Sekiro, Souls, and the Kingdom of Light

Sekiro Dark Souls

In the novel Moby Dick, the whiteness of the Whale presents a force of nature stark and uncovered, the wild will of God which is loathed and opposed by the resentful Captain Ahab. The whiteness of the Whale is its cruelty, its harsh strength, its ability to stand in for the object of all desire and the punishing blank slate of a world in which God behaves in unknown, unknowable ways. Moby Dick is no exception – whiteness, brightness, and light have long occupied the theological and philosophical visions of the Western world.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Valinor, the land of the Gods, is guarded by “the White Mountain, dreadful and beautiful”. Brightness and illumination are forces which can be equally as hostile to humankind as blinding darkness, under the correct circumstances. The fear and power of God’s Kingdom is revealed in hideous, brutal light, a ray of harshness which reveals ugliness, impurity, and dirt without concern for the results of such unkind exposure. Light, in Western literature, music and religion, has long been associated with God, Truth, and the divine. Harsh light unerring is the Logos eternal, revealing the imperfections of all Earthly things.

The Western obsession with light is criticized upfront by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, who wrote a brief book on aesthetics titled In Praise of Shadows. In the book, an aging curmudgeon and defender of the traditional Japanese style chronicles the rise of electricity and the Western style in Japan, replacing his treasured darkness with bright, non-negotiable light. “I suppose I shall sound terribly defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.” Tanizaki uses the example of Western hospitals, kitchens and dentist’s offices as places where light exposes what might be better off hidden, rendering garish what should be “somber, refined, dignified”.

Tanizaki compares Japanese architecture, in particular rooftop eaves and the placement of paintings into dark, remote alcoves, to the sunlight-banishing effect of a parasol. “The ‘mysterious Orient’ of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places”, Tanizaki writes. For Tanizaki, the lacquerware of Japanese silverware, the darkness of Chinese jade, the shadows of a long hallway without light, and a painting sunken into an alcove are emblematic of “the genius of our ancestors”, cutting off light in order to generate a “world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth superior to that of any wall painting or ornament.”

For Tanizaki, in the East, beauty grows from the ambiguity of darkness, using the example of Japanese housewives robed and hidden in dark rooms. “I can put the matter strongly: women in those days had almost no flesh. I remember my mother’s face and hands, I can clearly remember her feet, but I can remember nothing about her body.” In the West, women are instead put underneath bright lights and exposed. Japanese ghosts have no feet, Western ghosts are simply white, translucent people. A Western kitchen may use ceramics, and a Western stage for a play will be soaked in floodlights, whereas any Japanese kitchen worth its salt is stocked with lacquerware, and classic Noh plays thrive on the contrast generated by pale makeup cast upon pockets of smothering darkness. Blackened teeth and black hair emphasize the whiteness of the face of the actors, drawing out stark images rather than flattening them all under the devastating accuracy of totalizing light.

Of course, we can leave it to the Souls series to flip this arrangement on its head. A dark Western fantasy created by a Japanese company, the Souls series embodies many of Tanizaki’s insights into the nature of light and color. Muted, dark environments surround the player, making bright white light a rare phenomenon emblematic of miracles and fire, which is the rare, vanishing source of humanity in a fading age.

Swathed in darkness, the landscapes of the Souls game, particularly in the original Dark Souls, are places occupied by monsters and demons, obscure, lightless worlds where history and purpose have been obscured in ruins which are alien to the white, definitive light prized by Western societies. The age of fire has gone. The age of the dark is coming. In this, the Souls games chronicle the failure of the Western light-seeking ethos, its precious Logos. The medieval empires of Gwyn have devolved into time as a flat circle, an endless series of repetitions, and even the great kingdom of Anor Londo, appearing at first to be illuminated, is in actuality the darkest place of them all. A false God of moonlight has created an artificial sun, a boy with tentacles who was raised as a woman, the last light of Gwyn’s lineage extinguished, his Kingdom revealed as a game of deception.

The Western world depicted by From Software is envisioned from the lens of the East – as dark, somber and opaque. Paradoxically, then, when it comes to envisioning the East, and the land of Ashina, From opted to shed light on the entire country, casting bright sunshine on the snows and dragonrot of historical Japan.

Sekiro, unlike the Souls games, takes place in a brightly lit Edo period which, despite nominally starring a ninja, has few shadows and few places to hide. Departing from the flat time of the Souls games, Sekiro exists very much in the mechanisms and movements of temporal history. Gunpowder is being invented. Primitive firearms and ninja tools have emerged. The static, defeated darkness of the Souls games is replaced by a bright, technologically-powered historical setting, a Japan on the cusp of enormous internal and historical change.

From has shifted Tanizaki’s conception of East and West on its head. Now, it is the West which is dark and unknowable, and it is the East which is crisp, bright, and advancing forward technologically into modern history. The progressive attitudes of Western techne live within the East, whereas the West hollows out into the abyss.

But why the inversion? Perhaps From Software is depicting the changing tides of a Chinese future. The Western world, which was once convinced by the clarity of Truth and the power of philosophy to sculpt the world in a lofty image, has become overrun by electricity and become something of a casino floor stocked with slot machines, all pumping out serotonin, the human being as scientific subject fully figured out and removed of all mystery. In short, the light went too far. It has now become harsh, clinical, cruel.

G.K. Chesterton, the early 20th century English essayist and author of the Father Brown detective novels, once remarked that in the far East, a dragon could be depicted as a symbol of benevolence, conveying a relationship to humankind far from that of villain and destroyer. Chinese dragons are forces of nature, not enemies to be isolated from the rest of existence and opposed. In the West, St. George slays the dragon and breaks the wheel of nature’s dominion over man. For the Western mind, a dragon is a demon to be conquered, a snake in the garden of paradise, a tempter and a monstrosity. In the East, the dragon is depicted as a curiosity, a fluffy dog, a national treasure.

In the lore of the Souls series, the world begins with immortal dragons that are synonymous with nature. The race of Ancient Dragons which occupied the world in darkness before the rise of lightning, humanity, and time were immutable structures of the unconscious world. The story of Gwyn’s rise to power in Dark Souls is the story of nature being assaulted by the logos of man. The Ancient Dragons are blasted apart by lightning like bark from trees – they are unconscious monsters, incapable of thought, opponents of human will. They are nature cast as a villain to be deposed.

Sekiro’s dragon is slightly different. Rather than representing the age of darkness, the Celestial Dragon is an icon of white, unnatural light, an invasive entity from another world. Here, the Western will to light itself is depicted as the true dragon. Accordingly, after Sekiro destroys the dragon, the gameworld falls into darkness, war, and madness. The chaos of nature has taken over the formerly illuminated gameworld once more. The dragon has been vanquished – but in this case, the Dragon came from the West. The Celestial Dragon is a source of immortal life, a violation of the limitations of nature, representing the will of a modern billionaire such as Peter Thiel who seeks to extend human lifespans. The Dragon is an alien object raining down unwanted light from the heavens. It is the conqueror and the colonist who comes from the West to disturb the darkness, and to invite the ego to delusions of immortality which rot the vessel which houses life.

Sekiro, like Dark Souls, is a rejection of the Western logos as Promethean, doomed, and heading nowhere. King Gwyn, all his lightning in his hand, has nowhere left to throw it. Sekiro doubles down on its Promethean commentary through the monks of Senpou Temple, a sect of Buddhists who have become mad with ambitions of immortality, as well as the Mist Nobles of the Fountainhead Palace, who have given away their humanity to serve the Celestial Dragon, and become squidlike serpents. The monks of Senpou Temple and the nobles of the Fountainhead represent degenerate spirituality. Due to the corrupting effects of light and the promise of immortal life, the spiritual and financial aristocrats of the old Eastern order are rendered into demons by a Western invasion.

For Tanizaki, that order was never restored to Japan. In the later pages of In Praise of Shadows, he bemoans that the Western style of electricity and progress was winning over the whole world, and that the darkness he so treasured in ancient Japan would soon be wiped away, much like an unsightly smudge on a countertop. Promethean ambition would guide the postwar world, and in the 21st century, reversing the sheer density of electronic communication is now impossible.

Tanizaki laments the illumination of the world, because light makes the world uglier. Exposing all the inner mysteries of human nature and the household to the world, rendered public via social media and the transfer of information, destroys the surprise. Everything, soon enough, becomes external, counted, analyzed and commodified. The harsh light of truth is also the light of the New York Stock Exchange, and algorithmic analysis. In this, the main flaw at the heart of the Western world is revealed. The very divine light of God, the truth-seeking impulse in humankind, has engulfed us. Granted access to immortality, truth, science and power beyond the grasp of any of our ancestors, we are creating a global ruin. And soon, the age of fire will be over. And the era of the dark will begin anew.