The haiku-writing mini-game in Sucker Punch's PS4 epic captures the Zen-like calm of the form, but it's steeped in inaccuracies.
Early on in Ghost of Tsushima, protagonist Jin encounters an easily missed poet in the forest around Hiyoshi Springs who teaches him the art of haiku, one of Japan's oldest and foremost poetic traditions. Heeding the poet's advice, Jin rests at a nearby rock and tries his hand at composing a haiku, scanning the idyllic scenery for inspiration as he contemplates his quest and the natural beauty around him in a moment of quiet reflection.
It's a picturesque scene that captures the solemnity and Zen-like nature of haiku in Ghost of Tsushima's interpretation of 13th century Japan. The only problem is none of this would have actually happened.
While it's true that samurai were expected to be versed in other arts beyond swordsmanship and often practiced poetry, haiku as they are presented in the game did not begin to emerge as a standalone poetic form until around the 1600s--roughly 400 years after Ghost of Tsushima takes place. Moreover, none of the characters in the game would have referred to their poems as "haiku," as the word did not enter into common usage until the 19th century, when it was coined by noted writer Masaoka Shiki--widely regarded as the last of Japan's "four great haiku masters."
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Haiku as we know the form traces its roots back to hokku. These were indeed written at the time of Jin's adventure, although they were quite different from the haiku he composes throughout the game. Rather than being standalone poems, hokku were the opening stanzas of renga--collaborative poems that were played as a word game at gatherings. While hokku were often considered more important than the stanzas that would follow, they were not intended to be read independently of the renga, and they wouldn't be commonly written as standalone poems until the 17th century.
That's not all that Ghost of Tsushima gets wrong about the form. Ask anyone what a haiku is and they'll likely tell you it's a short poem written in three alternating lines made up of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. The haiku that Jin writes in the game all adhere to this pattern--only that rule isn't entirely correct. Traditional Japanese hokku did indeed generally follow a five-seven-five pattern, but their lines were made up of on--phonetic sounds--rather than syllables. This is an important distinction, as a syllable could contain more than one on; the word "Tokyo," for instance, contains two syllables but four on. As a result, haiku that followed a strict syllable count, particularly in English, would often end up overstuffed with superfluous words to meet the required number.
It's largely for this reason that--as Kotaku points out--the haiku you can write in Ghost of Tsushima are not very good. The title's haiku-composing mini-game is understandably rudimentary, limiting you to selecting from different pre-written phrases until you have a three-line poem, so it would be impossible to replicate the nuance of a real haiku in the game. Even with this in mind, however, Jin's poems will almost always turn out to be completely meaningless, as amply demonstrated by my Jin's first haiku:
Whispers through the trees
A cool bed beneath the stars
Growing ever strong
Ultimately, however, haiku in Ghost of Tsushima are effectively just another type of collectible to check off your lengthy to-do list between clashes with the Mongols, so it's easy to overlook these inaccuracies in the grander scheme of the game, particularly when so many other aspects of it are so polished. Developer Sucker Punch has also never advertised Ghost of Tsushima as being historically accurate. The studio has always said it was more concerned with capturing the feeling of being a samurai than recreating the past, as Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman told GameSpot:
"The way I think about it is: we're going to deviate from historical truth, we just want to do it intentionally. A lot of the support we get from our friends from Sony in Japan, and our Japanese friends in Sony US, and all the cultural consultants we've assembled to help us do this stuff, is to make sure we don't deviate accidentally. There are things we are going to do that are different and we want to choose those wisely."
It's a bit ironic, then, that Ghost of Tsushima would have been more authentic had it not included haiku at all, but it's hardly the only historical inaccuracy in the game, and it doesn't detract from its other merits. And on a more positive note, the quiet moments of respite that inspire Jin to compose his haiku help add some levity to the adventure and highlight the game's breathtaking environments, which is never a bad thing.
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