Kinu Nishimura – 2001 Designer Interview

Kinu Nishimura – 2001 Designer Interview

Kinu Nishimura was a character designer and illustrator at Capcom from 1991 to 2008. She worked on many of Capcom’s well-known arcade titles, including Street Fighter and Shadow over Mystara. Recently she has worked on Code of Princess and Gundam Reconguista in G. This interview was originally featured in the Capcom Design Works artbook published in 2001. I have included several illustrations from it (with translated commentary).

—Please tell us the origins of your pen name.

Nishimura: It’s just my grandmother’s name, from my mother’s side. She’s 95 and still very active!

—What made you decide to become an illustrator?

Nishimura: I was into manga more than traditional art/pictures, so I figured I should try and find work in that field. However, at the time I didn’t know anything about “character designer” work.

I didn’t know about games back then either. My vague ambitions were to be an animator or manga illustrator or something like that.

Kinu Nishimura

—How did you end up getting hired at Capcom?

Nishimura: My brother had bought a game magazine, and I was looking at the illustrations for Magic Sword and Final Fight in it. I didn’t know there were artists in the game industry drawing amazing pictures like these. Right around that time I was also personally getting into games, so when it came time to find a job, I thought I’d inquire with some game companies. It was already the end of the year, but Capcom told me to send over my resume and a sample of my work.

I sent them some illustrations I had drawn: one Japanese-style painting, and two pictures featuring some RPG-ish characters (each picture had about 5 characters on it). They contacted me on February 5th, and I had my interview later that month. I was very lucky, and two weeks after that I received an acceptance letter. When I think about it now, it was very close timing, but I guess it all turned out OK in the end…

Promotional flyers for Final Fight and Magic Sword, by designer AKIMAN.

—Were you placed on the design team right away?

Nishimura: No, at first I was placed in the object (sprite and pixel work) group. Then, after I had just finished up a bunch of work there, at the end of January 1992 I was transferred to the design department. The design department itself wasn’t even officially established until January of 1991; it was originally centered around Shoei Okano and his work on title logos and promotional illustrations.

—You weren’t disappointed at first, that you weren’t immediately placed in a department where you’d be doing illustration?

Kinu: No, because I had wanted to do pixel art from the beginning. I also didn’t expect there to be an illustration department at Capcom; like animators, I figured it was the kind of work I’d do in between my other duties. So I figured that even though I was working in the object team, there’d surely be illustration work for me eventually.

—So what kind of work did the design department do, primarily?

Nishimura: Its main focus, starting out, was promotional illustrations (individual characters, posters, etc). Gradually we started doing more in-game artwork: character design, storyboards for cutscene movies, and so on. Some of the weirder things we’ve done is control panel art for our arcade games, and design illustrations for prizes like plushies.

—How does your work proceed? Do you first get rough sketches from the developers, and go from there?

Nishimura: It’s on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes we get written documents explaining things, “this character should feel like this” etc. Sometimes we get more concrete information like the name of a real model who we should base the design off. The planners and programmers also give feedback to our designs too.

Nishimura: “I was planning to write something on the board behind the characters, but I ended up covering it too much. I wonder what that board is for? The picture itself has a very relaxed mood which I like.”

—Lately it seems like a lot of the design work in games has been outsourced.

Nishimura: In the past it used to be that every company had in-house designers. Nowadays that work might get outsourced for budget reasons. But there are advantages to having an in-house design team that go beyond the budget. Working alongside the other developers makes it easier for them to convey their ideas to us, and we can have more detailed correspondence. It’s also easier to be flexible with their requests. Of course, that’s the ideal… in reality, things usually don’t go that smoothly.

—And does the design team at Capcom ever get contracted for outside work?

Nishimura: Occasionally, commissions for magazines, cards, stuff like that. It’s different than our video game work, so it can be fun.

—I’d like to hear about your design process. Is it closer to real photography or manga?

Nishimura: Definitely manga. We only prepare more realistic sketches when it will be convenient or useful for the project at hand.

—When you’re working on a new piece, what things do you pay special attention to?

Nishimura: Each time I draw something new, I always want to try and add something new to it. Of course I can’t always say I’m successful…. I’d like to increase the ratio of my successes, of course! As for the direction my pictures take, whatever ideas or inspiration I have first—I mean, whatever my main goal with this drawing is—I try to see that through to the very end. If only that “feeling” I had in my rough sketches could reach people in pure, unaltered form…

Nishimura: “A lot of the art for Capcom vs. SNK had a serious tone, so I thought doing something more anime-ish might also look nice. It turned out to have a happy, fun feeling, I think?

—Are you saying you emphasize energy in a drawing, more than detail?

Nishimura: What I mean is that I happen to be the type of person who tends to get hung up on details, so I try to be careful to not lose sight of my original goals and inspirations. Sometimes a picture turns out really well, and everything fits together, but I personally have lost sight of my original goal, and I don’t know what I was trying to do in the first place… I want to avoid drawing pictures like that.

—Do you feel that coloring is one of your strengths?

Nishimura: Not really. It’s something I deal with when I get to it.

—If you draw something and people end up not liking it, do you blame yourself?

Nishimura: I think so. If I really love something I created but it turns out that others don’t like it, I would say it’s probably too subjective of a work. Long ago, when arcade games were at the zenith of their popularity, you used to hear people talk about something called the “one-coin democracy.” Players at the game center would try a game, and if it was boring they wouldn’t put a second coin in. But if it was fun they would insert another coin. Doing so, only the fun and good games survived, and the bad stuff was weeded out… such a severe system of evaluation, contrary to what you might expect, actually gave developers a lot of confidence: they knew that if they made something good, it would be liked and enjoyed at the game center. The art didn’t always get singled out for criticism/praise so the connection wasn’t as clear, but I think the result was the same. Ultimately every aspect of the game was being judged.

—I see. By the way, did you end up learning a lot from AKIMAN (Akira Yasuda)?

Nishimura: Yes. There was a period when I was pretty bad, and even then he would often praise my work. When I look at my work from then, almost all of it makes me cringe. That I eventually got better and became able to do more solid work is something I owe to AKIMAN. No joke. I’m only kidding a little. I need to find a way to pay him back someday!

Apparently, Nishimura was also secretly working on a dating sim tentatively called “Tokimeki Requiem.” Nishimura says it was a game made “by a woman, for women.” It’s not clear how far she got or if it was ever pitched to Capcom, but there are some mock-up screens in addition to all the illustrations.

—Now that you mention it, it was AKIMAN’s illustrations that led you to the game industry and Capcom. Did he have a big influence on your work?

Nishimura: Very much so, I think. Normally, one only gets to interact with such talented people through the media they release; you look at something they did and think “wowww…”, but that’s it. So you can imagine how lucky I felt to be not only near such a talent, but actually working together with him!

—And do you feel like you have had an influence on the other artists working in the design room at Capcom? Do you give advice, for example, to new artists working on Street Fighter etc?

Nishimura: Hmm, I’m not sure. At this point, everyone in the design room is a pro in their own regard, so I don’t give much advice. They each have their own styles, and it really just comes to whether a game fits that individual’s style. No matter how much you resist, your individuality will always come out in a work, though I tend to think of that as a positive thing. Ikeno, for instance, always draws Ryu with some strange aura of “everyday life” about him. (laughs)

—Do you feel like the illustration you’ve done for Street Fighter II is your most representative work?

Nishimura: Not really. Even if I said yes, the thing is that although he let me do some of the drawings, those were all characters that AKIMAN designed himself. Ryu, Chun Li, they all started out as his work. Those characters really make up the backbone of Capcom’s roster, and fans feel passionately about them.

For all those reasons, whenever I have to draw something for the Street Fighter series, the pressure is intense. It always pushes my abilities to their limit, and it feels like I’m battling for my life as I’m drawing. It’s frustrating, hard work, but by the same token, when I’m finished I feel like I’ve leveled up and that it was all worth it.

—Do you have any memories of the first project you worked on at Capcom?

Nishimura: It was Varth, I think? This was my first time doing character designs too. My characters don’t appear in the game itself though. (laughs) Also, I think the very first illustration I drew at Capcom was about two months after I was hired, for The King of Dragons. I drew a bunch of the monsters. If you have the Super Famicom version, you can see them in the instruction manual… but please don’t! I still love King of Dragons by the way.

Illustrations for Varth, Nishimura’s first design work at Capcom.

—What are some of your favorite characters that you’ve designed?

Nishimura: Hmmm. I haven’t really done a lot of actual character design work, so… and with games like Cyberbots and Powered Gear, the focus is on mecha, so the pilots I designed for them feel more like bonus content or something. Cyberbots, in particular, was something I made when I was young and still pretty bad, but it was the result of a lot of hard work, so even though I kind of want to avert my eyes when I see it, I can’t completely hate it… the character Jin Saotome from Cyberbots, in particular, was a character who I don’t think was handled correctly until Marvel vs. Capcom and CRMK’s illustrations.

On the other hand, there’s Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow over Mystara. It was only my second project at Capcom; however, perhaps because it was my favorite genre (fantasy) and I really put my all into it, the character design and promotional illustrations both went very smoothly, and it was a lot of fun.

Gaia Master, too—because I kept (or tried to keep) my crazy side in check while designing the characters—is another work I can enjoy without any regret. I feel attached to all the characters in that game, but I especially like Yasutsuna and the Bar Hostess.

—With outside franchises like D&D, do the copyright holders exert a lot of control over the design process?

Nishimura: In my case, I was very lucky, and there wasn’t much. During the character design process, they wanted us to switch the personalities of the Thief and Magic User, but that was about it.

—How about real life actors, do you have any favorites?

Nishimura: Let me think… for men, Seiji Miyaguchi, Christopher Lambert, guys like that (not hard to guess, right?)… for women, I like Ai Kato right now, but that’s always changing. My favorite artists and manga changes day to day, too. As for my taste in art, I’d probably say I like drawings that make people feel happy when they see them.

Nishimura: “Fan club drawings like this aren’t for commercial use, so for copyrighted franchises like D&D, we can take a more light-hearted approach to the material.

The flipside is that I’m really bad at drawing scoundrels and bad guys, but I think this is some personal hang-up I have. I’d like to overcome it in the future.

—By the way, do you play games in private?

Nishimura: Nowadays, not so much… I used to play them a lot though. I remember, when the hardware was switching over from Famicom to Super Famicom, being really moved by the way your character left footsteps in the snow of Romancing SaGa. The variety of characters and moves made me think, “wow, there’s a lot you can do with consoles now too!” There were many ecstatic moments like that, and it was a time where the potential of games seemed endless to me. I remember it very fondly.

My absolute favorite game, though, is the Famicom version of Wizardry.

—What do you do in your free time, then?

Nishimura: I think I spend most of it at work…. though if I had to say, reading. It’s something I can do with nearly zero stress.

—Finally, please share with us your future aspirations.

Nishimura: Before I die, I’d like to see my art really contribute to the sales of a game. Also, while I’m working here at Capcom, I’d like to broaden the range of my abilities as an artist.

Nishimura: “When I drew the dagger on the Magic User, someone saw it and said ‘Oh! He’s got the Poison Needle from Dragon Quest!’ (I didn’t know about that). At the character design stage, I only draw the essential parts of a character, and leave out anything else. So detailed accessories and so forth often get drawn later, for promotional artwork. These guys turned out to match their in-game counterparts pretty well, so I guess it all turned out OK…”.
Nishimura: “I had no skills back then, and this was very difficult to draw. I managed to finish something I was satisfied with, but only because I spent so much time on it, I’m embarassed to even say! Several years later my abilities improved a little, but I feel like my speed didn’t really change all that much… (argh!)”

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