Japan Expo 2013 Interview with Yosuke Kozaki

JAPAN EXPO INTERVIEW SERIES #1

Yusuke Kozaki 

OF BEAM SABERS & DONUT-SHAPED CATS

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If you’ve been playing No More Heroes, you might recognize the name Suda 51, aka Goichi Suda, the president of the company Grasshopper Manufacture. But if you want to know who to thank for the crazy character designs, then you should talk to Yusuke Kozaki, a professional manga-ka who not only contributed to some of Suda’s works, but also contributed character designs for Speed Grapher and Fire Emblem: Awakening, in addition to creating a super interesting manga about donut-shaped cats. I got a chance to sit down with him at Japan Expo to see what goes on in his head and what he thinks about working with one of Japan’s finest developers.

JONATHAN TUNG: Before we begin, how about we talk about how you got into the industry. Can you give us a good idea what it was like during the early days?

YUSUKE KOZAKI: Ever since I was in the third grade, I wanted to grow up and become a professional manga artist. But it wasn’t until I turned 18 when I decided to sit down and start drawing, I submitted a small work to several publishers, and I ended up winning a small, kind of minor award as a result. In order to make sure I wasn’t forgotten, i actually called the publishers themselves and asked them if they could assign an editor to me. From that, I then became a Manga-ka.

JT: Your first major work wasn’t really as a manga-ka, per se, but rather as a character designer for the 2005 anime Speed Grapher. What was your experience like working for studio Gonzo on this project?

KOZAKI: So actually, back when I was working on Speed Grapher, it was during a period known as the “anime bubble,” where anime had hit somewhat of a peak and there were a lot of anime being produced at the same time. The trend before that was that the anime creators would let the animators do their own character designs, but there was this new way of thinking to let new people who didn’t have a huge name, let alone a huge portfolio try their hand at character design. I was blessed with this opportunity to be one of those newcomers. Mind you, this wasn’t necessary unique to Gonzo per se: other studios were also doing that as well.

JT: I take it that from the popularity from the show that you eventually gained some form of popularity amongst your peers?

KOZAKI: Yeah, I think that this was the work that truly put me on the map.

JT: Now the next project you worked on were the No More Heroes games, which were developed by Grasshopper Manufacture for the Nintendo Wii, although I think the first one was ported over to the PS3 and Xbox 360 later on. If I remember correctly, this was one of two projects you worked on with Goichi Suda (aka Suda 51), with the other being the Guild-01 title Liberation Maiden. When I played No More Heroes a while ago, I’ve noticed that the design for most of the characters seems to be inspired by various parts of traditional American culture. In fact, I think the main character Travis Touchdown seemed to have taken various cues from Johnny Knoxville. Did you intentionally design these guys to be more what most Japanese would believe Americans would resemble? Or was this Suda 51’s idea?

KOZAKI: In terms of Travis Touchdown, it was Mr. Suda himself who requested that I base his design on Johnny Knoxville himself, hence the reason why he is designed as such. If I have to put a finger on it, perhaps that’s how Suda-san himself pictures what a stereotypical American would look like.  As for the Americana references, personally, I think that he usually gets his ideas from live-action American movies.

JT: Including all the Star Wars jokes and the lightsaber-like beam katana that Travis wields?

KOZAKI: Um, not that I know of for sure. But based on what I remember observing, in terms of the beam katana itself, since No More Heroes was originally designed to be a Wii game (Actually, according to Wikipedia, it was originally planned to be an Xbox 360 title. - JT), we were trying to figure out what weapon would feel the most natural while playing with the Wiimote. What we came up with was that the weapon had to be a lightsaber and so we kinda set out to figure out the weapon’s moment and how the weapon would control would feel in a player’s hands. At the same time, there wasn’t really any Star Wars game out on the Wii that ACTUALLY used the Wiimote as the lightsaber itself, so we pretty much set out to be the first ones to do so (This is slightly true, as the Wii version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed wouldn’t be released until September 16, 2008. No More Heroes came out in Japan less than a year earlier, on December 6, 2007. - JT).

JT: What about Travis’ wrestling moves?

KOZAKI: I suspect they were also Suda’s idea as well, especially since he is really into professional wrestling. In fact, before he started Grasshopper Manufacture, he used to work on the Fire Pro Wrestling Games over at Human Entertainment, so he probably borrowed a couple of those moves from those games. (One of the titles that he, Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, is quite infamous for it’s rather dark and shocking ending sequence. Spoiler alert: the MC loses everyone that was important to him to the point where he immediately commits suicide. - JT).

JT: Moving on to Liberation Maiden, this game seems to have a much more Anime-like feel, as it appears to be heavily inspired by mecha anime such as Gundam, as compared to the American-inspired No More Heroes. In addition to that, you’re also working with Steins;gate creators 5pb on the sequel, Liberation Maiden Sin, which is slated to come out in Japan sometime near the end of the year. Can you tell me what was it like working on this project and were you inspired by any mecha anime during development?

KOZAKI: (Confused)

TRANSLATOR: Uh, do you know what the Japanese name is?

JT: Uh, all I can remember is that it was part of a game series that Level-5 did called Guild-01.

KOZAKI: Oh, now I remember! In terms of the concept in look, It wasn’t really my decision to go for the Japanesque look; rather, much like No More Heroes, it was also Suda’s idea. In fact, I think it was Mr. Suda who said “Okay, for this project I want this kind of look.” And so, it wasn’t necessarily that I was inspired by anything by that.

JT: So from what I’m hearing, you really seem to enjoy working for Suda 51.

KOZAKI: Well, he is a rather interesting individual, especially since I really can’t seem to put a finger on what he would think of next. But no matter whatever crazy idea he comes up with, it always ends up becoming something incredibly interesting for me to pursue. In fact, I really don’t care whatever idea it is. If Mr. Suda comes up to me with a project offer, I’m not going to turn it down, especially since I find it to be incredibly rewarding to work with him in the end.

JT: In addition to working with Grasshopper Manufacture, you also worked with Nintendo in creating the character designs for Fire Emblem: Awakening. Compared to Grasshopper, I take it you had a similar experience with them as well, yes?

KOZAKI: Actually, it was pretty great working with Nintendo. I really like games created by Nintendo, so it was very inspirational for me to work there.

JT: As for the character designs in Awakening, they seem to evoke a serious feel, similar to that found in Anime such as Claymore or Berzerk, as compared to the shonen manga look in previous Fire Emblem games.

KOZAKI: One of the most important things to know about being a character designer is that we simply exist to fulfil the needs of the client. They usually come to us with the offer, so, um, I really think its a bad idea to pigeon hole myself into being known for drawing only certain types of characters. I feel that it is important for me to draw in many different styles, and also still have fun doing it as well. Consciously, i do have to say that I do want to give each project I work on a different feel.

JT: Which brings us to the present, where you are currently promoting your new manga Donyatsu, which appears to be a radical departure from your previous projects. If i can remember correctly, it involves donut-shaped cats living in a post-apocalyptic Shinjuku, which, when you think about it, is kinda similar to the video game Tokyo Jungle. Can you tell me how you got the idea to create such an interesting premise?

KOZAKI: So it wasn’t really like I had any inspiration in coming up with this idea. Rather, I wanted to create something that could appeal to not only the fans that follow me, but also for a much wider audience that didn’t usually read manga on a regular basis. So this is essentially a manga for people who don’t usually read manga.

JT: Similar to Mameshiba? (Mameshiba is a Japanese multimedia franchise involving beans that have dog faces. It’s actually quite popular all over Asia, and recently made it’s debut last year in the U.S. thanks to Viz Media. - JT)

KOZAKI: Perhaps.

JT: And if you ever had the chance, would you want to turn Donyatsu into a video game?

KOZAKI: If there is an opportunity, then that would be something that I would be extremely interested in. (BTW, Donyatsu is published in Young Gangan, a biweekly Manga anthology created by Square Enix. - JT)

JT: Any last words before we wrap up then?

KOZAKI: I hope to continue many more works that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people, so I hope that you enjoy what i have planned for in the near future.

JT: Thanks for the interview!

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