*This article will contain spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima*
In the Shadows of The Ghost
Bryan Dechart, an actor and content creator best known for his performance as Connor in Detroit: Become Human, streamed Sucker Punch’s 2020 release, Ghost of Tsushima, on Twitch last year. His comments after he finished the game perfectly summarize how I feel about the story’s main themes. He said, “I think the hardest part for me in this game was the tension, of course, between doing what you’ve been told is right and what you know is right – and failing the people that are important to you by trusting yourself.” I was struck by the eloquence of his statement, and like most, I understood that he was referring to the game’s main hero, Jin Sakai. But I realized eventually that those words could also apply to someone else.
Ryuzo is a Ronin who aids Jin during the game’s main story. They fight the Mongol invaders together, and we learn more about their complex history as those events unfold. The two have a brotherly dynamic. They clearly care about each other, but there is also an uncomfortable history that lingers in their interactions. The two of them grew up together, and fought against each other in a tournament two years before the events of the game. This is where an emotional rift was formed between the two; one that went beyond the limits of their social and familial differences.
Ryuzo, unlike Jin, did not grow up as a samurai. He did not have an entire clan’s history behind him. The tournament was his one opportunity to change the course of his destiny, and enter into the ranks of the samurai. He was so excited to finally prove himself that he invited many commanders from different clans to watch him fight. He had confidence in his abilities, even when facing an opponent as skilled as Jin Sakai. Yet, despite his best efforts, Ryuzo was defeated by his friend. In a few short moments, Ryuzo’s vision of the future was crushed under the strikes of his lifelong companion. With no other options, Ryuzo joined the Ronin afterward. After their leader is killed on Komoda Beach, Ryuzo takes his place.
A Relatable Character
As much as I love Jin Sakai, I feel as though Ryuzo is a more relatable character. He was just a regular person who had dreams, and came so close to seeing them realized, but was overcome by failure despite his preparations. No one on the island looked at him with the same respect they showed to Jin or his family. Ryuzo, like so many people, wanted to feel validated and cherished by others. And since his blood could not do that for him, he had to use his skills to prove his worth.
Ryuzo carries his insecurities with him throughout his entire journey. He transmutes the pain of his past failures into a sense of devotion to his men. He had been searching for recognition for his whole life, and when he finally found it, it was under the banner of a blood-soaked invasion.
The Mongols cut the Ronins’ numbers in half, and those that remained were sick and starving. We first meet Ryuzo when Jin, needing allies to rescue his uncle from Mongol captivity, asks his old friend for assistance. Ryuzo only agrees when Jin promises to help find food for the Ronin.
It is quite telling that this was the first time the two had spoken since the tournament. Despite their genuine bond, Ryuzo clearly harbors some jealousy and resentment towards Jin. Their new partnership brought those difficult emotions to the surface. Eventually, some of the Ronin are captured by the Mongols. After Jin and Ryuzo free them, they discover a strange truth. The Mongols never hurt their captives, but instead provided them with food.
A Glimpse of Betrayal
This is the moment where Ryuzo’s mind begins to shift, as the impulse to survive becomes too powerful to ignore. The Mongols saw talent in the Ronin, and realized they would be valuable assets to their forces. So, they did the smart thing and gave them the nourishment that they had been so desperately seeking. They gave them what Ryuzo and Jin had failed to find together. This was a brilliant tactic – and one that Jin would pay the price for.
When Ryuzo and Jin meet next, they have blades at each other’s throats. The Khan put a price on the Ghost’s head, and Ryuzo has every reason to chase after it. He needs certainty that his men will be protected. If killing his closest friend was the only means of survival, then that was a line he would have to cross.
Jin pleads with Ryuzo to change his mind, telling him that Lord Shimura will grant him what he always wanted: the title of Samurai. Yet, at this point, those dreams had long been extinguished. His identity had been redefined by his authority over the Ronin. He became such a dedicated leader because he wanted to fill the void of his previous inadequacies. There was nothing that Jin could offer now that would ease the pain of his insecurities.
Recognition and Retribution
It was at this point that I noticed the parallels between the two of them. Both Ryuzo and Jin have positions of power. They both lead those who need guidance and protection. But Jin ascends this state and becomes a symbol. Ryuzo remains an individual – an individual who cannot rely on reputation to overcome hardships. He reflects the wide spectrum of human emotions as he endures those difficulties. His actions are often shrouded in moral ambiguity. What are you willing to do to survive? How much are you willing to sacrifice? Who are you willing to let go of? These questions define his complex character.
Jin sees the Mongols as a threat that can be exterminated. He has faith that their home can be taken back. He carries hope with him at all times. Through becoming the Ghost, he believes he is doing the practical thing. He knows it is the only method that will lead to survival. And he is willing to walk that path even if his most sacred bond is broken in the process.
Ryuzo does the same thing. He sees a solution, and is willing to sacrifice everything, even his closest friend, in order to achieve it. He sees people who are suffering, and understands that he needs to do whatever it takes to help them. Their actions mirror each other, even as their world views differ. They are two men whose ambitions lie between recognition and retribution.
History repeated itself as the two warriors clashed inside Castle Kaneda, on the eve of Lord Shimura’s rescue operation. Ryuzo and Jin fought, and even with the future of his men hanging in the balance, the Ronin was unable to defeat his friend.
In the company of wolves
Immediately following the duel between Jin and Ryuzo, the Khan approaches Castle Shimura. The Castle belongs to Jin’s uncle and is being occupied by civilians. Here, we see one of the game’s most heartbreaking moments. The Khan has taken a few people hostage, and is using them as bait to force the residents of the castle to open the gates.
He then forces Ryuzo, who is now working closely with the Mongols, to kill the hostages with a torch, in order to “earn” the food that he was promised. Leonard Wu, the actor who provided the English voice of Ryuzo, as well as the motion capture, delivers here one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in a game. Ryuzo’s entire being reflects his state of emotional turmoil; his face and body become conduits that highlight his strongest fears and deepest regrets. Ryuzo was never a bad person; he was just a decent human being who endured the traumas of failure and war. And tried his best to survive and protect those who depended on him. His reward was more suffering.
His hand shakes as he guides the torch to the first hostage. Ryuzo’s face is filled with consistent horror as he watches his own people become victims of his need to survive. As he approaches the second hostage, the agony becomes too great to bear, and he screams and shouts, begging the castle’s residents to finally open the gate. When they do, he collapses on the ground, overcome by regret, fear, and anguish.
The Pursuit of Survival
Ryuzo’s perspective was shaken after this moment. Before, his pursuit of survival justified all of his actions, but now, with the blood of his own people on his hands, he was drowning in guilt and remorse. Ryuzo no longer wanted to kill Jin. His experiences with the Mongols forced him to adjust his previous perceptions. But fate would bring the two friends together for one final duel.
Ryuzo, now with nothing left, after most of his remaining Ronin were killed by Jin earlier, tries to resist the inevitable conflict. He tries to call out to the friend that he once had. His desperation has become so strong that he even tries to convince Jin to tell his followers that Ryuzo was a spy. But, there were no words that could be exchanged at that point that could reconcile the differences between the two. Ryuzo falls, and Jin loses his oldest friend.
Doing What’s Right
It would be easy to view Ryuzo exclusively as a traitor – someone who turned his back on his own people and caused unspeakable harm. But, that would be doing his character a grave injustice. Out of a cast of wonderfully realized, emotionally complex characters, Ryuzo stands out to me as the most underrated. He was not some embodiment of evil or corruption who sought power or wealth blindly. Ryuzo was someone who was desperate to be recognized and validated, and let himself down many times while chasing his goals. He is flawed, vulnerable, and compelling – the ambiguity of his decisions feels completely natural and necessary. His legacy is defined by his pursuit of survival for himself and others. He fought, he suffered, and he resisted. He did what he thought was right.
*Featured image originally provided by Reddit user Bradfishuk*
I Love all forms of fiction, but have a special passion for games. Character and narrative > everything else.