• Yusuke Kozaki in the middle of illustrating a drawing of Lucina in a fan’s Fire Emblem Awakening art book. (Julian Rizzo-Smith)
“It’s like a triathlon of character design.”
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25 Aug 2017 - 3:35 PM  UPDATED 25 Aug 2017 - 3:35 PM

Yusuke Kozaki is the Character Designer for a variety of Japanese games with incredible visual aesthetics. Kozaki wanted to be an illustrator since he was a young teen, after watching Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z in primary school.

“From my generation, it was special,” he tells SBS Pop Asia at SMASH! 2017.

“When I was in year 5, it was the first time Goku went Super Saiyan. The whole school was talking about Dragon Ball. It was like a legend.”

The Fire Emblem series is renowned for having a detailed cast of colourful characters from varying backgrounds and designs. Each game has over 100 characters, so understandably, Kozaki found his time working on Fire Emblem Awakening, Fire Emblem Fates and the mobile RPG, Fire Emblem Heroes, a challenging process.

“It’s like a triathlon of character design,” he says. “In one game, Fire Emblem has 50 to 100 characters so I don’t have a lot of time to think about [what I design]. Boys, girls, men, old women, a bulky muscular man… there’s such a variety of characters so I really had a lot of variety in designing.”

Kozaki has been behind the story and characters of some of the best games in the Fire Emblem series, and enjoyed developing Fire Emblem Awakening’s Lucina, the warrior princess-in-disguise as the legendary hero Marth and Fire Emblem Fates’ red-haired pegasus knight royal, Hinoka, the most.

“[When designing,] the first thing I do is open up a Photoshop canvas and then look through the design brief I get from a client,” he continues. “In the case of Fire Emblem, I start[ed] drawing characters one by one from the side. This is because Fire Emblem has so many characters. In a game like that, not only do you need to look at individual characters but you also need to look at it, as a whole, what the character balance [is], which is why I dr[e]w in a one by one big canvas.”

2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening for the Nintendo 3DS came at a time when Nintendo needed diverse software, marking a shift in the series’ art design towards a more anime-inspired aesthetic to encourage younger players. According to Kozaki, despite having the creative freedom in designing characters, this change was decided by Nintendo rather than himself. Since the release of the first game in the series Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, in 1990, the community has grown.

“What they do is after every one-to-two games, they change the illustrator so I can’t just satisfy one group because there’s other audiences who have been playing that game [series],” he says. “However the dilemma is that if you keep designing for fans of other Fire Emblem games, it’s hard because you can’t create something new, you can’t add anything new.”

“[With Fire Emblem: Awakening,] the client, Nintendo, [told] me they wanted to bring a new audience. That was the client’s request so I thought about the audience [from] a younger generation who haven’t played Fire Emblem before.”

Kozaki is best known for contributing towards Nintendo’s strategic RPG series, Fire Emblem, as well as Niantic Inc.’s Pokemon Go mobile game and the ellaborately bizarre third-person action No More Heroes.

His experience on Grasshopper Games’ No More Heroes led him to meet Goichi ‘Suda51’ Suda, the mastermind director behind some of the most bizarre games from Japan in the last ten years, including the infamous Shadow of the Damned. According to Kozaki, Suda51 is just as ridiculous and silly as his games.

“I often had meetings with him and I was always laughing out loud and joking around, and then we’d bring up all the ideas,” he says. “He’d always say, ‘Oh that’s a stupid idea but let’s do it!’”

Having worked on mobile games Fire Emblem Heroes and Pokemon Go, Kozaki also finds that the Japanese audience loves mobile games because of how it reflects Japanese culture’s value of luck and chance.

Pokemon Go is really like a consumer game but things like Fire Emblem [Heroes] and Puzzle and Dragons are really [more like gatcha],” he says. “They’re really popular in Japan."

Kozaki is a very admirable and humble designer. Instead of being remembered for his legacy, he’d much rather see fans enjoy the characters' he’s helped create, and have enough money by the time he’s 60 years old to support his daughter.

“I see people in art drawing my characters and cosplaying as characters I’ve designed; watching them just makes me really happy,” he says. “After all, they gave me the work to design.”

“There’s so many legends in the world. As long as I can see the audience is enjoying and playing the game, I’ll be happy.”

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