khotun khan

What’s the Deal with Khotun Khan?: The Historical Representation of Ghost of Tsushima

If you thought Khotun Khan was a historical figure, that would be completely reasonable. While Ghost of Tsushima presents itself as a riff of classic Kurosawa films, its (mostly) Western audience is likely not all that familiar with the history of the time period. Any knowledge they have of the Mongols likely comes from the show Marco Polo, which presents the real cousin of Khotun Khan, Kublai Khan, as the Mongol emperor of China.

If this sounds a bit confusing, that’s because it is. And Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t really bother to explain it. Although the game focuses on Jin Sakai’s journey from proud samurai warrior to semi-unethical liberator, the action is framed by the sudden appearance of Khotun Khan and his band of Mongols on the shores of Tsushima. In case you were curious who he was, Khotun Khan is a fictional cousin of Kublai Khan, who actually commanded Mongol forces in the invasion of Japan, although its not likely he led the Mongols forces into battle himself.

Even so, you need to wonder why Ghost of Tsushima bothered to introduce a wholly ahistorical figure and present them as real. While it may not seem too obvious to a Western audience, the inclusion of Khotun Khan is a continuation of sanitizing history in order to appeal more to cultural sensitivity.

The Kublai Khan Question

Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan in Marco Polo

Kublai Khan, pictured above, represents a problematic almost-alternative history to the world. During the reign of Kublai Khan, when Ghost of Tsushima takes place, the Mongols were the most preeminent power on Earth. Their biggest achievement in this time was having conquered China and installed themselves as the Yuan Dynasy. In addition to this, Kublai Khan, along with his grandfather Genghis Khan, conquered large swathes of the Muslim world, and smashed a massive Holy Roman Empire army. In fact, the only reason they didn’t conquer Europe at the time is because it lacked wealth and resources, not because they couldn’t.

Since then though, the Mongols have been largely erased from the historical narrative. Although the Mongol Empire declined after the death of Kublai Khan, the descendants of Genghis still lived on and ruled various kingdoms and countries until the Soviets completely removed them from power in the 20th century.

During the time of Kubali Khan, the Mongols were not just feared, but respected. Because they were not responsible for creating any goods of their own, they created an unprecedented trading empire that brought a huge variety of customers and characters to Kublai Khan’s court, including Marco Polo. In addition to this, the Mongol Empire was recognized throughout both the Western and Eastern world as a huge empire, at the time unmatched in scale and ability.

Kublai Khan’s invasion of Japan though was one of his bigger missteps. His army was, of course, not routed at Tsushima by Jin Sakai. Rather, it was destroyed (twice) by a storm, much like the Spanish Armada was. That’s not to say that the Japanese didn’t put up a valiant effort against the Mongols, but it was not as though the Mongols exploited samurai culture for their personal conquest.

All that said, Kublai Khan is mentioned in Ghost of Tsushima, but does not actually appear. In the narrative of the game, he gave over command to Khotun Khan, for reasons that are unclear. Besides creating a final boss and individual adversary, you have to wonder why Sucker Punch made the decision to replace Kublai with a fictional cousin.

To determine this, you need to think why the Mongols themselves were largely erased from history. Unlike the Romans, their culture doesn’t promote the idea of Western supremacy. Neither, like the great powers of Asia (China, Japan, Korea) does it promote Eastern supremacy. As a result, despite the fact that they largely don’t acknowledge their atrocities in World War II, Japanese audiences would likely find the invasion of the Mongols offensive because it undermines their idea of cultural superiority. Developer Sucker Punch is also owned by Sony, which only adds to this idea.

In reality, the invasion force of Japan was multi-ethnic, with Mongol, Korean, Jurchen and Northern Chinese soldiers and Korean ships crewed by Korean sailors. The commanders were also multi-ethnic, with Mongol and Chinese generals and Korean admirals. However, this idea doesn’t fit into the world that Ghost of Tsushima is trying to build, and as a result, they give us the bland and milquetoast Khotun Khan to fight.

The Khotun Khan Answer

Khotun Khan torturing protagonist Jin Sakai

In order to excise itself of the awkwardness of history, Ghost of Tsushima simply makes up a fictional villain. That is totally fine, and makes sense in the context of needing an antagonist you can fight and kill. However, the audience of the game is likely not familiar with the Mongols at all (I know I wasn’t), and Khotun Khan is a ruthless, mustache-twirling Mongol that just serves to entrench current views about the Mongols and their role in the world. If your knowledge of the Mongols started and stopped with Khotun Khan, you would probably just assume that all they did was drink fermented mare’s milk and use unethical tactics to break hearts and minds.

This is advantageous to Sucker Punch for a variety of reasons. For one, they get to tell the story they want to tell, which is the humanity you need to lose to save your home. By presenting Khotun Khan as less than human, they are effectively undercutting Jin Sakai’s transition in the Ghost, and giving it ample justification. In addition this, they can avoid the idea of offending not only Japanese audiences, but Chinese audiences as well. Obviously, they are less concerned with the cultural sensitivity of portraying Mongols, but that’s only because of their lack of influence (both consumer and political) on the world stage.

The reasons for this are complex. In summation, Chinese nationalists consider the Mongols to be Chinese, which is kind of questionable considering the fact that they invaded and conquered China. In fact, they expressed anger at Sucker Punch for the stereotypical portrayal of the Mongols in Ghost of Tsushima. Even with removing Kublai Khan entirely, this audience frames the game in the context of World War II, believing it is about Japanese people killing Chinese people, much like the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Khotun Khan, then, is sort of an unsatisfactory answer to all of these problems. Sucker Punch is trying to navigate the problem of modern cultural sensitivity while also creating a compelling, historically-based game. While they largely succeeded in creating something worthy of a Kurosawa film, I think they fall short in their portrayal of the Mongols under Khotun Khan. That’s not to say that it is a game developer’s job to portray history complexly and accurately, but the inclusion of Khoutan Khan does beg the question of the motivation behind the decision.

It’s hard to say what Sucker Punch should have done to more accurately portray the Mongols. Ultimately, was it worth creating the fictional Khotun Khan, only to offend Chinese nationalists anyway? Sucker Punch is an unenviable position in trying to use history to tell a different type of story one that uses the invasion of the Mongols to show off the complexities of feudal Japanese societies. But by making the Mongols generic villains, they ultimately undermine their greater point of the things people will do to protect the land they care about.

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