if this fact is somehow important - I am a certified linguist. My major is English and Japanese as foreign languages, my minor is intercultural communication. Fun stuff!
Disclaimer #2 — I am not a professional translator, I have never worked in localization. Yes, I will say that something is translated poorly and something is not, and it will be my personal point of view. People have been complaining that I am picking on minor things or have weird opinions when it comes to "better translations". I want to emphasize that it's okay to have those :) Ultimately, my goal is to give you the information so you can see if the localization was good or not, whether something important was lost or not. My opinion is just that and I choose to share it, however odd it might seem.
Disclaimer #3 — I am not an expert on Buddhism or Shintoism, so if I get something wrong in the religious side of things, I'm sorry :D I will leave links to the religious terms that we will undoubtedly encounter so you can read more on your own, if you are interested.
Why do kanji (Japanese characters) have different readings?
This is a popular question in the comment section. In a nutshell, Japanese kanji usually have two types of readings: on-reading and kun-reading, there might be a number of them in each category. On-readings have carried over from Chinese since kanji were borrowed from there, and kun-readings are native to Japanese. When a kanji stands on its own and is used as a single word, it is read with its kun-reading. When a kanji is used as a part of a multi-kanji word, it is read with its on-reading. It is slightly more complicated, but in broad strokes I think it explains it.
As far as I know, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was localized into English by Mugen Creations.
Tiny Transcription Legend
[:] — colon after a vowel means that it's a long sound;
['] — apostrophe after a vowel or before a vowel (or between two [n]) means that these are two different syllables, not a single long one.
The transcriptions I give do not follow all academic rules, and I don't think it's necessary. They are just here to represent the pronunciation.
For this research I mostly used Sekiro Shadows Die Twice Official Artworks, English wiki and a number of dictionaries.
Sekiro and History of Japan
History of Ashina
Ashina Clan's mon (family emblem) Source
Before we begin exploring Ashina Arts, let's talk a bit about history of the Ashina clan - the real Ashina clan that actually existed during the Sengoku period in Japan. We won't go into too much detail because it's a whole set of history lessons but we'll loosely cover its origins and some similarities between the real Ashina-shi and the fictional Ashina clan from Sekiro.
From the Heian period (794-1185) through the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi periods (1336-1573) the Japanese politics was dominated by four major clans: the Taira, the Fujiwara, the Tachibana and the Minamoto. While the Fujiwara and the Tachibana clans descended from court nobility and the imperial regents of Japan, the Taira and the Minamoto clans were both descendants of the emperors of the Heian period who gave these honorary surnames to their children and grandchildren who were not eligible for the throne. When the imperial court grew too large, the emperor decided that the descendants of the previous emperors would not be princes anymore because there were too many of them, but would instead be nobility with their own surnames and ranks. Thus both Taira and Minamoto clans were born.
Throughout the history of the Taira clan there were many family branches that formed their own branches and so on and so forth, but we are mainly interested in the Kanmu Heishi branch that spawned more branches, including Hōjō and Miura that amassed great political influence and eventually became opponents. In 1247 the Miura clan was defeated by the Hōjō and their name was reassigned to an ally of the Hōjō, and the reformed Miura clan ruled Miura Peninsula (located in Kanagawa) all the way through Muromachi period until they were defeated in 1516 and ceased to exist.
Miura Clan's mon Source
The Ashina clan is a descendant of the Miura clan, and the name "Ashina" is derived from a place in Kanagawa Prefecture that exists even now. There is a number of ways the Ashina surname was written in kanji, the source that I read says that the original name was 蘆名, the name of the area itself is written like this 芦名 but there was also a 葦名 option used by some families within Ashina clan, and that's exactly how "Ashina" is written in Sekiro.
Ashina clan rose to prominence during the Sengoku Period thanks to its wise lord Moriuji Ashina. Then the family grew even more powerful, drawing closer in power and influence to the Date clan. However, the Ashina clan had certain issues controlling its retainers, the cadet branches of the family such as Inawashiro clan. Furthermore, Moriuji apparently did not have any children so they also had issues with succession. Moriuji passed away in 1580 and the Ashina clan began its decline.
But who succeeded Moriuji if he did not have heirs, you ask? Well, there was a man named Moriyoshi Nikaido, a hostage from the Nikaido clan, who had a son, and this son of the member of the Nikaido clan succeeded Moriuji as his adopted son-in-law and took the name Moritaka Ashina. His leadership did not last long, the Ashina clan still faced problems trying to control their retainers, the tension between them and the powerful Date clan grew, and soon Moritaka was assassinated by his attendant.
In 1589 the Ashina family was defeated by Date Masamune in the Battle of Suriagehara, and soon the last in line of the Ashina family died, leaving the clan in ruin. One of the branches of the Ashina clan, the Hariu family, later adopted the Ashina name but the original clan perished during the Sengoku Period.
I'm sure you can see how similar the story of the real Ashina clan is to the history of the Ashina clan from Sekiro: a wise leader who brought its clan to the height of prosperity; issues with controlling the cadet branches of the clan; troubles with succession and adopting a child who had only good intentions in mind but ultimately failed to save the clan.
The Land of Ashina
Throughout the game we constantly hear about the land of Ashina - it is exceedingly old, its waters have magical properties, it harbours precious resources. So where is it? Is it real?
Of course it is :D Ashina Clan ruled the land called Aizu (会津), it is the westernmost of the three regions of Fukushima Prefecture. The clan is often referred to as "The Ashina of Aizu". The center of this region is the city called Aizuwakamatsu and it was controlled by the Kamakura shogunate since 1192. All of Aizu was then granted to a samurai Suwara Yoshitsura of the Miura clan, and we already know that the Ashina clan were descended from the Miura clan, so that's how they came to be "The Ashina of Aizu". Ashina Morinori began construction of the first castle of Aizuwakamatsu in 1384, known as 会津若松城 [aizu wakamatsu jo:] or Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle. Here's what it looks like:
The original keep of Aizuwakamatsu Castle (1868) Source
The reconstructed keep Source
Yes, the Ashina Castle from Sekiro looks a lot like it, although it isn't white :D The real castle is also protected from one side by the river, as the Ashina castle in Sekiro is. And there are deep moats in the inner ward, in Sekiro one of those is inhabited by a Headless.
The castle has complicated history: it was severely damaged during the earthquake in 1611, then reconfigured and rebuilt; in 1868 it was besieged during the Battle of Aizu and whatever structures survived were unstable and then demolished in 1874. It was then reconstructed in the 20th century, the site of the castle was made into a public park and in 1934 it was granted the National Historic Site status. Now there is a museum inside, an observation gallery and a tea room where tea ceremonies are sometimes held. So whenever you're in Japan and you have an option to go to the Fukushima Prefecture, keep in mind that you can actually find the reconstructed Ashina Castle in Aizu!
But what about the land itself? Well, Aizuwakamatsu city is located in the center of the Aizu Basin, a 174 meter valley. The climate is characterized by warm summers and cold winters with exceptionally heavy snowfalls. The area has at least 4 rivers and 4 lakes and 2 hot springs so water is an abundance here. Aizu region is also mountainous and is separated from other regions by mountain ranges. It all checks out :D
In late September a festival called Aizu Matsuri is held in celebration of the time of the samurai: there's sword dancing, sword fighting, a 500-people procession, display of tools used by feudal lords long ago and also display of historical dress.
The Hirata Family
While we're here I thought I'd give some information on the Hirata family too! Yes, it is also a family that actually existed although I couldn't really find any connection between the Hirata family and the Ashina clan.
The Hirata family descended from the Nakahara clan and since the end of the Heian period, for generations, they served as a secretary at the Bureau of Archives. During the Sengoku period many of them lost jobs due to the Imperial Court losing authority but otherwise I haven't really found anything of note except for the fact that another family working alongside the Hirata that served as the head secretary was... Mibu family. They are written differently though (壬生) so I don't think there's any connection but it was still a "wait, what" moment :D
Since I haven't really found anything linking Ashina and Hirata, I can't help but wonder why the Hirata family was chosen to act as a problematic cadet branch of the Ashina clan in Sekiro. If you have any sources that can shed some light on this, please share them in the comments!
The Tamura Clan
Tamura clan's mon Source
The Tamura Clan claimed descent from one of the shoguns of the Heian period. They rose to prominence during the Sengoku period and became a minor daimyou - a feudal lord. However, they were pressured and invaded by their neighboring lords, including the Ashina clan. So yes, Sekiro story is accurate: the Tamura clan was in conflict with the Ashina clan, they were neighbors and the Sengoku period was a period of Warring States when feudal lords struggled for land, independence and political and military power. According to another source I've read, the Tamura clan in different times was in opposition to the Ashina, and then allied with them against their common enemies, so from what I can tell the two clans had pretty dramatic relationships.
I've only scratched the surface of the history of the clans both during the Sengoku Period and beyond; the deep dive would take weeks if not months of reading a ton of historical articles in Japanese :D While that's definitely something I'd like to dedicate my time to one day, I don't think that we need to do that right now. Now that we have some context, time to move on to Ashina Arts!
Ashina Esoteric Text
Ashina Esoteric Text, like all the previous ones, is called 葦名流の伝書 [ashinaryu: no densho] - "a secret book of the way of Ashina". 流 [ryu:] is commonly used as a suffix to indicate style of something, a school of thought and such. When Genichiro starts his third phase, his name changes to 巴流 [tomoeryu:] - "Tomoe style" or, as the English localization translated it, "Way of Tomoe".
You might remember that when we discussed Isshin and his associated items and skills like One Mind and Dragon Flash, we learned that his main character trait was his perseverance in training, he only pursued perfection in his swordsmanship and spent his whole life honing his skills. Ashina Arts confirm as much, as the description of the Esoteric Text says that the whole Ashina Style is the written history of Isshin's battles. For "fought desperately" the original uses the phrase 「ひたすらに死闘を重ね」- "devotedly he accumulated [experiences] of life or death struggle". Curious that 死闘 [shito:] - life or death struggle - is a word that's been used to describe the inevitable part of shinobi lifestyle, and yet here we see it as the means through which Isshin achieved his mastery.
Another thing is that the original descriptions always mention Isshin killing people like something that is never personal but instead just a way to hone his skills and polish his technique. Isshin is never described like a bloodthirsty murderer - otherwise he would be Shura - but instead as someone who killed many to achieve the ultimate goal: becoming a kensei, a sword saint. In this description "polishing his technique in the blood of his enemies" is quite inaccurate, the original says that he polished his technique by, as I mentioned before, accumulating experiences of life or death struggle, and by 「命の鍔際に立つこと」- "standing on the edge of his life" or "placing his life on the [sword's] edge".
Ichimonji's original name is 一文字 [ichimonji], it literally means "straight line" but also denotes character "one", like the number one - 一 [ichi]. As you can see, it is a straight line so it all makes a whole lot of sense :D
The localization is for the most part accurate. Interesting that the original describes this skill with the word 無骨 [bukotsu] - clumsy, rustic, unrefined. Well, to be honest, Ichimonji is incredibly straightforward and somewhat lacking in gracefulness so no wonder. The original says that 「一意に専心した技」- "[this skill] is practiced wholeheartedly with undivided concentration", which is basically the only way anything in the Ashina style is practiced.
The last line teases Ichimonji Double the same way the original descriprion of Vault Over teased Ninjutsu Skills:
「この一文字、極めればさらに先があろう」- "if [you] take Ichimonji to extremes, there might be something else next".
Fun fact: in 1208 there were 13 swordsmiths who made katana swords for the Emperor Go-Toba, and these swords were called 菊一文字 [kiku ichimonji] or "Chrysanthemum ichimonji" because the swordsmiths used the kanji 一 [ichi] as their signature and inscribed it on the tang of their swords.
一文字・二連 [ichimonji・niren] - Ichimonji Double. The description is quite similar to Ichimonji. So, Ichimonji Double is basically the perfect form of Ichimonji. Well, I suppose when you've practiced tens of thousands overhead strikes, sooner or later you'd want to follow it up with another one.
The last Combat Art of this Skill tree and it's ultimate 奥義 [o:gi] skill is... drum roll... 葦名十文字 [ashina ju:monji] :D 十文字 [ju:monji] means "cross", "cross-shaped" OR, literally, character "ten", like the number 10 - 十 [ju:], which does look like a cross. Again, makes a whole lot of sense. We actually have already seen this word in Sekiro - and I went back to check if I'm right, and I am - "the cross-shaped spear of General Tamura" bestowed to Gyoubu by Isshin also used the word 十文字 [ju:monji] for "cross-shaped". The localization is accurate but boy would it be cool to see this skill as Ashina Juumonji :D
The localization says, "a high speed attack", when the original says, "a high speed iai". 居合い [iai] is a special term that describes the art of drawing one's sword, cutting down one's opponent and then sheathing the sword afterwards.
The original also describes how this skill came to be:
「疾く斬ることを一意に極めた」- "an art of a swift kill, single-mindedly taken to the extreme".
The last paragraph was not translated accurately enough, we can derive quite a story from the original description:
「儂の十文字は、修羅の腕をも斬り落とす｜剣聖・葦名一心は、そう嘯いた」- "my Cross severs the arm of Shura as well", boasted Kensei Isshin Ashina.
So, from this we can assume that all the drama with the Sculptor becoming Shura and Isshin severing his arm happened when all three dads of the game were at their prime: Isshin was Kensei, Owl was the Great Shinobi as we fight him in the memory, and Orangutang was, well, Shura. Isshin used Ashina Cross to sever his arm, and that's how Orangutang became the Sculptor, obtained the Prosthetic and started practicing with it. Of course, Ashina Cross severing the arm of a soon-to-be-Shura was something Isshin was proud of in his younger years and so he told stories about it and used it as a marketing point for his style :D
Moving on to the passive abilities of this tree! Ascending Carp's original name is 昇り鯉 [noborigoi] - literally "climbing" or "ascending carp". I'm sure you've heard something about the carps, waterfalls and dragons so let's briefly touch on this ancient Chinese legend, shall we?
So, accoring to this legend from Chinese mythology, there is a waterwall called "The Dragon Gate", cascading from the legendary mountain. While many silver carps swim upstream, few are brave enough to persevere through the strong current and jump over the waterfall. Those courageous carps who succeed, are transformed into powerful dragons.
This legend is popular not only in China but in the other parts of Asia as well, including Japan. A carp, fighting against the waterfall and then jumping over it to be transformed into a dragon is widely used as a metaphor for achieving success through hard work and perseverance.
In Japan there is actually a whole thing called Koinobori (鯉のぼり), it is a part of celebrating Children's Day on May 5 where carp-shaped windsocks are flown, representing determination, courage and hope that children will grow up healthily.
Also, in Pokémon Koiking (Magikarp), who is a koi fish, evolves into Gyarados, a dragon. So yeah, this legend is pretty widespread and we'll revisit it when we reach the Fountainhead Palace, and the Great Carp.
When I was playing Sekiro for the first time and got to the Hirata Estate, I saw koi fish in the river where Harunaga dwells, and a little waterfall at the edge of the area. I've always been intimidated by water in videogames and I didn't really know whether the carps were friendly or hostile so I was pretty alert in case someone attacked me. And then I saw one of the carps swimming to the waterfall and I got INCREDIBLY SCARED that it'd jump over the stream, turn into a dragon and just swallow me whole :D
Back to the skill! The most interesting part of its description is this line:
「葦名流は、源の水の流れと縁深い」 ー "Ashina Style has a deep connection to the flow of the Fountainhead Waters".
The word 縁深い [enbukai] denotes deep connection, or family connection (which I think is kinda unlikely), or fate. I wonder why. I mean, yes, they've been co-existing for a long time, the Fountainhead Palace and the Ashina Clan; also the Tomoe clan lived on the Ashina land and then moved to Fountainhead. But maybe this connection is also about Ashina land housing Dragon Heirs like Takeru, Kuro and others that were before.
The original name of this skill is pretty straightforward, 下り鯉 [kudarigoi] - descending carp. For some reason, the localization just copied the second paragraph from the Ascending Carp even though the second line is quite different. If Ascending Carp described the moment of deflection, Descending Carp describes what comes after:
「刃を弾き返し、そこに畳み掛ける様」- "repel the blade and overwhelm [your opponent]"
This line is kind of tricky to translate, it is most certainly a different line than the one from the Ascending Carp. The verb 畳み掛ける [tatamikakeru] is a difficult one, I learned that it means to ask many questions without waiting for an answer or something along those lines, so I think in this context it might be "to overwhelm". This skill increases posture damage from all sources so after you successfully deflect a blow, you have a few seconds of increased posture damage and you need to overwhelm the opponent to inflict maximum damage. If you're familiar with this verb and its meaning (because I've never seen it before), please correct me in the comments if I am wrong!
Its original name is really simple, it's 流水 [ryu:sui] - stream or running water. It's quite unfortunate but this skill doesn't do what the English localizations says it does:
「敵の攻撃を刀に受けたときの」 - "when you receive an enemy attack with your katana sword..."
It doesn't matter if an enemy has a sword or not, it matters if you block it with Kusabimaru. Might me a kick, might be a spear, might be a fist - guarding with Kusabimaru will reduce posture damage.
The rest is pretty much there. The original says that you should not be stopping strength but instead evading it or warding it off so it could continue to flow. It uses the verb 受け流す [ukenagasu] - to evade, to elude, to ward off an attack.
Breath of Nature
And finally we reached a little subset of Breath of Nature passive skills! As usual, we'll discuss the parts of the descriptions they have in common just once and then move on to their differences.
Both these skills are called 幹の息吹 [kan no ibuki], where 幹 [kan] means "trunk" or "core" and is a part of the word 体幹 [taikan] - posture, and 息吹 [ibuki] means "breath". I got curious why in Breath of Life the word for "breath" was 呼吸 [kokyu:] and here it is 息吹 [ibuki] so I looked up the differences. As far as I understand, they can be used interchengeably but each one also has a specific meaning. For example, 呼吸 [kokyu:] breathing indicates the physical process of inhaling and exhaling while 息吹 [ibuki] might have the metaphoric meaning of "breathing as regaining energy". I think it fits really well because Breath of Life from Shinobi Arts has to do with restoring vitality and literal breathing while Breath of Nature is more metaphorical and has to do with energy - or Posture - restoration. Everything fits!
"A state of continued alertness" is 残心 [zanshin] - a martial arts term that denotes a state of relaxed alertness and can refer to body's posture after a technique is executed. The description futher mentions this specific type of breath that the localization translated as "exhaling deeply from within". If in the Breath of Life shinobi straighten - 整える [totonoeru] - their body and mind, Ashina warriors straighten 体勢 [taisei] - posture. As you can see, there is a lot of technical stuff because Ashina Style is a legit martial art and not just a bunch of techniques that allow you to hopefully live a little bit longer, like Shinobi Arts.
Breath of Nature: Light
The names of each individual Breath of Nature skills mirror those of Breath of Life, this one is called 陽 [yo:] - the kanji for sun, light and also yang, as in "yin and yang".
Breath of Nature: Shadow
This skill also uses 陰 [in] for "shadow" - the kanji denoting shadow and yin. Wolf gains this skill after defeating Armored Warrior, and the unique part of this description explains why he got this skill, just like Breath of Life: Shadow explains why he got it after defeated O'Rin and almost in the same words :D This special breath exhalation becomes deeper.
Interesting that this skill that you get outside of the tree has "shinobi" instead of "ashina style", even though the rest of the line about fighting when outnumbered is the same. Nice detail!
Well, I did not expect such a deep dive into history in this post but it was so fascinating :D Since Arts and Styles are storytelling tools in Sekiro, I was thinking about what Ashina Style and those people who use it can tell us about the story. I think that the most incredible thing is that Genichiro doesn't use Ashina Style at all even though he is the adopted heir of Isshin and the next leader of the clan. He doesn't use anything Ashina Style during his boss fight, he is basically an okami boy. Apparently, Tomoe was a cooler mentor than Isshin the Sword Saint! :D I think it's both really funny - and touching at the same time. When you give Isshin Unrefined Sake he talks about Tomoe and it's obvious that he respected her and her fighting prowess a great deal. Probably this is why he was not against her being Genichiro's mentor - and also his own mentor too since Kensei Isshin also wields lightning and I really doubt he learned it all by himself.
However, he did have a devoted student, and it was Emma. I've never actually fought her because I never chose Shura ending, but from what I saw she wields all the Ichimonji and Ashina Cross stuff you can think of and she also fights a lot like O'Rin.
In the Shura ending Isshin, surprisingly, wields fire: he has this attack where he stomps the burning ground and then does a big slash coating his sword in flames. It looks a lot like Living Force from the Prosthetic Arts, although Isshin doesn't use any tools. However, Living Force is a part of Mushin Arts which is a compound style that combines techniques from all the styles Isshin encountered during his life, and it does have Living Force as a requirement for Empowered Mortal Draw together with Ashina Cross. I was asked once how I'd explain Isshin's fire attacks during this bossfight, so here it is :D
In the next post we'll talk about Temple Arts, and, if it doesn't require 10 pages of real history of Japan for context, we'll cover Mushin Arts too!
As usual, stay tuned here and on the Lair's YouTube channel not to miss out on anything.
Thank you for your time.