Sounds of Tsushima

Ghost of Tsushima composer reveals the instrument behind the game's best songs

Did you catch this distinct sound during your playthrough?

Ghost of Tsushima is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. Sucker Punch Productions spent the better part of six years developing the stunning virtual landscapes gamers have been obsessing over since the samurai epic’s July 17 release. One of the many ways that the game honors 13th-century Japanese history is with an authentic approach to the music and melodies that set the mood in Ghost of Tsushima.

Award-winning musician and co-composer of Ghost of Tsushima’s soundtrack, Ilan Eshkeri, tells Inverse that it took him and fellow composer Shigeru Umebayashi “a good year” to complete the game’s 22-song soundtrack. His work on the project led him to discover a 7th-century instrument that’s legacy has waned.

“[Sucker Punch] wanted to be authentic and respectful,” Eshkeri says. “I was inspired by that ambition, so I started researching folk songs and instruments from the area and time period and spoke with masters and scholars. I went on this big journey of learning and by the end of it I knew just enough to know what I don’t know.”

Eshkeri composing the music of 'Ghost of Tsushima.'Ilan Eshkeri

Maybe Ghost of Tsushima will help renew interest in the instrument?

Eshkeri has 20 years of experience creating music for a wide variety of mediums including films like 47 Ronin and Kick-Ass, along with video games like The Sims 4. But the London-native said that creating the music of Ghost of Tsushima was one of the most fascinating learning experiences of his career.

By the end of that journey, Eshkeri became familiar with a Japanese lute called the biwa, which can be heard in Lord Shimura’s theme song. This traditionally four-stringed instrument descends from the Chinese pipa and was made into many different variants during Japan’s feudal era.

A woodblock print (surimono) depicting two women, one of which is playing the biwa.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of them was the Satsuma-biwa, which samurai learned to play during the 17th century as a form of mental and moral training. The biwa’s twangy plucks were most commonly accompanied by a single voice during court performances, but its popularity spread the instrument made its way into religious sermons and oral history performances.

Eshkeri learned that there were only a handful of musicians who specialized in biwa performances left today. One of them is Junko Ueda, a Satsuma-biwa master who played the biwa for Lord Shimura’s theme, which took inspiration from the epic account The Tale of the Heike, which is typically accompanied by a biwa.

Lord Shimura is the embodiment of the samurai code of honor in Ghost of Tsushima. A code that protagonist Jin Sakai was raised to rigorously uphold, but he's eventually forced to break that code to combat the overwhelming Mongol invasion of his home in ways that are effective but perceived as dishonorable.

At its core, Ghost of Tsushima is an adventure through Jin coming to terms with the fact that he’ll need to deceive and murder the Mongol army instead of honorably facing them head-on like his traditions dictate. Sucker Punch put the samurai tradition front and center in this story and imbued it into many of the game’s details, like letting Eshkeri include a biwa performance by one of the instrument’s few remaining experts.

“There's a real purity of thought and creativity in a lot of the music, which means it is very firmly rooted in Japanese tradition,” Eshkeri says. “I'm proud that I was able to achieve that and that Sony and Sucker Punch were brave enough to stand behind its plan to bring all of this authenticity to Ghost of Tsushima."

While Ghost of Tsushima takes a lot of creative liberties in terms of what the 13th century looked like, the inclusion of the biwa is one way that makes the game feel that much more authentic.

Ghost of Tsushima is out now for PlayStation 4.

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