Tag Archives: Personal Loss

On Catharsis and the Ghost of Tsushima

One act of kindness can make all the difference.

This year has been one of loss and uncertainty for many of us. In the last eight months I have lost three people close to me, all pillars of my world. One of them was my grandfather. As you might imagine, I was devastated.

At the time that he passed, I threw my grief into the proverbial drawer and slammed it shut. Not the healthiest approach, I’ll admit, but one I felt was necessary at the time. In the weeks following his funeral, I became withdrawn and depressed. I found myself stuck in a cycle of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens.

Then, out of the blue, a friend of mine reached out to me. “Have you played Ghost of Tsushima yet?”

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I had seen the trailers. It looked like a dream game, but it was a PlayStation 4 exclusive. I didn’t own that game system. I had to put Ghost of Tsushima on the list with Horizon Zero Dawn, Marvel’s Spider-Man, God of War and a bunch of other fantastic games that were out of reach.

When I told my friend that I didn’t have a PS4, he replied. “I’ll hook you up.” I thanked him, thinking that he was going to send me a copy of the game for when I finally did get the system. A few days later, a brand-new PS4 showed up on my doorstep along with a copy of Ghost of Tsushima and Marvel’s Spider-Man. I was floored by his generosity.

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Toshiro Mifune set the bar pretty high for on-screen samurai.

My friend knew that I have a life-long interest in Japanese culture and samurai history, that I had been involved in martial arts at an early age (both my parents were teachers), and that I have a particular fondness for Akira Kurosawa films.

That is how the Ghost of Tsushima came into my life. One act of kindness.

[What follows contains major spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima, so turn back if you don’t want to know major plot points and/or how it ends.]

Everything about this game hit the mark for me, right from the start. The story, the cinematic cut scenes, the haunting soundtrack, the combat system, and most especially the breathtaking visuals — all spot on. This is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

Landscape

In it, you step into the role of Lord Jin Sakai, a Kamakura-era samurai fighting against the Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima in 1274. In the opening moments of the game, Jin and his beloved uncle, Lord Shimura, make a desperate charge to prevent the Mongols from taking Komoda beach. It’s hopeless, but they fight on against all odds. One by one the samurai around them fall, until only Jin and Lord Shimura are left standing. The Mongol leader, Khotun Khan, takes Lord Shimura captive and believes he’s killed Jin in single combat. (That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but I don’t want to give everything away.)

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Lord Jin Sakai.

Saving Lord Shimura thus becomes your first major goal in the game. To achieve this, Jin has to employ tactics and methods that his uncle believes are not honorable, such as stealth and assassination. This marks Jin’s transformation into ‘The Ghost,’ a figure that strikes terror into the hearts of the invaders.

The relationship between these two characters is at the heart of this story. When Jin’s father is killed, Lord Shimura raises his young nephew as his own son. We get to see how their relationship grows over time. One of the combat tutorials is cleverly presented as a flashback to Lord Shimura’s lessons with the sword. These scenes show us what they mean to each other, even up to the very end. Lord Shimura represents the pure samurai ideal. He is a monolithic presence in Jin’s life. To go a little D&D here, he is the shining paladin that Jin aspires to be.

Lord Shimura

Lord Shimura.

Some of the best digital acting I’ve ever seen is between Jin and Lord Shimura. You can see the gleam of pride in the older man’s eyes. One of the most touching moments in the game is when Lord Shimura tells Jin that he has petitioned the Shogun to make Jin his legally adopted son and heir. He will cease to be Jin Sakai and instead become Jin Shimura, the eventual jito (territorial steward) and leader of Tsushima.

Unfortunately, it’s never quite that simple in a story like this one. Jin’s role as the Ghost eventually brings the two of them into direct conflict. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch these two fall out. They both love and respect each other, but the course of events has put them at odds. Lord Shimura believes that Jin has lost his way; Jin believes that Lord Shimura’s inflexible code cannot answer the realities they face.

The Ghost

The Ghost.

This is where real life crossed over with my experience in the game. What I just described is similar to the relationship I had with my grandfather (though, admittedly, there were far fewer Mongols involved). He was this larger-than-life figure when I was growing up, like a force of nature or a rock star. He was a cowboy as well, and those who follow the genre know how well Westerns translate into samurai stories, and vice versa.

I never fit into that mold. I tried to, I wanted to at times, but it wasn’t for me. As I grew older, we disagreed more and more about almost everything. You name it, we debated it. Sometimes things could, and did, get heated. We never came to blows, thankfully, and neither of us could stay mad at the other. Even if we saw things from vastly different points of view, I will always remember the times he helped me when things got rough, when I thought I couldn’t go on.

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So, at the time that I crossed swords with Lord Shimura at the end of the game, I had no idea that I was subconsciously working through the complicated relationship my grandfather and I shared. So much of it feels unresolved between us, both the good and the bad. It’s clear now that this lack of closure had become a major impediment to coping with the grief I had bottled up inside.

At the end of the duel, you have the choice to either spare Lord Shimura’s life or grant him a warrior’s death. While so much of what I’ve learned told me to honor Lord Shimura’s last request, I found in that moment that I couldn’t do it.

This is where we part

This is where we part.

After everything the two had gone through together, for the bond that they shared, and because Jin’s name (仁) can be found as one of the virtues of bushido to mean mercy or compassion, I chose life.

How could I not?

As Jin walked off into the distance to the sound of “The Way of the Ghost,” something in the soulful sadness and beauty of Clare Uchima’s performance moved me, and my long-absent catharsis came at last. To give full credit to Sucker Punch games, I would have been greatly moved by that ending even without the underlying metacontextual ties to my real life.

It took me several days of soul-searching to understand why that moment in the game had affected me so strongly. Then it hit me: Ghost of Tsushima, to me, is a story about letting go of the past while still honoring it, about becoming who you really are rather than who you were expected to be. That’s exactly where I was emotionally.

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I saw myself and my struggle mirrored in the story, if just for a moment. And seeing it play out before me like that gave me just the jolt I needed to break the cycle and start working through it. Like Jin, I may never have the full closure I seek, but in the end maybe that’s not necessary to accept the loss and continue living.

Life is strange like that. Sometimes it takes playing as a fictional samurai to teach you something about yourself. I won’t lie here, folks, opening up the floodgates has not been easy. Some days are easier than others, and I still have a long way to go in the grieving process.

Quiet Time

Just…breathe.

I’m a big believer in the healing power of art. In the past, books, music, and fandom have seen me through times of emotional hardship and loss. This time it was a video game. It’s often debated whether or not video games should be considered an art form. For all that it accomplishes, for all that it means to those who play it, I’d say that Ghost of Tsushima is the most compelling evidence yet for a definitive yes to that question.

And to think, on my previous trajectory, I would never have had the chance to see the world through the eyes of Jin Sakai and, in turn, learn to say goodbye to one of the brightest stars in my sky.

One act of kindness, folks. Sometimes that’s all it takes.


At the Intersection of Transformers and Life

Folks, I usually try to keep the details of my personal life off this blog. Today, I’m breaking that rule to some degree. The Sector M blog has always been about the things I enjoy, whether thought experiments, ruminations on movies, books, and games, or musings on toy and cartoon properties from the ’80s. I’m sure there are more than a few out there who might admonish me, a grown man, for ‘wasting my time’ with all this childish nonsense.

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My first ever glimpse of Optimus Prime.

What they may not realize is just how deeply I care about these things. They are a part of me. Once, I tried to deny them, but I was miserable. When I unabashedly embraced my inner geek, only then did I thrive. Those who don’t understand the fascination with fandom miss out on a key detail: I’m a fan because my life has intersected with each of these things in the past, often just when I needed it.

Star Trek taught me to be hopeful and optimistic for the future. Marvel comics showed me that there could be beauty in being different. Batman took personal tragedy and turned it into something  positive. Robotech was the first to show me that in any armed conflict, people die. And so on, and so on, I could go on all day. But the one that resonated with me the most was Transformers, which is no surprise if you’ve followed this blog. My office is filled with the toys, new and old. I’m thankful to still have many of the originals I had as a kid.

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I have something to say about pretty much everything here.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m sorry to say that I lost someone very dear to me a month ago at the time of this writing. It was completely unexpected, and I’m still reeling from the loss. This post is a tribute to her. My godmother famously hated funerals or memorials of any kind. I mean, no one likes funerals, but she had a particular hatred of them. In accordance with her wishes, I will not name her here, but I will use the nickname she preferred. She referred to herself as a Nanny bird, or simply “Nanny.”

Despite the name, she was much more than babysitter. My godparents were more like an extra set of beloved grandparents when I was growing up. Nanny herself was an interesting lady. She drove a white Chrysler Conquest sports car with leather bucket seats. (It was one of the first cars that would speak to let you know “Your door is ajar.”) She was tall with high cheekbones and a long Helen Mirren nose that she attributed to her Spanish heritage. (Her brother, in fact, looked like you could put him in a morion helmet and breastplate and he would have blended in perfectly with a group of conquistadors.)

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I always thought it looked like a Transformer.

She loved abstract art, jewelry, and bright colors, especially teals, purple, and yellow. Her favorite perfume was Giorgio that came in the yellow and white striped box. Later, she was a SCUBA instructor, an emergency medical responder, and a volunteer fire-fighter. More than all that, she loved everyone around her fiercely, and woe betide anyone who hurt someone under her protective aegis.

My godparents certainly did their best to spoil me rotten. My parents at the time weren’t in a position to buy me many toys, but my godparents were a different story. In fact, Nanny was the one who bought me my very first Transformer, and I still have him.

This guy.

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He still transforms, too.

This would have been in the autumn of 1984. We were in the old Walmart in Athens, Texas. I remember that we were on our way to the checkout when I spotted him. He wasn’t in the toy isle. Instead, he was on one of those miscellaneous shelves near the front (possibly where they were going to set up for Halloween). Someone had picked him up and then changed their mind. That choice set a trajectory for me as a kid. It was the combination of red and blue that caught my eye. The packaging design, with its action mural and stand-out metallic logo, was just really cool.

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This is where it all began.

I was already into GoBots at the time, but I found them somewhat lacking. Their names were often uninteresting (a tank was named “Tank,” and a helicopter was “Cop-Tur,” and so on) and their reason for being was not really developed. When I picked up Gears that day, I flipped him over and found his “tech specs” on the back of the package.

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This guy didn’t sound like a traditional robot. He didn’t like people, he was cranky, a pessimist, and a pain in the neck. Yet, he did this to cheer his fellow Autobots up. I was intrigued at the notion of robots with distinct personalities, with like and dislikes. They were robots who were like people. This was the spark that lit my imagination. Gears himself was no more complex in design than the simplest of GoBots, but he was part of a story that felt like it had substance.

I asked Nanny if I could have him, and she agreed. I think he was less than $4 at the time. So, she was there with me at the earliest dawning of my fandom. Gears was just the first of many. Bumblebee (both the yellow and red versions), Cliffjumper, Huffer, and a number of others in that original G1 line were soon to follow. Nanny thought they were neat in the way they could fold up to become a vehicle or into “metal man.” When the cartoons started on TV, she meticulously recorded them for me on VHS before they were ever available to buy.

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Years ago this building was a K-Mart. This was my other major outlet for toys, particular the Robots in Disguise.

That’s where I first heard Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime voice. With most other toy lines, I tended to like the villains more than the heroes. Transformers was different. The Autobots were noble, brave, and courageous. No one personified those high ideals more than Prime himself, and I had the opportunity to watch my favorite episodes play out at will thanks to Nanny’s wizard ability to program a VCR. For a kid who often had trouble relating to others and was painfully shy, Transformers was all about the power of teamwork and standing up for what was right. It found me at just the right time.

As a quick aside, my mother was the one who bought me my Optimus Prime. It was expensive for the time, and she asked my godparents not to get him for me (which they were willing to do). I had a bit of trouble in school back then, and my mom told me that if I improved my grades, the Autobot supreme commander was mine. Six weeks later, I turned in a report card with an “A” in every subject. On the way to the store to get him, Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” played on the radio. (There’s your earworm for today.) It’s funny what you remember, huh?

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This was my Holy Grail as a kid.

Anyway, as my Transformers interest grew, Nanny helped me build my collection. My godfather would scour the Toy R’ Us stores in Dallas for the stuff we couldn’t find in Athens or the surrounding area. All told, about 80% or more of the Transformers I ever had as a kid came from the two of them.

By 1985, the new series of Transformers hit shelves. Soon the Insecticons,  Jetfire (Skyfire in the cartoon), Omega Supreme, and the Constructicons joined the others in my collection. I remember the day that she took me into Daniel’s pharmacy in Athens, a store that had an unusually well-stocked toy aisle.

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It’s the Factory Connection building now.

Even though it was technically out of bounds to get so many at one time, she bought me all six of the Constructicons in their individual packaging. As I was opening them all up in the car, Hook’s legs broke off in my hand. The silver plastic they used back then would often break like that. Nanny marched back in and exchanged it for another one. As I opened that one up, the same thing happened. So, she did it again, and just like Swamp Castle of Monty Python fame, the third one proved to be fine. Sadly, only one of those original six figures has survived to the present. It’s Mixmaster, the concrete mixer truck. He is on a shelf in my office right now, once again reprising his role as Devastator’s left leg.

She was also the one who took me to the see Transformers: The Movie in August of 1986, which I wrote about here. So, Nanny was the one who had to deal with a crying kid when Prime, the very embodiment of what I loved about Transformers, died right before my eyes. (I also mentioned her as being the spark for my interest in Greek culture here.)

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A moment in time.

Fast-forward to present day. Now I run a tabletop RPG based on Transformers, in a system that I kit-bashed from at least two other games. It’s been running for almost ten years now. Besides writing speculative fiction, that game might be the single geekiest endeavor I’m a part of. (And, boy, is that saying something!)

My memories of the toys and cartoons have always been inextricably linked to Nanny. She was an active participant in enabling and building my most favorite of fandoms. And when I started making up stories about the characters, my first forays into storytelling, she would sit patiently for hours as I would tell them, and ask leading questions so I would have to delve deeper into what I had created. I will always remember that.

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But now she has left us, and there is large hole left in my heart and in my life. So much of who I am today can be traced back to her. I miss her with every keystroke I write here, folks. I’m to the stage where I will have periods of normalcy punctuated by spikes of grief that come out of nowhere. I won’t lie, it sucketh mightily.

And yet, here I sit in the Museum of Matt with so many reminders of her standing in silent vigil around me. I originally thought all those bots, all those memories, would make it harder to write this account, but I was wrong; they are physical reminders of the positive effect she had, and continues to have, on me. I’m grateful for that.

So never let anyone tell you your love for a particular fandom is silly or stupid. Our time on this planet is all too brief, so hold onto those things you love. Take it from me, okay?

‘Til All Are One!

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[P.S. – I started writing this post before COVID-19 really exploded here in the U.S. My family and I are practicing social/physical distancing, and I hope you are, too. Please be safe out there and wash your hands, okay? Much love from Sector M.  -MC]