Ghost of Tsushima: The Magic of Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi’s Score
The components that build a compelling game are not just visual nor mechanical. Sound design drives gameplay into realism, and jingles that signifying the collection of an item are always welcomed. However, one aspect that I always pay attention to is the score, and its ability to hone the game’s tone as well as bring joy or sadness with its melodies and rhythms.
Ghost of Tsushima is a beautiful game with a poignant narrative, but its score bottles the emotional heft of Jin Sakai’s journey and exploits the seamless craft at its core. Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi make up the auditory force behind Sucker Punch’s moving story of feudal Japan, and their history in film contributes to the score’s emotive power and effective thematic progression. While some may call Ghost of Tsushima a masterpiece, its score is undoubtedly one and should be honored as such.
The first hit of the score delivers a racing introduction that sets the urgency of the Mongol invasion, whilst also establishing the ethereal beauty of Japanese tradition in the overlying melodies. As the score progresses, intimate moments are weaved in between brass crescendos as the stoic Jin transitions from samurai to ghost, competing with the overbearing presence of the Mongols. Listening to the score without having played the game will also transport you to another place and time, allowing you to concoct a beautiful story of your own.
Ilan Eshkeri was brought on board for his work on 47 Ronin and Coriolanus, as Sucker Punch used samples of his music to accompany early prototypes of the game. The Japanese developer looked on Eshkeri as a master of melody, who was tasked with establishing character themes including Jin’s ‘The Way of the Ghost.’ This motif symbolises Jin’s internal conflict about going against the samurai way to protect his people and the island he loves. Ghost of Tsushima presents this turmoil by showcasing Jin’s plight physically, but it’s Eshkeri’s theme that allows you to resonate with the character and feel the weight of his actions.
Shigeru Umebayashi is responsible for cementing Ghost of Tsushima’s roots in 13th century Japan. The composer built similar auditory glimpses of the past for House of Flying Daggers, and his native city of Kitakyushu helped to inspire a symphony of traditional Japanese instruments that paint his pieces for Tsushima. Umebayashi was in charge of transporting you into Japanese nature, by harnessing the beauty of Tsushima Island’s flora and fauna in music. While Eshkeri worked internally with Jin’s story, Umebayashi produced the sweeping melodies and fragile notes that paint the exterior landscape.
In addition to crafting investible themes and melodies to admire, Eshkeri and Umebayashi also had to select the instruments which would allow them to soar to their full potential. Both composers used traditional Japanese instruments, including shakuhachi, koto, and taiko drums, to add authenticity to their score. Eshkeri also brought in the Biwa - an instrument that samurais prized - and used it to emphasize Jin’s discord in ‘Heart of the Jito,’ before being incorporated into the main orchestra. Buddist monks from the Honjyuji and Myounji temples and Tuvan musician Radik Tyulyush also provided powerful Mongol chanting for the game’s action sequences.
London’s iconic Abbey Road and Air Studios hosted the recording of the score’s strings, brass, and soloists, while a Tokyo studio captured the taiko percussion ensemble as well as the monks. Doctor Osamu Kitajima was also brought on board during the Tokyo sessions to aid with recording the Biwa. Sucker Punch and PlayStation’s internal music department also had a hand in producing this global recording process at a grand scale, and the stunning result of this union is testament to the musicians and composers’ talents.
Eshkeri and Umebayashi stated that the instruments never met their full potential without the dedicated players behind them. There is a clear passion and appreciation for Japanese culture that is present throughout the score, and the emotion layered into its progression is overwhelming at points. From the heart-racing beats that mimic the march of an army or the pace of a horse, to the swelling melodies that entice you to fall in love with the history and landscapes, the score is nothing short of perfection. Jin’s love for his people and home resonates in the score’s romantic moments, but the overbearing and ever-present threat of war is also seamlessly documented and orchestrated with heartbreaking accuracy.
Immediately after Ghost of Tsushima’s gameplay debut at E3 2018, every gamer knew they were in for a picturesque treat. They were not disappointed when the game’s hyper-realistic lighting and wind-filled landscapes captured the essence of Tsushima Island, and the score never missed an opportunity to compliment those majestic qualities. The 2020 awards season recognised Eshkeri and Umebayashi’s feat by issuing several nominations for their creation, where The Webby Awards awarded Best Music/Sound Design, and the NAVGTR awards handed Best Song, Original or Adapted to Clare Uchima’s ‘The Way of the Ghost.’
A successor to Ghost of Tsushima has been whispered within the industry over the last six months, and it is expected that Eshkeri and Umebayashi will return to continue their triumph. Additionally, reports of a live-action adaptation, with John Wick director Chad Stahelski at the helm, are also being discussed. It’s hard to imagine Jin’s story without the pairing of the game’s exemplary score, however, some reconstruction by the composers could carry their musical gift onto the silver screen.