Ninjas love scrolls. It’s just a ninja thing, don’t ask. They refuse to read anything that hasn’t first been rolled up into scroll form so they can unroll it again and dramatically ponder its contents. Luckily for us, they left a few of these scrolls behind. In the interest of important ninja science, I took a look at some translations of these aged texts, such as the Bansenshukai, the Koka Ryu Ninjutsu Densho, the Shinobi Hiden, and the Yoshimori Hyakushu to find out whether any of Sekiro’s tools, items, and techniques have much historical precedent. And they definitely do. Allow me to impart this secret knowledge* upon you.
* It’s all on Kindle
You’d be forgiven for thinking this glowing gourd of grossly incandescent leftover Panda Express is just another setting-appropriate Souls analogue. Lordran has shiny stones, Sekiro has shiny rice. As it turns out, this lustrous long grain has its own historical precedent. The Gunpo Jiyoshu, in a section named “The Three Call Signs of the Shinobi’ suggests using “Rice of five colours” to identify fellow ‘nobs.
The idea is that you each pick a colour of rice before a sneaking mission and leave grains of your chosen colour behind you, thus being able to identify places already visited by your rice pals. Your grain gang. Your bas-mateys.
The Shinobi Hiden makes mention of two different underwater helmets, deviously named ‘Underwater Helmet I’ and ‘Underwater Helmet II’. Both are built with a combination of protection and buoyancy in mind. The description of the second helmet reads as follows:
“When you are hiding under water, if it is the moat of a castle, the enemy may drop rocks from above the moat onto you, or if they approach you by ship they may hit you from above. This tool protects you in such cases.”
Which sounds, I’m not going to lie, a bit optimistic.
I was only able to find two mentions of shields throughout the various scrolls. One was a shield with a candle in it, which sounds both ingenious and completely impractical. The other was a shield “constructed of wood from the Japanese zelkova tree”. The Hiden suggests using this shield to “thrust at the enemy and batter him with it.” The image of a graceful shinobi sneaking into an enemy castle with deadly finesse just to batter someone to death with a bit of wood makes me very happy.
“No matter how many tools you carry as a shinobi, remember, above all things, that you should always have your food on your waist.”
That’s a poem from the Yoshimori Hyakushu, a book of Shinobi advice delivered in verse. Both food and medicine make a few appearances across the various scrolls and tomes, and Sekiro’s pellets themselves have two direct analogues.
There’s a brief mention in the Gunpo Jiyohsu of “Hunger pills – those that save all soldiers”, but the Shinobi Hiden has an entire section called “An Explanation of Magical Medicine”. It kicks off with a story about an ancient Chinese sage from Mount Hakusan who visits an emperor claiming to have invented a “wonder medicine”. “Your complexion or ability will not decline even a bit, and you will feel better than normal,” he promises the emperor. Then he generously volunteers seventy people to be put to death if the medicine doesn’t work, which is nice of him.
The Hiden then gives a recipe, which turns out to be a powder made from soy beans and hempseed. So, there you have it, gamers. Sekiro is a soyboy, and also possibly vegan, since hemp powder is what I use in my smoothies instead of moo protein. I can’t believe those darned SJW’s invented a secret order of highly skilled assassins just to force subliminal propaganda into video games hundreds of years later.
Bonus Facts: Based on two poems from the Yoshimori Hyakushu, it seems Shinobi were quite superstitious about their food. One poem promises that finding a momi (a grain of rice still in its husk) in your rice bowl is a sign of good luck for an upcoming night attack. Another warns that a lack of lucky signs in your soup means that the coming evening’s “Shinobi activity” will be “seriously difficult.”
The more astute students of the blade among you may have already noticed that the one-armed wolf is sneaking all wrong. This is how the Shinobi Hiden recommends quiet traversal around hostile spaces:
“Walk with your hands on the floor and with your feet on your hands. To do this, put the left hand forward and put the right foot on it; then put the right hand forward and put the left foot on it. Repeat this, and in this way you will not make any noise and thus will not be detected.”
I don’t like to make sweeping statements if I can avoid them, but I have no problem declaring that every modder in the world is a coward until this becomes an option.
Here is another piece of sage stealth advice from the Hiden scrolls: “To go from tree to tree in the garden like a monkey, you can imitate a monkey by wearing its skin.” Thankfully, the incredible ZullieTheWitch already did this one.
No mentions of firecrackers whatsoever, although the Bansenshukai does include instructions for making ‘blinding powder’, which basically involves mixing powders from both chilli and gun together and shooting it into a building to “totally blind the occupants who are inside.” This sounds fun, but my journalistic pedantry requires me to point out a redundancy in this text. ‘Occupants’ already suggests ‘inside’. Someone could have stealth-killed you in the time it took you to write that.
Shinobi absolutely loved their fire, it seems, and the various scrolls are stuffed with tools and other references. There’s an entire section of the Shinobi Hiden just called “A Shinobi Should Carry Fire”. There’s instructions for fire arrows, fire grenades, fire for warmth, fire for shitting up enemy horses, fire for setting fire to enemy horses and making them run at your adversary. There’s a type of fire net which is “also good as a shuriken”, which is interestingly one of the only actual references to shuriken I could find. There’s a skill called “Fire within the hand”, and also the extra ominous and tantalising “hiyutai”. Like much in these manuals, these lists were meant to act as prompts for those who already had knowledge of Shinobi trickery. The section for ‘Hiyutai’ itself is especially secretive, saying:
“…this is also an important secret in the path of the shinobi, so is not to be explained here. Overall these deep secrets have a number of things that can only be transmitted orally.”
I’m not saying this was definitely the flame vent, but that would a spicy claim, right? Between the endless lists of fire tools, something akin to Sekiro’s flame vent doesn’t seem all that farfetched.
The Shinobi Hiden has a few different tools that resemble grappling hooks, as well as mentioning hooks with which to grapple in various contexts. Here are some choice sections:
“When you need to climb up to a height, you can attach a rope to the anchor and grapple your way up. Also you can use it to break down a castle fence by getting a hold of a roof bracket then pulling the rope”
“To cross a moat when the walls are too high, use a hooked ladder, fix it onto an udegi [main bracket], and climb up. If the bracket is too short to hook onto, hook on a grappling hook and ascend.”
“If you ever see the grappling hook prompt on Gyoubu, make sure you latch onto him. Not only will this close the distance, but it will interrupt his spinning swing-blades that have a surprising range and are unblockable”
That last bit is actually from one of Dave’s guides.
The Bansenshukai also contains grappling hook instructions. I’ve included them below, so you can make one yourself should you wish to enact swift shinobi justice next time Gyoubu Masataka Oniwa is holding you up in Starbucks.
“Uchikagi comprise four separate hooks made of tempered iron. Use the small iron ring to combine them all into one grappling hook. The rope should be one to five shaku long and made of hemp. I say that the rope should be varied according to the opportunity.”
A wise suggestion.
Sorry, but how good is Sekiro’s axe? Ah, hello noble opponent. I can see from your lithe and graceful dance you have long studied the forbidden arts. It would be an awful shame if someone ate a healing pellet then tanked through your snazziest moves while hitting you repeatedly with a large blunt object until you were ripe for a disembowelment.
Could real life Shinobi count on such a useful tool? The closest thing I could find in the Hiden were instructions for an ‘Iron Machete”. It specifies a particular shape because this “enhances its strength so it can serve its purpose when you are in a battle camp” and also mentions using it “in place of a sword”, so it does seem to be intended for direct combat. Cheese, it appears, is timeless.
I found nary a reference to magic leaves or magic feathers, but Shinobi did seem to enjoy their sneaking magic. The Koka Ryu Ninjutsu Densho, a short scroll believed to have originated somewhere around the middle of the Edo period, makes reference to the ‘principles of the Divine Arrow Windmill’ – a sort of ritualistic nik nak made of arrowheads used in magic rites.
Alongside rituals to help with travel involving soil taken from the place you wish to visit, there’s a hiding spell that requires you to steal a strand of hair from a dead woman, then imbue a hairpin with the power of the lunar eclipse. So yeah, fictional or not, the raven feathers may be the less convoluted option.
“When you come across a fox in a field, you should urinate, then walk past it” – The Shinobi Hiden.
Godspeed, tiny grasshoppers. Do not forget: Yellow Stream. Silent Fox.