Kazuma Kaneko x Tomomi Kobayashi – 1996 Interview

Kazuma Kaneko x Tomomi Kobayashi – 1996 Designer Interview

This candid, wide-ranging interview between lauded designers Tomomi Kobayashi and Kazuma Kaneko first appeared in Game Hihyou magazine in 1996. Although very different designers, the conversation finds common ground in their mutual influences from childhood and their ongoing love of fashion design. I’ve also appended a smaller interview with Tomomi Kobyashi, which offers some additional remarks about Romancing SaGa in particular.

—Today we are graced with the presence of two highly individualistic designers. I’d like to talk with you both about the source of your inspiration, your design philosophy, and much more. To start off, Tomomi, how did you get into doing video game work?

Kobayashi: Romancing SaGa was my first. Up to then, I’d been doing illustration work for novels, so I had no idea how to draw for games. I only did characters though—I believe Kazuma started off doing both characters and monsters.

Kaneko: Yeah, I did. My early work was almost all very forced, though. I’ve been in the industry so long that you can really see each stage of improvement from my early, clumsy work. It’s like a manga artist who wins the newcomer prize and then gradually gets better in the following years. (laughs) It’s kind of sad.

Kobayashi: Well, I think the same is true for anyone.

Kaneko: Yeah, I wonder though. Aren’t there people who are just good from the get-go?

Kobayashi: Those people are special cases. Most people make progress incrementally. In my case, I always loved drawing people, so I started out doing that. Design was something I learned later.

Kaneko: Design is where I started, I think. In design, I found a way to include all the things I loved. I’d draw popular sneakers and t-shirts, and the company would get really pissed at me!

Tomomi Kobayashi and Kazuma Kaneko in early 1996.

Kobayashi: Did you draw clothes you owned and liked yourself, then?

Kaneko: Well, stuff I wanted to buy, but couldn’t afford. And I also drew designs that I liked, but didn’t suit me personally.

Kobayashi: As a designer, have you noticed that a lot of your designs include things you saw and loved as a kid?

Kaneko: All the time, everywhere. (laughs)

Kobayashi: I know! I look at something I drew and it’s like, “where did this come from?” And then you go, “Oh yeah…” (laughs)

Kaneko: Even outside my design work, I think my lifestyle is an imitation of those influences. Lupin the 3rd especially, for me. (laughs)

Kobayashi: I think that was written in this magazine somewhere before. (laughs)

Kaneko: I took a lot of influence from Japanese TV shows… stuff in the vein of “Taiyou ni hoero!” (though not that show specifically).

Kobayashi: Yeah, my parents both worked, and so the entire afternoon I would just watch TV and dramas, or read manga.

Kaneko: My parents both worked too, in a sushi restaraunt. It was the same way for me, all I did was watch TV.

Kobayashi: What was that one action drama called, the international one…?

Kaneko: Key Hunter! (laughs)

Kobayashi: That was the one that started it all.

Kaneko: There was Eyeful Daisakusen after that. I liked Playgirl a lot too.

Kobayashi: Yes, yes!

Kaneko: They looked like they had a ton of fun making it.

Kobayashi: Yeah, I loved that crazy atmosphere. (laughs)

Kaneko: It was great. Those influenced me a lot. I mean, Eyeful Daisakusen was just sooo cool.

Kobayashi: I really loved that one too.

Kaneko and Kobayashi’s TV influences from childhood. Eyeful Daisakusen (top left), Key Hunter (top right), and Playgirl (bottom left) were all spy/secret agent dramas similar to the ones popular in the West around the same time. The Zatoichi (bottom right) series continues to be made into the present day.

Kaneko: Everyone dies in the end. They solve the case, but there’s a bomb or something left, and it explodes, killing everyone.

Kobayashi: No one was left?

Kaneko: I remember everyone dying. It’s a pretty philosophical ending. (laughs) All those old hero shows ended with some kind of apocalyptic destruction. I liked that about them though. It was like they secretly wanted to see everything destroyed… did you get that sense too?

Kobayashi: Yeah, there was a bit of that in there.

Kaneko: If some Chinese person were to burst into this room right now, yelling “Help me!” like in some old drama, I bet you’d get super-excited? (laughs)

Kobayashi: Totally. (laughs)

Kaneko: Hah, you know, it’s interesting—I had this image of you in my mind as very elegant.

Kobayashi: Yeah, not at all. I love all that stuff—I even watched tokusatsu and Go Ranger. (laughs)

Kaneko: How masculine!

Kobayashi: No, it’s just that there wasn’t anything else to watch. I also loved the older jidaigeki (historical) dramas.

Kaneko: The characters from those older historical dramas, like Zatoichi, they were fascinating. I always wanted to draw a one-armed character, but I wasn’t allowed to.

Kobayashi: People monitored your work like that?

Kaneko: They complained. “Oh no, he’s only got one arm, that’s not going to work.” (laughs)

Kobayashi: But you must have had more latitude drawing creatures, right?

Kaneko: Nintendo would complain about my designs a lot. “Why is this monster naked?” (laughs) Then I’d explain to them that it would be weird for this particular monster to not be naked, and they’d reply back, “Ok, we understand. Please remove the nipple then.” I said, what is this now, a Go Nagai manga? (laughs)

Kobayashi: Hah, yeah, it would end up like that. After TV, my other big love in high school was Western music. I was into it for 3 years, but after that I got bored of it. Then I started going to doujinshi events. I had gone occasionally before, but now, all of a sudden, I was going regularly. (laughs)

Kaneko: Why?

Kobayashi: I had always loved art, and I had been drawing for a long time.

Kaneko: I see—you drew while you watched TV or listened to music.

Kobayashi: That’s right. I drew manga and stuff like that. Then one day I got asked to do illustrations for a magazine, and over time, at that job, is where I really learned to draw.

Kaneko: Was that the start of your career then?

Kobayashi: It was. Their editorial department was close to my work, so I’d go over there two or three times a week and hang out. I met a lot of new people there, and was exposed to many things I’d never seen before.

Kaneko: You were getting sucked into their world.

Perhaps more than any other Japanese video game character designer, Kaneko’s work shows the most overt influence from the world of of contemporary/avant-garde fashion. His designs also show a high degree of thematic unity, characteristic of his “design first” approach as mentioned above.

Kobayashi: For some reason, after that I got really obsessed with Saint Seiya. (laughs)

Kaneko: Wow, that’s awesome.

Kobayashi: I was into it for a really long time, about 7 years—the same length of time I worked at my old job before quitting, once my illustration work started picking up.

Kaneko: Did you know I was working as an animator on Saint Seiya then?

Kobayashi: What, really?!

Kaneko: It looks like “Saint Seiya” is the tie that binds us! (laughs) I drew for it, yeah. I drew those damn Gold Saints so much I started to hate it. (laughs)

Kobayashi: That’s amazing. You must have done a lot of those designs. I loved Tatsunoko Production’s anime, and had thought about becoming an animator myself. So after graduating high school, I decided to go visit the production studio and see what it was like. I visited both Tatsunoko and Nippon Animation.

Kaneko: The reigning kings of Sunday animation.

Kobayashi: What I saw there was… different from what I expected. I said to myself, oh well, I don’t need to be an animator. (laughs)

Kaneko: I had always wanted to be a dancer. (laughers) I idolized Travolta in Saturay Night Fever. I used to put the outfit on and spend the night dancing at Ueno. I got harassed a lot. (laughs) I was told that if you wore that kind of clothing and went to discos, you’d be put on the police’s wanted list as a yakuza member. If that happened, no venue would let you inside.

Kobayashi: Was it really that bad?

Kaneko: No, not really.

—Did you get into a lot of fights? Were you tough?

Kaneko: I did get into fights, but no, I wasn’t a tough guy. I would always run away. I’d like to see those experiences put in game-form somehow—in a good way, of course. (laughs) I still go out from time to time.

—Before you begin working on a new game, do you first come to a consensus with the other developers about its overall art direction?

Kaneko: Well, I’m not sure. I think it might appear like that to some people.

—Kobayashi, in your case I understand that Square only sends you the basic planning documents.

Kobayashi: That’s right. They’ll send me character profiles and such, but the only thing they say is “please make it look good.” Then I might send them some rough sketches, and sometimes they’ll ask me to take it in a different direction and re-do them.

—When designing characters, is there anything that you’re always particularly conscious and careful about?

Kobayashi: Not really—again, I pretty much do whatever I feel like. If I don’t have some mental image of the world and the character, though, it can be hard to get started, so I often take the liberty of inventing those in my head when I draw. What I imagine might be a little different than what Square had in mind, but that has never stopped me. (laughs)

Kaneko: The spirit of play comes first. (laughs) I sometimes feel surprised in the opposite direction: I see your art first, and have a certain impression in my mind, then I play the game and it’s like, “what?” I love the pirates, dancers, and other characters you draw… and the poses are great too. The way you handle hips is especially good. A lot of artists neglect that area, but you really know how to draw a good butt.

Kobayashi: It’s funny to hear you say that, because it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s more like, “well, I guess this works” and I move on.

Kaneko: Your bikei1 characters are really cool though. I adore the men you draw, like Hawk from the first Romancing SaGa.

Kobayashi: My model for that character was actually Blood, the pirate from Tezuka’s Ribbon no Kishi (“Princess Knight”).

Kaneko: Oh, I actually love Osamu Tezuka. I’m still really into his work.

Kobayashi: When I hear “pirate”, I can’t help it—I always end up picturing Blood. (laughs) Real pirates are the best, though.

Kaneko: Yeah, Hawk has that little stubbly beard, yet he still manages to look bikei somehow. I also really like the Saruin character from Romancing SaGa. That was cool.

Saruin and Hawk, two of Kobayashi’s characters from the first Romancing SaGa.

—Kobayashi, I understand you’re also into fashion now?

Kobayashi: It’s a relatively recent interest. It started with those amazingly gorgeous patterned pieces that were popular during the bubble economy.

Kaneko: There’s some great designers out there. Lately I’ve been into W&LT… though their designs have been getting more and more outlandish. (laughs) I’m scared to think they’re actually selling this stuff! Thierry Mugler, too… they’re all doing kind of crazy stuff these days.

Kobayashi: Yeah, it looks like something you’d see out of a sci-fi movie or something.

Kaneko: It looks like something tokusatsu characters would wear. But I think those designers are really trying to present something thematic. I can relate to that sentiment—because there’s a lot of character designers out there that don’t give much thought to their designs in that way.

Kobayashi: Yeah, it’s the difference between someone who makes their clothing to sell, and someone who makes it because they want to present their own vision of the world. You get the sense that they don’t particularly care one way or the other if anyone actually wears it.

Kaneko: Yeah, it’s to be viewed as a work of art itself.

Kobayashi: Galliano, Gaultier, and Mugler too, they’ve all been going that direction. Alexander McQueen too.

Kaneko: Hah, wow. And you can’t wear any of it. (laughs)

Kobayashi: It’s like the clothes themselves have too much presence. To wear them you have to be someone with a personality that’s loud enough to match it.

Kaneko: When I see something like Versace at the mall, it’s like, “Oh my god, this costs ten-thousand dollars?!”

Kobayashi: That sense of unreality is fun. I think his clothes express something about the carnivorous aspect of Western culture.

Kaneko: That’s a good insight.

Kobayashi: Wearing it makes you feel like you belong at a hostess bar or something though.

Kaneko: That’s true! I like stuff like Dolce and Gabbana. I own a lot of their clothes. It’s dangerous to wear only Dolce and Gabbana though!

Kobayashi: Yeah, wanting to make an outfit “your own” is a part of fashion.

Kaneko: I think you could pull it off, make your eyes all sparkly. Man, I want to make my eyes sparkle. (laughs) Don’t you? You know, I use a Mac for my artwork, and sometimes I take pictures of myself and mess around with them, making the eyes sparkle, silly stuff. It’s fun though!

Kobayashi: I have no clue how to use a Mac to draw…

Kaneko: It feels less like drawing, more like “constructing” an image.

Kobayashi: Do you draw on it directly?

Kaneko: I draw on the Mac with a tablet, yeah. I take something I’ve colored on paper, scan it in, and then add lighting effects and other touches to finish it. You can get some really mysterious stuff from it. You do it all by hand though.

Kobayashi: It sounds like this is one of your personal techniques?

Kaneko: It is. It’s part of my identity as a designer. When I started drawing this way, I felt like I had finally reach a point of self-confidence in my work. Until then, I’d been self-taught, so I always felt like I didn’t have a right to express myself… it was a major complex.

Kobayashi: Yeah, I don’t think being self-taught has anything to do with that.

Kaneko: I always felt like I had to find a unique form in which to express myself. That was big for me.

Kobayashi: Individuality—yeah, it’s great when you can say “this, this is me.”

1990s “high fashion” designs from Thierry Mugler (top) and Alexander McQueen (bottom). The influence on Kazuma Kaneko’s work is hard to miss.

Kaneko: I felt lost for a long time, but I think it’s probably that way for every artist. Finally though, it feels like I’ve found my style and confidence. I had wanted to ask you about that Kobayashi, if you had a similar experience with your work.

Kobayashi: Before I started doing illustrations for games, my style was very different. I felt like working on games broadened my horizons as an artist somewhat. In my older drawings, I used a lot of muted colors, and a more traditional Japanese color palette. People used to tell me, “Everything you draw is so dark. You should use brighter colors!”

Kaneko: Who said that?

Kobayashi: Oh, just my friends. Once I started drawing for games, my colors became a lot more vivid.

Kaneko: Yeah, they have to be that way, for games.

Kobayashi: It was like one day I looked up and realized, wow, I’ve never used color like this before!

Kaneko: You do use really intense colors!

Kobayashi: Before that, I had done everything in an almost-transparent, muted, watercolor style. I also used Japanese pigments and gouache. But for games, I started drawing with ink.

Kaneko: Ah, and that’s how your colors started to stand out more.

Kobayashi: That’s right. When I realized that, the colors I had been using suddenly seemed so drab to me. (laughs) There’s something brilliant about inks, you know? They’re so bright that you can close your eyes and still see the afterimage. (laughs)

Kaneko: They’re beautiful. You use a lot of different colors too. I don’t have that sense at all… colors are very difficult for me. Combining them and everything.

Kobayashi: Some colors are so beautiful when you put them next to each other. I usually outline in black and white, and from there I can get a general idea of what would look nice.

Kaneko: It’s amazing that you can do that in your head. I was sort of criticizing the gaudiness of Versace a moment ago, but I have to admit, he does know how to handle color.

Kobayashi: Definitely. That’s what makes it cool!

Kaneko: In fashion and character design, first impressions are so important. It’s partly why I appear so sensitive about my work. It’s great to talk with someone 10 or 20 years later, who knows what life was like back then, and recognizes those influences—they’re the waymarkers of my own existence. I look back on them with a lot of affection.

Kobayashi: So many things in the past seem puzzling to me when I look back at them now. The shock you receive from something when you’re young is different from the shock you receive when you’re older.

Kaneko: Yeah, you accumulate such a mass of memories as you age, that you cease to have that childlike wonder about individual experiences.

Kobayashi: It’s true. And still, when I encounter those old things I loved today, they still elicit a surprise. Think about it: would things have turned out the same for us if our parents had not both worked when we were children? The past lives on in us today.

Tomomi Kobayashi – Designer Interview

originally featured in the 2/94 edition of Famicon Tsuushin

—The unique, diverse cast of characters is one of the strongest features of Square’s new RPG “Romancing SaGa 2”. Today we talk with Tomomi Kobayashi, illustrator and character designer for the series. Tomomi, how did you first get involved in the Romancing SaGa development?

Kobayashi: Someone from Square approached me directly about it. This was right after my illustration collection had come out in print. I had never created any characters of my own, so I was very curious, and took the job… but it turned out to be far more difficult than I had imagined. (laughs)

—Because of the volume of work?

Kobayashi: Exactly. Normally, when illustrating a novel, you might have 5 or 6 main characters, and maybe at most 10 minor characters to draw. But in Romancing SaGa I had to create triple or quadruple that amount. It went up even further in the sequel…

—How conscious were you of the previous game when you designed the characters for Romancing SaGa 2?

Kobayashi: Actually, I set out thinking I’d try to change the image up this time, but when I looked at the results, it turned out it hadn’t changed at all. (laughs) Though I did notice that there’s more adult characters in Romancing SaGa 2. The main characters are mostly over 20.

—And yet there’s something very boyish about Gellard.

Kobayashi: He’s a traditional hero’s hero, so it naturally came out that way. To be honest, I thought the protagonist of the last game was too orthodox, and I was anxious to find a way to change that, but it turned out the same again.

—Who are some of your favorite characters from the game, then?

Kobayashi: Maybe Hector and Jubei? Actually, the characters I really like the most are ones like Coppelia, the android created by Hiraga. (laughs)

—It sounds like you prefer the weird outliers.

Kobayashi: I don’t normally draw characters like that, so they’re a real challenge. But the more challenging a character is to draw, the more affection I have for it. In truth, there isn’t any character I’ve drawn that I dislike, though.

—That makes sense. By the way, have you played Romancing SaGa 2? What are your thoughts on the game itself?

Kobayashi: Actually, I haven’t even seen the opening yet. I don’t have a Super Famicom at my house, so… I’m totally backed up with work at the moment, but when I have a copy at hand, I’ll no doubt start playing. (laughs)

—We’ll save that question for when your work subsides, then. (laughs) Thank you for your time today!

Coppelia from Romancing SaGa 2. Kobayashi enjoys drawing odd characters like this because of the challenge their design presents.

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  1. “Bikei”, which literally means “beautiful type” is a common character trope. It denotes a “beautiful” character, and can be used for either gender, but often refers to a slim / stylish / feminine man.

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