The World of Sekiro: Sugars, Spiritfalls and the Headless
'The World of Sekiro' is my new series of posts (and videos) dedicated to reading and interpreting Sekiro Shadows Die Twice Official Artworks, a giant book that I brought with me from Japan in 2019, before I even played the game. I hope to make smaller posts about a handful of items or characters at a time so they are not tiring to read - and write. There will be a lot of posts, and then probably a lot of touch-ups as I learn more and more about the world of Sekiro as it was created, so you'll be seeing this "work in progress" for quite some time. Of course, you can wait a year or two until I finish everything but I'd be delighted to have your company on this journey as it goes on.
Sekiro is one of my most favorite games of all time, I love it with all my heart. I know that many people think that I am a Soulsborne pro because I wrote such lengthy posts about those games but the shocking truth is that I've never completed any of them. The lore always enchanted me much more than the gameplay, so I didn't feel the need to actually play through the Soulsborne games to immerse myself into the world. DSII was my first game of the franchise, I played about half of it, then I started DSI and played even less. I haven't touched DSIII and I have never owned a PlayStation and consequently haven't played any Bloodborne. Quite frankly, I always found Soulsborne games very scary to play, so I watched passionate people who really enjoyed the process - and I, in turn, enjoyed the lore, the worldbuilding and everything I was truly interested in.
Sekiro turned out to be quite different, as if it was made for me. I enjoy everything about it. The game was quite challenging for me and required a lot of effort on my part but I am happy (and a little proud) to have completed it successfully. Now I get to relish the subsequent playthroughs and hunt the tiny details that I might have missed my first time around.
The structure of these posts will be different from my previous Lost in Translation posts: we'll take a look at the in-game description of the item and then compare it to its Japanese original. If I don't mention something - it means the localization got it right and there is nothing to discuss. I'd say it'll be more difficult to read these posts but oh well. I will also include the Japanese text so that if you speak the language you can double check things or learn something new. Nothing is quite as exciting as learning a new kanji or two.
I slightly adjusted the disclaimers because I'm quite tired of just copypasting them, but as the evidence shows they are still necessary.
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, so if I get something wrong in the religious side of things, I'm sorry :D FromSoftware had a theological consultant who helped them build the religious narrative in Sekiro. I will leave links to the Buddhist 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-reding 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.
It was quite difficult to stay in line and dedicate this post to Sugars, Spiritfalls and the Headless only; when we speak of Sugars, we inevitably touch on the religious organizations inside the world of Sekiro: Senpou Temple and Mt. Misen where the shinobi hunters are trained. One thing clings to another and - boom! - we have to talk about Senpou monks, enemies of the Mt. Kongo, martial arts, the quest for immortality, temple spies and make a mile long post about everything there is in Sekiro. I always have to remind myself not to get too carried away and keep these posts smaller easier to parse.
If you've played Sekiro you know that Sugars are consumable items that you can find in the world, buy from merchants or loot from enemies. Only one Sugar can be active at a time: as soon as you consume another one, the new benefits overwrite the previous Sugar effects. After you defeat optional bosses - the Headless - you get a Spiritfall, an infinite version of one of the Sugars that you can use to your heart's content as long as you have Spirit Emblems. So let's talk about Sugars.
All Sugars have the same description structure so many phrases like "sustaining X's blessing" and "bite the candy and take the X stance to impart its inhuman benediction" are exactly the same both in the original and in the localized version. We won't discuss them every time, just once.
I must say, I absolutely adore the "Sugar" translation, it sounds great. In Japanese these items are called 飴 [ame], it means "hard candy".
The names of all Sugars also follow the same pattern: the first kanji usually denotes some Buddhist term, and the second kanji explains what this Sugar does. It's very interesting to uncover. For example, Ako is written as 阿攻 [ako:], where 阿 [a] is the first Sanskrit alphabet letter that symbolizes the source of all things in esoteric Buddhism. It is also the first part of Aum/Aun, a sacred sound and a symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. The second kanji 攻 [ko:] usually denotes aggression, assault, for example there is a verb 攻める [semeru] with this kanji, meaning "to attack".
The localized version stays true to the original when it says that the sugars (except for one) are made in Senpou Temple. "Sustaining X's blessing" corresponds to the original 「[spirit's name] の加護を受ける飴」, literally "candy that has received the divine protection of [spirit's name]", which I find curious. The effect of Ako's Sugar is presented in most generic words: "boosts Attack Power", when the original goes into more detail - 「攻撃力と体幹攻撃力」, "boosts Vitality and Posture damage".
The funniest thing I found in the standard description of all Sugars is the word 嚙みしめ [kamishime], which means "bite down with force". The English localization came up with an amazing translation "bite down hard" but somehow lost it along the way so it is present only in Ako's description. That's too bad, this little detail was so well done.
Now we need to understand what it is that Wolf gets by taking a spirit stance. English localization says that he receives "inhuman benediction", which is not entirely accurate. The original says 「人ならぬ御霊の加護を自らに降ろす」 - literally "the divine protection of the inhuman spirit is brought upon you". In Japanese it sounds kind of menacing, like you invoke this inhuman spirit and let it into you, which is not necessarily a good thing.
All the aforementioned pertains to all Sugars, they all have these elements in their descriptions. Now let's see what Ako's own description says.
So, "The spirits embody excess karma". I am not an expert on karmic terms but I don't think that the original actually mentions Karma as it is. Here's the whole line - 「御霊降ろしは、人の身に余る御業ゆえに飴を嚙みしめ、こらえるのだ」, let's dissect it. 御霊降ろし [mitama oroshi] is basically the acceptance or the fact of invoking the spirit who blessed the Sugar. The original says that 御業 [miwaza] - the works of the gods/spirits may turn out to be too much for a human body, so you'll have to carry this burden when you consume the Sugar. I understand that the word 御業 [miwaza] might throw people off scent since the second kanji 業 when read as [go:] means "karma" but here it is a part of a pretty specific word. So, when biting down hard on this candy, be ready that your human body might not be enough and you'll be struggling.
In 吽護 [ungo] the first kanji 吽 [un] is the second part of Aum/Aun, where [a] is the first kanji from Ako. 阿吽 [aun] represents the primordial trinity of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, it's alpha and omega, beginning and end. This duality has its place in the Sugars too: Ako is a Sugar for attack, and Ungo is a Sugar for protection. The second kanji 護 [go] means "protection". The rest of the description, including the part about the excess karma, is identical to Ako's description.
The last line, however, is unique to Ungo's Sugar:
Senpou monks spread this candy across Ashina in honor of her military heroes.
Senpou monks spread this candy across Ashina in honor of 「護国の勇者」 - heroes-defenders of the country. That's what the Headless were called when they were alive - heroes defending their country.
剛幹 [go:kan] is another precious case of name construction. 剛 [go:] generally denotes something sturdy, indestructible. In Buddhism it is used, for example, in the word 金剛 [kongo:] - vajra, a ritual weapon that symbolizes indestructibility and irresistible force. The article I link to even mentions 五鈷鈴 [gokorei] - a five-pronged bell, the very same item that allows Wolf to enter the Hall of Illusions. It is also a ritual object, like vajra, we'll talk about it in more detail when we get to Folding Screen Monkeys in later posts.
The second kanji is 幹 [kan], it is used in the original word for "posture". The name of this Sugar is essentially "unbreakable posture", which is quite logical since it reduces posture damage.
Gokan Sugar is the only Sugar that is not manufactured in Senpou Temple. The original says that this Sugar is made by Shinobi Hunters of Misen. The curious thing is that it isn't called "Misen Temple", it's called 弥山院 [misen'in] - something like "organization Misen". Here I need to mention that Misen is a real place; it's the highest mountain on the Miyajima island. Misen is a sacred mountain, it has been a place of pilgrimage for religious visitors since the ancient times. The mountain has its own Seven Wonders - Seven Wonders of Misen. Interestingly enough, many of these wonders are big ancient trees, and the forest itself is gigantic and extremely old. Funny that in Sekiro the Sugar that reduces posture damage is made on Mt. Misen, because the kanji 幹 [kan] in 剛幹 [go:kan] actually denotes a tree trunk :D
The original also mentions that Shinobi Hunters of Misen do not only make these Sugars, they also sell them wholesale. English localization did a great job translating the unique line of this Sugar, "well-versed in the art of killing shinobi" echoes the original very accurately.
I will continue to refer to Shinobi Hunters as "people from the Misen organization", fully (and painfully) realizing how stupid it sounds, but in Japanese Misen just isn't written as temple, and it's probably an important thing.
Gachiin is my favorite Sugar, I used it more than any other.
月隠 [gachiin] - took me quite some time to comprehend why my beloved kanji 月 [tsuki] here takes a weird and atypical reading [gachi]. There is another word that has this kanji with [gachi] reading - 月輪 [gachirin], full moon or round moon. Just look at the picture of this Sugar, there is a moon circle there, so that's probably why.
Gachiin Sugar is the only Sugar without a Buddhist reference - or maybe I just haven't found one - probably because it's an odd one out. Gachiin Sugar does not in any way impact you Vitality, Attack Power or Posture, contrary to all other Sugars.
I find it hilarious that the localization calls the little guys "assassins" when the original says らっぱ [rappa] - thug, hooligan, spy. "Short but adept" is also just a localization fantasy, the Japanese version does not have any of those descriptions. It says that the High Priests gave this Sugar to the spies. For denoting the High Priests the original uses the word 上人 [sho:nin], it's not in any way remarkable and just means "someone of high rank".
This is also the only Sugar where "take the stance" part is written a little bit differently: 「月隠の構えを取ること」 VS 「[spirit's name] に構えること」 but I can't quite catch the difference in meaning if there is one. Quite possibly this change is again due to the fact that the Gachiin Sugar is not a combat Sugar, so you take the stance without this "boooo, spirit powers, pay the price" stuff. Maybe I am wrong, this detail seems a little odd to me anyway :D
"[...] do Senpou's dirty work" sounds rather humiliating, in reality spies do 裏の仕事 [ura no shigoto] - hidden deeds that do not need publicity. 裏 [ura] means "reverse side", "side hidden from view".
"Once hired guards" is very disappointing, the original states quite clearly that the spies were once shinobi protecting the temple. Now they are helping monks in their "quest for undeath" but it's important to know that the monks do not seek immortality, they already have it. From the texts written by High Priests we learn that they just want to know why they were given this immortality and for what purpose, where the centipedes come from and what it all means. That's why they tried to artificially make a Dragon Heir, to get closer to understanding their unending life. I think we can assume quite safely that these spies were the ones who kidnapped children for their experiments, and it was that 裏の仕事 [ura no shigoto] - a secret undertaking occurring on the other side of Senpou Temple.
Ignore the extra line on the left above "Number Held", it's a screeshot from a merchant. It's just "Number available for purchase"
夜叉戮 [yashariku] is a remarkable word, made me really happy :D 夜叉 [yasha] means yaksha, a class of nature spirits, usually benevolent but not necessarily. In Buddhism yakshas are the attendants of Vaiśravaṇa, one of the Four Heavenly Kings known in Japan as Bishamonten.
戮 [riku] is an archaic kanji present in the verb 戮す [rikusu] - to murder.
The effect of this Sugar is quite simple, only the original does not say that it "halves" the Vitality and Posture, it says "lowers considerably", but I think the candy actually halves the parameters, so this is not a big deal at all.
It was indeed forbidden in the Temple, however the undying research was draining their finances - literally "ate money", as the original says, that is why Yashariku Sugar was distributed far and wide in exchange for donations. The English localization unfortunately missed 寺外にも - and beyond the temple TOO, which implies that you could get these Sugars in the temple as well, for a suitable price.
If you look closely, you'll see that in battle Senpou Monks use all combat Sugars - Ako, Ungo, Gokan - but not Yashariku. On the other hand, Ministry agents like Masanaga boys do seem to have them on hand. Thus, we can assume that the Ministry donated quite a lot of money to Senpou Temple in exchange for these Sugars.
That all there is to discuss about Sugars! Oh, one more thing: when you consume a Sugar, the kanji that flash on the screen are just the name of the Sugar.
Let's see what we've learned:
- All Sugars, except for Gachiin Sugar, are connected to Buddhist religious terms or spirits;
- The Sugars receive "divine protection" of the corresponding spirit;
- By biting down hard on the Sugar you let the Spirit into yourself (invoke it);
- The deeds of the Ako spirit might prove to be too much for a human body to endure and there might me a high price to pay;
- Ungo Sugars were distributed by Senpou Monks in honor of the heroes-defenders of the country - the Headless;
- Gokan Sugars are made by Shinobi Hunters of Misen and then sold in bulk;
- "Senpou assassins" are in reality former shinobi who protected the temple. Now they are spies helping the monks in their quest for undeath;
- Gachiin Sugars were given to the spies by High Priests;
- Yashariku Sugar is forbidden in the Senpou Temple, however you can get it both there and outside of the Temple in exchange for donation.
Spiritfalls are special items that you get after defeating the Headless, there are 5 Spiritfalls in total. With a Spiritfall you can summon the spirit of the corresponding Sugar in exchange for Spirit Emblems.
Spiritfall descriptions give us lore about the Headless. In Japanese they are called 首無し[kubinashi], literally "headless". The fact that 首 [kubi] actually means "neck" and not "head" and yet it is often used as "head", usually turns many localizations into a mess. English localization correctly translated "Headless" but failed miserably with Headless Ape dialogue. Remember the bloody guy sitting on the ground as you go to the Headless Ape arena? He is moaning in pain, saying, "My neck... my neck...". I thought the poor guy broke his neck having been pushed aside by the giant raging ape but then I realized that in Japanese he is talking about 首 [kubi], like 'a HEADLESS APE just passed here!'
If you have ever been grabbed by a Headless and you are not sure what happened there apart from a lot of pain, the Headless guys actually extract Wolf's shirikodama. Shirikodama (尻子玉) is a mythical ball containing one's soul, located inside the anus. Yep. In Japanese mythology kappas are the ones to hunt for shirikodama but apparently the Headless are also willing to participate. Maybe they just want your soul.
Just as Sugars, all Spiritfalls have the same description structure where most parts are exactly the same. The original word for "Spiritfall" is 御霊降ろし [mitamaoroshi], meaning "acceptance of the spirit", "invoking/liberating the spirit". It is actually quite a dangerous endeavor, you literally summon the spirit to possess you. "Spiritfall" is an awesome translation, I think it's very accurate. You summon the spirit and it falls upon you.
A popular theory in the Sekiro community suggests than the Headless actually are Ako, Ungo, Gokan, Gachiin and Yashariku themselves, the localization leads you to believe as much. However, it always seemed odd to me that the godlike spirits were beheaded across Ashina and thrown into the canals, caves or whatever wilderness in their undergarments.
The first line of any description in Sekiro always answers the question, "What is this item?". Spiritfalls are 「[spirit name]を身に降ろす、首無しの残魂」。Literally "a remnant of the spirit of the Headless who has accepted [spirit name]" This seems to be more plausible: the five warriors of Ashina, while they were alive, invoked powerful spirits, became heroes-defenders of the land but then something went wrong and they were all beheaded. They probably couldn't simply die because of their connection to the spirits, that's why they turned into the monsters we now know as the Headless. After killing them for good, Wolf receives a part of their soul that still preserves the connection to the spirit they summoned when they vere alive, thus, using this scrap of their being, Wolf can also invoke this spirit in exchange for some Spirit Emblems. I am not sure how Senpou and the Sugar Factory fits into the picture yet, I hope to learn more as we go deeper into the lore of monks and Senpou Temple in later posts. But since we can find the statues of these spirits inside the Senpou Temple, I assume that monks made the Sugars themselves but spread them in honour of the heroes as a marketing campaign. "Eat our Sugars and you will be (temporarily) like our greatest heroes." They had to get money for their research from somewhere.
The mechanics of the Spiritfall is translated accurately, you can use this item however many times spending 形代 [katashiro] - Spirit Emblems. Katashiro is a very real thing, it is a shinto item used in certain purification rituals or as a representative of sacred objects or even a person. If you are familiar with Natsume Yuujinchou, you've seen katashiro multiple times.
The original says that "The Headless are what remains of the heroes who took the wrong path for the sake of defending their country". The phrase "shadows of their former selves" is used. Curious that this "wrong path" was, quite possibly, the summoning of the spirits into their bodies. The Headless wanted to protect their country and became vessels for powerful spirits to use their strengths for this purpose but it all ended tragically.
"Seize the power of an inhuman spirit by laying it to rest" - not sure where this came from, the original does not have this line or anything like it. The last line, specific to Ako's Spiritfall, says that "By accepting the inhuman spirit, you will gain power but, if nothing in return is offered, in the end you'll go mad". You know, the aggressive theme of Ako, when you get a lot of power but risk losing your mind because of that.
There is only one line in Ungo's description that is different, it's the last one that tells us about the Ungo Headless. English localization chose to embellish quite terse Japanese description with things like "swift beheading" and "lifeless body" to amp up the drama, I find it kind of funny. The gist is still there though: the warrior lost his mind defending his country and was beheaded for the attempted mutiny. His body was thrown into the canal, where we later find him.
In Gokan's description the unique sentence is quite confusing and difficult to decipher. The line is very short, here it is: 「鎮めの首塚はあるが、長く参るものはいない」。首塚 [kubizuka] is a wonderful word that denotes a burial mound for severed heads. Yes, there is a dedicated word for this in Japanese. 鎮め [shizume] - to appease, to calm, to supress. If you remember where exactly we find the Gokan Headless, it all becomes quite clear. From the first Sunken Valley idon you go back, along the cliffside and then you find several pyramid-shaped burial mounds - now we know that there are severed heads inside those mounds. If you go underwater and then to the cave where the Headless dwells, you can find these pyramids there too. Judging by the description, these are "calming burial mounds" - probably Ashina people wanted to coax their dangerous neighbour by offering him a wide assortment of heads since he does not have his own. The verb 参る [mairu] also has a meaning "to visit shrine or grave" - thus, the description tells us that despite the fact that there are burial mounds for calming [the evil spirit], it's been a long time since someone visited them. This verb has a lot of meanings and I might be mistaken but this is how I understand this description as of now. It is a very lonely place and no one comes here to visit the graves of the deceased. This description, honestly, makes me really sad.
In Gachiin's description the phrase "falling to pieces" sounds kind of suspicious and weird. The original uses the same word we've seen over and over again in Sugars and Spiritfalls: 狂う [kuruu] - to lose one's mind, to go mad. Interestingly enough, the pronoun "I" used by the Headless in the description (this sentence is direct speech) is 己 [onore] - archaic and humble version of "I". "I am [already] going mad" will be the more literal translation. Probably the warrior expected such fate, or maybe the insanity caused by the only non-combat Spiritfall comes slower, I don't know.
"[...] said the man to himself" is a very curious part. In Japanese it's 「それを悟り」, where 悟り [satori] does not only refer to some kind of realization or understanding, but is also a Buddhist term. Satori is a term for awakening, a deep experience of "seeing into one's true nature". I think it has its place in the lore of the Gachiin Headless.
The localization also skipped the part that says that the man disappeared in the forest all alone. Maybe he realized that he was going mad and thus chose to venture into the deep forest all on his own. How did he lose his head though?..
"Lost in utero" is more like an assumption, the original text doesn't say it outright. It says, 「この勇者は、双子として生まれるはずだった」 - "this hero must have been born one of the twins". We actually don't know what happened to the other twin, probably something like "lost in utero" but again, we don't know for sure.
The second part is translated mostly correctly, the original says something like "if there were two of them, it would be impossible to think that they could be defeated by the Palace Nobles".
I don't know where his head is :D I don't think the Nobles beheaded him, they most likely just killed him with the horrible sound of their stupid flutes. Just kidding but it's really hard for me to imagine they would actually behead him. And I also have no clue where his ghost twin's head went, I don't think he was ever even alive.
New things we learned about the Spiritfalls:
- It is basically the process of summoning a spirit into one's body;
- The item itself is a piece of the Headless' soul that preserved the connection with the spirit that the warrior summoned when he was alive;
- Burial mounds near Gokan Headless contain severed heads to appease or calm him;
- Gachiin Headless realized he was going insane and then went alone into the deep forest;
It's also important to mention that beheading was a widespread form of punishment in Japan. Usually, it was the second step of seppuku: as soon as the convicted plunged a blade into their stomach, he was beheaded by kaishakunin, a skilled swordsman. Decapitation in this ritual was a form of art since the swordsman always left a slight band of flesh so the head wouldn't roll around and the blood wouldn't splatter all over the place and disturb the viewers. However, decapitation without seppuku (without disembowlement) was considered to be the most severe and humiliating punishment for exceptional wrongdoings. It is especially true for the Sengoku period, when Sekiro takes place. The Headless don't have any wounds on their stomachs. They were just beheaded.
The weapon of the Headless - nodachi, extra-long sword - also points at their physical prowess. Nodachi swords were so long and heavy that most people couldn't wield them. Soldiers carried nodachi in hand because a normal human wouldn't have the armlength to pull it from the sheath on the back. Nodachi swords were used against cavalry to kill horses. The Headless, however, do not seem to have any trouble wielding nodachi and flex this sword with confidence.
Sometimes it is hard to comprehend all the tiny nuances but Sekiro is so beautiful in Japanese, I can't wait to read more. Next posts will be dedicated to bosses and their associated items, like Lady Butterfly and her kunai, or Gyoubu and his Broken Horn.
I hope I'll be able to consistently make a video version for each of these posts so you can subscribe to Lair's YouTube channel to be immediately notified when something new is released. This will be a long and interesting journey and I'm glad to have your company.
Thanks you for your time, see you in the next post! Take care.