Interview: Yusuke Kozaki

Yusuke Kozaki is one of the hottest Japanese artists right now, and it’s not hard to see why: his work has a distinct, refined style that’s both stylish and has a more “realistic” look that gives it broad worldwide appeal. Kozaki’s work in games is especially memorable: besides working extensively with Suda51 on titles like Liberation Maiden and No More Heroes, he also did the designs for Fire Emblem: Awakening (along with some additional art for Super Smash Bros. 4).

This interview was conducted at Japan Expo USA 2013. I was unable to find an interested publisher at the time, and seeing as how Kozaki’s become much more well-known in the past year or two (he’s a big part of the Under the Dog anime production effort you’ve probably heard about) I think it’s a good time to put this out there. Just remember: this is a little over a year old at this point, but I still think it’s a really nice interview with some interesting info.

So how did you get into the business of character design? Were you an assistant to anyone, did you do doujinshi, things like that?

I actually debuted as a manga artist first, as an assistant. But when I’d get done with the work as an assistant, I’d come home and build my personal illustration website. It was quite popular, actually, so I got a lot of hits. That’s how I started getting offers for character design.

If you don’t mind, could you tell us who you were an assistant to?

Takanori Yasaka and Usamaru Furuya.

At what point did you start getting offers for pro character design work?

Around 2003 I was offered character design work on an Xbox game project. That was the first time I’d ever done any sort of work like that professionally – unfortunately, the game was cancelled. I guess the first work I did that was released to the public was the character design for the anime Speed Grapher.

Do you remember what the title of the Xbox game that got cancelled was?

I’m afraid I can’t reveal that!

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Fair enough! So, for Speed Grapher, you were designing for animation. Typically, you want to make animation character designs fairly simple, so that animators can work with them more easily. Was this a challenge for you?

Well, let me clarify a bit – I wasn’t the animation character designer, rather, but the original character designer. There was another person who would actually redraw and adapt my designs to make them easier to animate. I actually didn’t do these simpler designs.

Since a lot of your most visible work has been game character design, can you perhaps elaborate on how doing character designs for different mediums works?

With manga, I definitely focus on designing characters that will be easy to redraw – since I’m the one who’s going to have to draw them over and over again, after all. However, with games, most characters are 3D polygon models. I want them to look cool, but I have to keep in mind that they’re going to be seen in three dimensions. For anime, what’s important is that the designs can be easily simplified. Yet, you want to consider additional details for things like close-up shots, like bust-ups or headshots.

A lot of your gaming work has been with Suda51 (Goichi Suda). He’s well known for games featuring outlandish, bizarre characters.

Indeed he does. *laughs*

What’s the process for working together on these designs?

With Suda-san, I’ll get an outline of the game – what kind of game it is, a description of the storyline – and then we’ll actually have a big production meeting with me, Suda, and others in the production process. Then we just bounce ideas off each other – “what do you think this character should look like?” And… yeah, we joke around a lot during some of these meetings. *laughs* A couple really ridiculous ideas wind up getting thrown onto the table, as well.

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Several of Suda’s games had a substantial investment from Western publishing partners. Did you ever have Western people from publishers involved in these design meetings?

There may have been Western partners involved with the investments, but they weren’t really involved with the production. There were never any meetings with “outside meddling,” so to speak. But having said that, I should point out that Grasshopper had a fair amount of non-Japanese employees. Those folks were involved in some meetings, but nobody from the outside.

How did you meet with Suda51, anyhow?

So when I was wrapping up work on Speed Grapher, the woman who conceived that show’s concept was actually friends with someone who worked over at Grasshopper. That person came to her asking if she knew any character designers. My name came up, and that’s how I wound up doing work for those games.

Fire Emblem has had numerous character designers throughout its history. How did you get involved with Nintendo/Intelligent Systems for the latest game?

IS was bandying about names about who should be their next character designer – the main thing they needed was someone who was skilled at drawing a variety of characters, from young girls to old guys, and yet who could also create these designs quickly. Somehow my name came up, and I got the call!

Fire Emblem is a series where there are established classes and archetypes for characters. What was the process of feedback like between you and IS when you were doing the designs?

I must say that not only did I have a lot of freedom on the project, but I remember being the one asking things like “could I make this character cuter?” and “can I make this guy cooler and more handsome?” rather than the other way around.

There’s also a feature in the game that lets you design your own characters. I’m wondering how you went about making the templates for that.

IS basically told me, “we want this many hairstyles, we need this many different bodytypes,” and I drew them.

Out of all the designs you did for FE, which do you like the most?

Lucina’s design is the most memorable to me. I feel that she, out of all the characters, embodies the Fire Emblem of the past continuing and evolving into the series as we know it today, with my own personal stamp on it. Kind of a “merging point,” you might say.

You’ve had some figures released of your character designs, like Sylvia from No More Heroes and Tharja from FE Awakening. Do you do any sort of approval on these figures, like okaying the sculpt?

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 I was involved in the production of both, in that I was the one who planned out the poses. Once the rough builds of the figure prototypes were created, I could give feedback – “could you change this a little bit,” like that.

You’re known for realistic, elaborate character designs, but you’ve also got something called “Donyatsu.” It’s… very different from your other work, it looks almost like a gag manga. Is it more or less difficult to draw manga like this than “serious” manga?

*laughs* Well, actually, hmmm… both have their challenges, at least to me. But because Donyatsu has this odd sci-fi motif to it, I think that as it progresses, you’ll find that it gets more serious.

Where did the idea for Donyatsu come from?

I was talking to a friend of mine on Skype, and that friend was like “well, if you’re not doing anything else right now, could you draw me a cute character?” So I literally sketched the first Donyatsu in about 2 minutes. That’s how it got started.

Why did you put them in a sci-fi story?

I’ve always wanted to do something with a sci-fi setting. So I thought, instead of doing a plain old story about mascot-style characters, I wanted to take a different approach that was entirely unique to me. That’s how I merged these two interests.

It feels like a trend in manga these days to take cute things and put them in serious stories.

Well, my thought process was that just because the characters are cute doesn’t mean that the story has to be cute too. After all, even a cute dog can be a man-eating beast when you’re not looking! *laughs*

DonyatsuUnfortunately, we need to wrap this up soon, so a few final questions. No More Heroes parodies a lot of Japanese anime tropes, like moe and character archetypes. What was the most memorable element of drawing characters for that game?

Hmmmm… The whole thing was just so off the rails that I don’t really think I can actually say much of anything. *laughs* The funniest incident involving NMH’s creation is, unfortunately, something I can’t really talk about in front of a PG-13 audience. What I can say is that those production meetings involved numerous memorable incidences not really fit for public comsumption. *laughs*

Was alcohol involved?

Alcohol was the least of it.

Oh dear. *laughs* I mean, I’ve seen Suda drink publicly onstage at various gaming events…

*laughs* I’ll put it this way: we don’t really get boozed up at those meetings, but the topic was absolutely tame compared to things I really shouldn’t mention. I mean, Suda’s quite the character, even without the alcohol involved.

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