Nioh is a rather fantastical and fanciful game. After all, it features an Irish, blonde-haired and blue-eyed Caucasian man who happens to be a samurai with the ability to use Ki to gain status buffs and summon supernatural Guardian Spirits and Revenant ghosts. Idealized versions of historical Japanese leaders, naturally all with similar magical abilities, appear. The enemies are various demonic and phantasmic creatures. It seems too surreal to be true. Yet, this is a game steeped in actual history.
In Nioh, we’re being granted an alternate vision of Japan’s Sengoku period. Our William Adams has come to Japan in search of Edward Kelley, another Westerner who has and is using supernatural abilities. He ends up coming into the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu, being trained by people like Yagyu Munetoshi and interacting with many famous Japanese warriors as he deals with yokai appearing around this version of Japan. While those Japanese names will all sound familiar, especially if you’ve played any of Koei Tecmo’s Nobunaga’s Ambition or Samurai Warriors series, it may surprise you to hear that both William and Edward are both based upon actual people and share quite a bit in common with their real-world counterparts.
The real William Adams was actually in Japan in 1600, the year in which Nioh is set. He was an English navigator who settled in Japan, became an advisor to Ieyasu Tokugawa and samurai in his service. He lived in what is now Yokosuka, in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture. While he was given two swords to signify he was considered a samurai, made a hatamoto bannerman and given the name Miura Anjin by Tokugawa, his actual duties were more peaceful than the ones our video game hero are undertaking.
Adams was helping the real Tokugawa with diplomatic affairs. He worked as an interpreter in his court, for example. He was also very involved in trade, helping the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company begin trade operations in the area. He put together expeditions that helped begin trade between Japan and Siam and what is currently Vietnam, but then known as Cochinchina. It’s also because of his input and insight that Japan began constructing Western-style ships. His life was far from supernatural, but he was like Nioh’s William in that he accepted and adapted well to life in Japan.
While the two versions of William share only passing similarities, the Edward Kelleys have a lot more in common. The Nioh villain is an intellectual master of the occult who is responsible for all sorts of nefarious acts within the game. While the actual Sir Edward Kelley didn’t stir so many pots, he held the same supernatural interests. An Englishman born in 1555, he worked with John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I who was interested in astronomy, astrology and mathematics. His initial role was the act as a medium for Dee, performing séances to supposedly summon spirits and angels. He invented the Enochian language, which he supposedly used to converse with the angels he’d talk to.
The real Kelley was also allegedly an alchemist. While he was engaging in these experiments throughout his life, he came to prominence in this position toward the end of his life. He joined the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, where his role was to attempt to find the philosopher’s stone and turn metal into gold. Naturally, this didn’t go too well and resulted in multiple instances of incarceration. Both Nioh’s Kelley and the actual one have a preoccupation with the supernatural and using it to their own benefit. Each one is eager to make the most of otherworldly means to build themselves up.
Nioh’s hero and villain have been crafted in such a way that you can sometimes see the truth come through. The idea of a Western samurai is concept many Japanophiles would enjoy. Knowing there was someone who received such an honor, even though his actual duties had more to do with commerce, makes the fictional version feel more legitimate. Likewise, drawing an actual historical alchemist and medium and pulling him into this world gives us a villain who shares similar roots and motivations for obtaining supernatural skills. Understanding where both William and Edward came from can make Nioh more interesting.