Two of the major villains in the series, Amakusa and Yuga, were fantastic designs. Imagine if a game studio art team were challenged to create androgynous fighting game bosses. That of a male with traditional feminine features and that of a female demon with masculine features. The prerequisite was to give them elaborate Japanese robes, while making it obvious that they had one foot in the physical world, and one foot in the spirit world. Chances are nobody could have come up with anything better than what SNK produced. The Samurai Shodown series gave designers leeway to explore all sorts of fantastic themes when building their library. This extended to stage designs, background characters, and especially playable characters. Take the Kazama brothers as another example. The ninjas were reflective of the elements. Kazuki was coded as fire, and his brother Sogetsu was coded as water. This extended into their respective personalities.
Easily the most overlooked contribution to fighting game history came through some of the smallest characters. Did you know that there was a lot of Native Japanese representation in the series? You might be thinking it’s obvious given the title of the game. The samurai were a warrior class exclusive to Japan. There are a great number of sword fighters from Japan, archetypes of real and fictional samurai are featured throughout the series. When I talk about Native Japanese, I mean the Ainu, the indigenous ancestors of the land.
The Ainu share a spiritual narrative with traditional Japan. Kamui, or spirits, inhabit all things. This is a similar belief in Shinto tradition, where spirits are in nature, in rocks, essentially everywhere. They can also be bound to objects and people. In Ainu culture the bear was revered above all of the animals. They would be raised as a family member, unfortunately only to be sacrificed as they got older. Nakoruru, her little sister Rimururu, and their family was coded as Ainu in the Samurai Shodown series. Her stages were named the Kamui Kotan, the first of which was in Hokkaido, where there was a large concentration of Ainu at the turn of the century. The way Nakoruru and her clan was presented was done with tremendous forethought. This was important because the Ainu people have been fighting to have their culture be recognized by the nation of Japan for centuries. Western audiences might not have understood that there was a native class in Japan. To the Japanese however this was more apparent.
The costume choices, clothes, colors, weapons, stages and even Ainu spiritual leanings were featured in the series. Nakoruru wore a simple garment, with animal-skin boots. It was something that could not be confused for a kimono, or traditional Japanese robe. She fought with a modest short blade, not a polished katana. Her gigantic hawk, Mamahaha, could be summoned for special attacks. The forest creatures seemed to respond to her commands. As sequels came out little sister Rimururu was able to summon the spirits of nature themselves. I cannot think of another series that featured Ainu, or their spiritual underpinnings in any capacity. By comparison we have seen the Native American character done many times in different games from both the US and Japan. The native characters are often ugly caricatures based on stereotypes. We’ve seen totems, teepees, thunderbirds, and tomahawks done to death. The Japanese spiritual themes were handled much better in the Samurai Shodown series.
I’d like you to think about how different cultures have been presented in fighting games, and if native cultures are shown in a positive or negative light. If you would like to learn more about the Ainu I ask that you check out The Golden Kamuy, a manga series which started publication in 2014 and got an anime adaptation as well. It does a brilliant job of intertwining the Ainu culture with a historical period, not far removed from the era that Samurai Shodown captures. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!