Gaming Retrospectives: Ōkami – Art, Nature, Myth, Beauty

There has always been a hot debate regarding whether or not videos games are considered a form of art or not. In recent years, several games have proven that they are indeed works of art, even if there are still some detractors to that school of thought. It was such a debated topic for years… hell, even famed film critic Roger Ebert got in on it, writing an article which claimed that video games couldn’t be held in the same regard as film, poetry, music, etc. But he did shut up later on when he talked about how he deeply enjoyed the 1995 multimedia adventure Cosmology of Kyoto.

As for myself, I’ve gotten on that horse a few times and have held that video games are indeed as much an art medium as film, poetry, music, and whatnot. I have a list of games I consider works of art: EarthBound, killer7, Ico, Another World, Rez and the aforementioned Cosmology of Kyoto are starters on that list. But there’s one game that I hold near and dear, and from the minute I saw its previews, its design, and its content… I fell in love. It moved me in ways no other game has. The minute it was released and got into my hands, I felt as if this game was the apogee, the very epitome of high design.

Prepare to enter the world of Ōkami, the third work by Clover Studio, the team behind Viewtiful Joe and God Hand. Released on 19 September, 2006, and published by Capcom, Ōkami was a critical darling on release but was not a commercial success in its initial PS2 release. It has, however, found success in subsequent remaster releases for later platforms, including the PS3, PS4, Xbox One, PC, and most recently, the Nintendo Switch.

Ōkami is set in the land of Nippon, a fanciful, fairytale-like Japan, full of myths, legends, and gods that watch over and protect the land and its people. However, this peace is shattered by a fearsome demon, the 8-headed serpent, Yamata no Orochi, who demands the annual sacrifice of a beautiful maiden from the small village of Kamiki. The villagers are terrified, for a white wolf also prowls their village. They dub the wolf Shiranui, and believe it to be the familiar of the horrendous serpent. When their most beautiful maiden, Izanami, is chosen to be the monster’s next sacrifice, her lover, the warrior Izanagi, rushes to her aid to battle Orochi and save her. However, Shiranui joins the fray and the two manage to slay the demon and seal it away, but Shiranui dies from wounds inflicted in the battle. The villagers revere Shiranui and erect a small shrine with a stone statue of the brave wolf in their village. 100 years later, the seal on Orochi has been broken, allowing him to return to life and spread his horrible curse across Nippon, and the flower goddess Sakuya realizes that Orochi’s power is stronger than ever and is spreading fast across Nippon. Using her weakening strength, she summons the mother goddess, Amaterasu, from a long slumber, and gives her the earthly avatar of a beautiful white wolf. Arming her with a powerful Reflector, she begs Amaterasu to journey across Nippon to restore the balance of nature and to exterminate the demonic forces that are choking its lands and causing suffering to the people. Joining Amaterasu is Issun-bōshi, a loud mouthed, tough talking, inch high “wandering artist” (note: he’s not a bug!) who is searching for the Celestial Gods, animal deities who hold powerful, divine art techniques that can help manipulate and heal nature. Although he is initially seen as snobby, greedy, and self-centered, Issun eventually proves that he is altruistic, caring, compassionate, and above all, a true friend and savior to Amaterasu, as he eventually becomes a Celestial Envoy; a messenger of the gods, and Amaterasu’s missionary.

(L to R) Issun, Amaterasu, and Sakuya

During their travels, Amaterasu and Issun meet many other inhabitants of the land, bringing fortune, divine intervention, and shaping the lives of others for the better. They heal the land of its demonic affliction, battling demons great and small. They feed the animals of the land, partake in human activities like fishing and playing with children, and when she isn’t being a fierce and powerful goddess, Amaterasu is being a regular wolf, happily barking at strangers, digging for treasures or turnips, and enjoying scratches behind the ears from villagers. Not many see the divinity of Amaterasu and mistake her for just a white wolf, but her fire burns bright and true. As she runs, flowers and grass spring up in her wake. She can summon the morning sun with a stroke of her Celestial Brush, make trees and flowers blossom upon diseased land, light fires, summon powerful thunderbolts, or conjure ice storms. With a flick of her brush, she can also exterminate weakened demons. Truly, Amaterasu is a force to be reckoned with.

The game itself is an action-adventure, heavily influenced by the gameplay of the modern Legend of Zelda series (a fact which lead designer Hideki Kamiya was not shy about sharing; he has stated that LoZ is one of his favorite games). Amaterasu runs around a 3D environment, with an art style that combines cel shading with a unique design that resembles Japanese Ink and wash painting, known as sumi-e. This art style gives the game a look all its own, making the world seem like a living painting. This also factors into parts of the gameplay: at any time, a shoulder button on the controller can be held down to bring up a canvas, where Amaterasu can make use of her Celestial Brush to manipulate the environment around her or to attack demons. For example, paint a circle in the sky to summon the sun (appropriate as Amaterasu is the sun goddess), or draw a circle around a dying tree to allow it to bloom back to life. Certain floating blossoms in the sky can be swung from; simply paint a line from the blossom to Amaterasu and she’ll be snapped up with a vine and flung to the blossom’s location. Each power of the Celestial Brush requires that Amaterasu and Issun first meet each Celestial God to be lent their powers, but each one is encountered as the story progresses, which reduces tons of needless searching and backtracking. Amaterasu’s Celestial Brush can also be used to exterminate demons; drawing a straight slash through a lesser demon will often exorcise it and slice its body in two, or drawing a gust of wind will help bring airborne enemies crashing to the ground, where they can be quickly made short work of. Amaterasu is also armed with powerful melee weapons, including Reflectors, Rosaries (holy beads), and Glaives, which work in unique ways depending on if they’re equipped as primary or secondary weapons. Slain enemies yield Yen, which allows Amaterasu to buy items from merchants (who all think she’s just a regular dog sent to do shopping by her master), including healing items and food to feed to the animals of the land. Feeding animals, healing the environment, and doing good deeds for others yields Praise, which allows Amaterasu to power up her maximum health, ink pots (needed for the Celestial Brush), add a second Astral Pouch (which holds food that can revive Amaterasu should her health slip to zero), or increase the capacity of her purse for Yen. Weapons can be upgraded for extra punch with Gold Dust. Celestial Brush techniques can also be strengthened at points. Treasures can be found that can be traded in for extra Yen, or given to certain individuals. New battle techniques can be learned at a Dojo run by an eccentric old man who strikes all kinds of flashy poses similar to those of Viewtiful Joe.


Much of the world of Ōkami can best be described as an anachronistic stew. Many of the key characters, motifs, and plot points draw heavily from Japanese fairy tales, Shinto mythology, and real-life Japanese history. What makes Ōkami so unique and wonderful is how all of its sources are brought together and made into something unique; in a way a true melting pot of everything that is Japan and its culture. Amaterasu is, of course, named for the Shinto sun goddess, who was born when Izanagi, the creator of the land, returned from Yomi, the underworld, after failing to retrieve his dead wife, Izanami. When he cleansed himself in a river, Amaterasu was born of his left eye; her brothers, the moon god Tsukuyomi and the storm god Susanoo, were born of Izanagi’s right eye and nose, respectively. The story goes that Susanoo’s temperament made him rampage across Amaterasu’s lands, wreaking havoc, and Amaterasu hid herself in a cave in fury and grief, plunging the land into darkness. It took the combined efforts of all of the other gods to lure her back out of her cave and bring light back to the land.

The luring of Amaterasu out of the cave, Amano-Iwato

Susanoo, one of the other main characters in the game, is depicted as a lazy, good-for-nothing, egotistical bum, but his namesake is the Shinto storm god and brother of Amaterasu. After being banished from heaven, Susanoo descended to the land below, where he met an elderly couple, whose eighth and final daughter, Kushinada-hime, was to be devoured by the eight-headed serpent, Yamata no Orochi, as were their other seven daughters. Susanoo saved her life by turning her into a comb, hiding her in his hair, and then slayed the horrific beast. Likewise, in the game, Susanoo suddenly gains the courage to fight when his sweetheart, the sake brewer Kushinada, is chosen to be sacrificed to Orochi. Although Amaterasu battles Orochi, it is Susanoo who puts an end to the beast by decapitating all eight of its heads. And likewise, the ancestors of Susanoo and Kushinada are named Izanagi and Izanami, as we find out later in the story.

Susanoo battles the dreaded Yamata no Orochi.

Amaterasu’s constant companion, Issun, is based off the tale of Issun-bōshi, known as the “Inch-High Samurai”, a fairy tale similar to the western tale of Tom Thumb. As the tale goes, a childless couple wish desperately for a child, even if he’s only an inch high, and their wishes are granted. Looking to make a name for himself as a warrior, Issun is given a sword made of a sewing needle (with a sheath made of a piece of straw), a bowl for a boat, and a chopstick as a paddle. He traveled to the capital city, found employment, and encountered a young girl being accosted by ogres. When one of the ogres swallowed him up, he used his needle-sword to repeatedly stab the ogre’s stomach, finally driving the ogre to concede defeat, spit him back up, and flee. The ogre left behind a magic hammer, which when swung over Issun, allowed him to grow to regular human size and marry the girl. This magic hammer is seen in the game when it is used to allow Amaterasu to shrink to Issun’s size so they could infiltrate the Imperial palace, and the legend of the magic hammer can also been seen in other games as well, such as Final Fantasy, wherein it’s an item that can return characters inflicted with a “Mini” status to normal size.

One of the side characters met is an old man who is a bamboo cutter, whose granddaughter has gone missing. It turns out that her name is Kaguya, and even when the two are reunited, she reveals that she is not from the earth, but is in fact an inhabitant of the moon. The two characters are loosely based on the Japanese tale of Princess Kaguya, a young girl found by a childless couple in a length of bamboo, who then take her in and give her all of the best things in life, including moving to the capital to treat her like a princess, until she tells them that she must return to the moon, and in doing so must forget her life on earth. One of the other characters in the game is a queen named Himiko, who is named after an ancient shamaness-queen. Lastly, the mysterious Tao master, Ushiwaka, is named for a military commander of the Minamoto clan of Japan, and his motif of a bird mask with large wings is a reference to the designs of the Gatchaman (which was localized in the United States as Battle of the Planets).

The Tao Master, Ushiwaka… friend, or foe?

Although Shinto is one of the primary religions of Japan and a very large part of its creation mythology, Buddhism is also prominent, with Zen Buddhism (predominantly Fuke Zen) being popular. Buddhist teachings and philosophy can be seen throughout the game as well, and occasionally, Amaterasu will come across Komusō monks, who will offer her Praise as she heals the land and drives away demons. Animism is also predominant; when Amaterasu travels to the far northern lands of Kamui late in the game, the inhabitants of the world are indigenous peoples similar to the real life Ainu people of northern Japan (and in fact, “Kamui” is the world for “God” in the Ainu lanuage), who have retained their traditional beliefs and are willing to assist Amaterasu in healing their broken land.

While the art and story convey tons of feeling and emotion, the game’s soundtrack drives it home and back several hundred-fold. The compositions are a combination of modern orchestra with a very heavy dosage of traditional Japanese instruments; the list is literally to long to put into this article, so I’ll just leave a link to a listing of traditional Japanese instruments here for your perusal! But not one track in this game reeks of dullness or sameness; the effort and passion put into the music gives the world its pulse and its soul. Battles are accompanied by fierce, driving music that convey the urgency of the fights, and even incidental music pieces reflect the personality and emotions of people all around you. This mastery even reflects in the sound design; nobody in the world speaks with a regular spoken voice, instead using scrambled vocal effects created by taking vocal phonetics and mixing everything randomly. But even with the scrambled voices, everyone can easily convey emotions and thoughts, and it makes the world itself feel very otherworldly; almost like a fairy tale in itself.

Queen Himiko blesses Amaterasu

Sometimes it’s difficult to put into words just how much Ōkami has to offer, and what it means to me. In this modern world, where there are those who actively seek to do harm not only to the people but also to the land itself, one could perhaps think that this is a powerful force of evil sweeping through our land, choking its beauty and tainting it with darkness, and we could safely say that the ones put in charge are perhaps the true demons seeking to harm us all. Likewise, people have lost faith and do not believe in any kind of higher force that seeks to help guide us or protect us. No, I’m not saying that everyone should just join an organized religion and run with it blindly, but spiritualism is fading away fast, and to at least believe that we may be guided by someone or something… whatever deities you want to say guide your life… would at least bring a spark of happiness and goodness back into our lives. In the land of Nippon, 100 years of the gods vanishing has all but killed the faith of many of its inhabitants, and likewise, in our modern world, nobody wants to believe in gods any more. When Amaterasu performs miracles and heals the world, the faith of everyone is slowly restored, and they begin to believe that the gods are there once again for them. People in this modern world are also becoming shallow and materialistic, much like the nobles seen in the city of Sei-An, who are more worried about petty details than what is going on in the land outside. And the entire premise of the main story even begins when Susanoo nearly gives into temptation of power from Orochi, and it is only through redemption and acknowledging the error of his ways does he finally gain the courage to battle and help slay the vicious beast to save the love of his life.

Perhaps as how Amaterasu heals our world and blesses everyone she encounters, we should consider too that we as a society and as whole also need healing. Ōkami is one of those games that’ll bring emotions foward. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll feel empathy. You’ll feel anger at seeing evil ravage the land. You’ll feel a sense of good as you heal the broken land. Seeing nature at its most beautiful, whether it’s running through grasslands, or visiting the coast and running through beautiful, untouched beaches, or even travelling through the frozen lands of the north, Ōkami is a class unto itself. It evokes a sense of appreciation for the land and all it offers, and tells the grandest of tales of a culture that has existed for thousands of years. From beginning to end, Ōkami is one of the most beautiful stories ever, and even if the developers have moved onto bigger projects, the legacy of one of their greatest works should never be forgotten.

Have faith in the gods, for they will be our saviors and our protectors forever. May the mother goddess, Amaterasu, bless us and protect us all.

Posted by Robert Menes

One of the hosts. Talks super fast. Drinks too much coffee. Loves DOS games, movies, vinyls, photography, beer, Amigas, and doing shit on computers. Sometimes hacker. Makes money doing shit with computers.