The world of Sekiro isn’t primarily a human one. Despite all its castles and temples, the land of Ashina belongs as much to its animal inhabitants: some we come across, such as the cocks and guard dogs, are domesticated (or in the case of the Blazing Bull, weaponised), but many exist outside the structures built by mankind. Crows circle above the battlefields. The fierce monkeys of Sunken Valley Passage seem to lead a communal life far from human civilisation while also aping humans by wearing clothes and carrying weapons. Some, like the locusts and centipedes of Senpou Temple, have entered into a twisted symbiosis with their human hosts. Yet other creatures, such as the Great Colored Carp or the Great Serpents, are elevated above the human world and even venerated as deities.
At first glance, Sekiro’s animals simply add a lot of colour and life to its world, but there’s more going on beneath the surface than monkeys wearing hats. There's something here about the fraught relationship between humans and animals. The first thing to notice is that the strict hierarchy or separation between humans and animals we’re used to is mostly absent from Sekiro. The vicious pale snakes that would serve as nothing but scary monsters in most games are revered as gods in the land of Ashina. Many creatures are slightly anthropomorphised without, however, having their more animalistic characteristics taken from them. Take the monkeys wielding katanas or even guns, or the Folding Screen Monkeys, who not only wear clothing but are presented as supernatural beings tasked with protecting the Divine Child.
Many creatures are not what they seem to be. The Guardian Ape, for example, is simultaneously one of the most bestial but ultimately also tragic and sympathetic figures in the entire game. Initially appearing as nothing but a vicious beast flinging poop and farting at you, he is gradually turned into something far more interesting. The first surprise comes when, half-way through our first encounter with him, he reveals himself to be infested and more than able to wield a sword.
Through item descriptions and a second fight later in the game, we discover a pathetic and surprisingly human side to the beast: the Guardian Ape once had a mate, but lost her long ago and is now doomed to a loveless and lonely existence. The description of Remnant, Headless Ape reads: “At one time the Guardian Ape shared its den with a mate. But he alone became infested, while the other passed away. Now, even the flowers offered in tribute to her passing have withered to dust.” To drive the point home, we can even stumble across her skeletal remains at the den. When we come along and kill the ape, he’s been waiting and hoping to one day offer the Lotus of the Palace to a new companion.
What’s interesting about this is that, in Sekiro, being a wild poo-flinging animal does not preclude you from displaying human characteristics or being treated with empathy. It’s a mix-and-match situation where human and animal traits mingle and co-exist freely and sometimes paradoxically. And if animals can be human-like, the opposite is also true. The human characters of Sekiro don’t shy away from claiming animal attributes for themselves or seeing animal-like traits in others. The assassins of Senpou are scornfully referred to as ‘rats.’ The Nightjar Ninjas of Ashina Castle share a name with the nightjar bird and are very much creatures of the air. Major characters also claim animal traits. There’s Lady Butterfly, who’s as light on her feet and unbothered by gravity as implied by her name. There’s the Owl, whose deadly plots reflect the predatory and cunning nature ascribed to that bird of prey.
We learn that once upon a time the Sculptor called himself ‘Orangutan’ and trained with the monkeys of the Sunken Valley Passage (“We came to move exactly as monkeys did after a time.”) Our protagonist Sekiro, the ‘one-armed wolf’, may be the most salient example. As an animal closely related to the dog, the wolf carries associations of loyalty and service to a master (the Divine Heir Kuro), but also points to Sekiro’s feral and predatory nature. When Sekiro is killed in the fight against the Owl atop Ashina Castle, the Owl comments disparagingly: “No more than a stray dog after all,” highlighting our hero’s ambiguous and conflicted nature through animal metaphors.
Zoomorphism doesn’t always stay in the realm of the figurative, however. In one of Sekiro’s stranger subplots, we meet the two Pot Nobles who buy Treasure Carp Scales from you in the hopes of eventually being transformed into carps themselves. In Fountainhead Castle, we finally encounter the godlike Great Colored Carp; his strange features and rows of what look like human teeth betray his original form. In Chinese and Japanese culture, the carp is not only associated with longevity and perseverance, but also with transformation. In one Chinese folk tale, a carp succeeds in swimming up a waterfall and is promptly rewarded by being turned into a dragon.
The transformations of Sekiro are more ambiguous. There’s nothing particularly evil about the Great Colored Carp, and his home is probably the most beautiful location in the entire game, but both the Carp and the fish-like inhabitants of the palace still evoke more than a hint of body horror reminiscent of the tortured animal-human hybrids of Bloodborne (the omnipresent shed snake skins also point to transformations, change and rebirth, while making us slightly uncomfortable.) One could interpret this as an indictment of the human ambition towards power and immortality, a drive that twists humans into something that they are not meant to be.
Similarly, there’s a clear commentary that war, the result of boundless human ambitions, turns humans into beasts. It’s no coincidence that the zoomorphic names – the Wolf, the Owl, etcetera – all belong to fierce warriors who seem to know nothing beyond killing and warfare. When warning Sekiro about the dangers of immortality and stagnation, Kuro says that “they all corrupt men to the point that they no longer live as men.” Genichiro, during the fight at Ashina Castle, tells us that he “will shed humanity itself,” again recalling the motif of sloughed-off snake skin.
It would be too easy to conclude that bestial traits debase humans, and human-like traits elevate animals. There’s great beauty and elegance to the Great Carp and his home, and the monkeys of Sunken Valley Passage aren’t dangerous because of their animal nature, but because of the human-made weapons they carry. Animality can be either a threat to our humanity, or something desirable or even transcendental to be aspired to, and often both.
What we can read into the animals of Sekiro is not some tired assertion of human superiority but something more nuanced: that the line between humans and animals is more fluent and open to negotiation than we often pretend, and traits are often shared. In this chaotic and colourful world of mourning apes, armed monkeys, fish people and divine carps that were once human, it can even be hard to distinguish the two.