Sekiro no Shibusa

Something about Sekiro makes it seem particularly Japanese. You probably haven’t heard it used before, but there’s actually a term for this - shibusa.

The concept of shibusa frequently comes up in conversations about Japanese culture. The term is tough to translate, but it refers to a sort of subtlety which strikes the perfect balance between the opposing principles of simplicity and complexity. (The term literally means “austere elegance,” but it’s almost always left untranslated). Situated somewhere in the middle ground between style and substance, the best example of shibusa would have to be Honami Koetsu’s pottery. While it’s frugal in form, his pottery is never plain. There’s a wealth of depth and detail in its decoration, but his work is far from flashy. Everything is just right.

The developer behind Sekiro, FromSoftware, imbued every aspect of the game with a strong sense of shibusa. This comes through in its mechanics, aesthetics, and story.

Something about Sekiro seems particularly Japanese

The concept of shibusa is clearly expressed in the combat mechanics. While it definitely isn’t easy, the game’s combat is only difficult in a certain sense of the term. You basically have to fight a bunch of deadly enemies. They can kill you with a single strike. There’s always a trick, though. You could say the same for a standard bad guy, but the best example is probably the bosses. Spend enough time studying them and you’ll pick up on something strange: they’ve all got a weakness. The one called Sen-un for example has poor posture, so you just have to block his blows until he drops his guard. In other words, beating the guy is a piece of cake, but you have to know exactly how to confront him. The combat in Sekiro is a bit like sudoku in this regard. Solving the puzzle is by far the hardest part. The rest is relatively easy.

The combat in Sekiro is a bit like sudoku

Similar to its mechanics, the aesthetics in Sekiro are imbued with a strong sense of shibusa. This can most clearly be seen in the characters. While they’re realistic in appearance, most of their features are slightly stylized. You’ll find some strange ones like Sen-un, but nothing about them is beyond the bounds of believability, though. They’re just right. The player character, Sekiro, provides a case in point. He’s basically a ninja, so you’d expect him to keep a low profile, but certain things about him are pretty conspicuous. Since he carries a katana, you might for example assume that he’s a samurai. Take some time to size him up and you’ll notice on the other hand that his robes are held together by nothing more than straps and string. This makes him look more like a beggar. He would have a hard time blending into either group of people, so his presentation definitely isn’t probable, but it’s not impossible, either.

The characters in Sekiro are slightly stylized

Several aspects of the story in Sekiro are colored by the concept of shibusa. You can see this in the central narrative, but the best example would have to be the item descriptions. They’re pretty lean. While they give you a bit of background information, the item descriptions are only detailed enough to spark your imagination. They hand you some breadcrumbs, but you have to find the bakery on your own. Take a look at the katana called Kusabimaru and you’ll see what I mean. Since it only contains a few lines of lore, the item description doesn’t actually tell you much, but its wording makes your mind work out the rest. The writing is almost perfect in this regard. While it was apparently lost, you’re told that Kusabimaru was given to the player character by a daimyo called Kuro after finding its way back into his possession. There’s nothing about why it was lost. There’s nothing about how it was found, either.

The story in Sekiro is light on detail

FromSoftware imbued every aspect of Sekiro with a strong sense of shibusa. You can see this in the game’s mechanics, aesthetics, and story. The developer even seems to have taken this cultural concept as a kind of design pillar. With its combat sudoku, stylized characters, and lean lore, Sekiro features the concept of shibusa in a way that shows every sign of being more than just a coincidence. FromSoftware managed to strike the perfect balance between the opposing principles of simplicity and complexity. Everything is just right. Since it perfectly captures the concept of shibusa, you could say that FromSoftware made sure that Sekiro was true to its cultural form. Hopefully more developers will take the same design approach. The result would be a greater diversity of games.