Nich Maragos. “In Character: Kazuma Kaneko”. 1UP, 20 September 2004. <http://www.1up.com/features/in-character>
Though it’s not until recently that technology has allowed their work to be fully expressed within the actual games, the art of character designers has a long and, in some cases, rabid following. From the elegant, flowing lines of a Yoji Shinkawa-designed mech to the goofily cartoonish first images of Mega Man, character designers have left their stamp on games no matter how primitive or advanced the technology.
In this installment of our recurring feature focusing on character designers, we take a look at the designs of Kazuma Kaneko, a longtime designer for Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series and its offshoots. Alongside series creator Cozy Okada, he set the visual tone for the entire franchise, and now that Okada’s left the company, he’s running the franchise — which returns to America this fall with Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga. Learn the inspiration behind his art, the esoteric theories he works into his designs, and the best way to personalize a school uniform.
[ Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne | Savior/Ruler ]
Kaneko: The concept of him is a human that awakens to superhuman powers by Magatama. Within the game he is presented as transforming into a demon, but he is the image of a human that has evolved or devolved, so I didn’t put horns or wings on him.
Because he is the character the player controls, I put more emphasis on embodying and reflecting his outlook on the world rather than developing his personality. For instance, the theme of SMT: Nocturne is energy that can create a new world, so I had him dressed comfortably, wearing just shorts, and at the same time made him stand out with the signs of being superhuman, his tattoos.
As I mentioned before, the theme of this game is energy, but it is also about a human that has gained superhuman powers. I gave him tattoos and a spike on the back of his head. The tattoos over his body are more like stigmas than tattoos, and the channels and lymph vessels show that he is not a human. That is why they change colors when he is low on hit points. Also, the spike is a type of sensory organ, representing a primitive brain being possessed by a Magatama. It is through the evolution of this sensory organ that the player can talk to demons and use super powers. There is a theory that a person’s aura, when viewed from the side, protrudes backward like a shark fin. That was my inspiration for the spike.
[ Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne | Dark King ]
Kaneko: God says, “I am Alpha and Omega.” This is the beginning and end, in other words, everything in the world is God’s work. Lucifer, the king of the dark, embodies all of the dark side of the world. If creation is the work of God, destruction is the work of Lucifer. The two may be related to each other like personas. So the concept was an intellectual-looking child seeing from the beginning to the end (the future), an old man who views the present in a considerate manner, and, depending on the player’s choice, a sinister demon.
In the game he is there to tempt the player and give him trials to test him. I previously called him the king of the dark, but that was just to make explaining him simpler. In the world of the Megaten series, I don’t consider him as evil; he is just a character that tests the player. So visually I portrayed him as elegant and gentleman-like.
According to one theory Lucifer is said to look like a beautiful angel with 12 wings, but in this game he is portrayed as demonic with 6 wings. This is the style I picked to represent the dark side. In Megaten 1 and 2, he appears as an angel with 6 wings, so combining them you’ll get 12 wings. Throughout the series, he has appeared as a child, and old man, a gentleman, an angel and a demon. This is to show that he is omnipotent. I believe there will be a time when he will reveal his true form, a combination of all his other forms, to the player.
[ Digital Devil Saga | Tribe leader ]
Kaneko: Digital Devil Saga is set in a unique world that differs from the everyday real world that the Megaten series takes place in. The player, thrown into this world without any explanation, must find the meaning and secret of this unique world. In order to portray this non-standard world, I had all the characters in this world have hair and eye colors that are impossible in the real world without having to dye or use contact lens. And within this wild world where you must continuously fight and eat one another, each character wears a uniform known as a tribe uniform. On top of that DDS’s distinguishing feature is that the characters can transform into demons, and to show that they have that power, they have a sign somewhere on their bodies called an “Atma”. This embodies the world of DDS and is the basis of all the characters. Sera, however, has normal-colored hair. That is to show that she is a unique existence to this particular world.
Since Serf is controlled by the player, like the Demi-fiend, I did not give him much emotion. He has unique hair and eye colors and wears a tribe uniform, but that is the standard for this world. Also, though every character wears a tribe uniform, there are several teams that are fighting for dominance, so each team has their own color painted on their suits. The reason the tribe uniforms are gray is to stress the team color painted on them.
On top of being able to divide it into jackets, corsets, pants and sleeves, the tribe uniform can be altered in many ways, such as adding capes, scarves, bags, hoods, etc. In a barbaric world without culture, this customization of the tribe uniforms, the only type of wear available, helps bring out the individuality of each character.
[ Digital Devil Saga | Tough, passionate follower ]
Kaneko: What is the meaning of living in such a wild world where you have to continuously eat your opponents to survive? That’s the kind of doubt this character has. Keeping this in mind, I designed her as a female who is already living in this wild world. Compared with Sera, she is flamboyant and strong-minded.
I wanted to make her a cool, calm character, so to have that reflected by her tribe uniform, I stressed the long skirt and the open jacket with the Atma showing on her chest. Also, since her expression of emotions is intense, like heat, I gave her pink hair and eyes.
In the world of DDS, where battle is never-ending, injuries are probably very common. The characters in this story probably have cuts and bruises all over their bodies. But the only character to show her scar is Argilla. This is because in a dog-eat-dog world like this, showing one’s scar is showing one’s weakness, so it’s a natural rule for everyone to cover up any scars they can. The reason why Argilla shows it off is to remind herself of her own weakness. I chose to express her in this way to show that she is the type of person to overcome many difficulties.
[ Persona 2: Eternal Punishment | Superstitious fashionista ]
Kaneko: Persona 2 actually was split into two Personas. One had a juvenile aspect to it while the other had an adult aspect; the former was Innocent Sin (IS) and the latter was Eternal Punishment (EP). Innocent Sin was not released in America, so many people many not be aware of that. The theme of IS is the growth of the teenagers and how they conquer their troubles, while the theme of EP is realization of one’s true self as an adult when one faces reality. Both games share the same worldview and characters, and are like parallel worlds, related to each other by cause and effect. In IS, Ulala Serizawa is nothing but Maya Amano’s roommate, but in Eternal Punishment she becomes a character that helps bring out the adult flavor. She was originally aspiring to be a fashion designer, but she has since given up and began running a business as a lingerie maker. Wanting a stable life, she began yearning for marriage. There she’s tricked by a con artist… That’s what was portrayed in IS; in EP, it shows what happened afterwards. Her dream to be a fashion designer is shown through the clothes she wears, and the way she looks gives her the feeling that she’s someone people can rely on.
The motif of her wear is a spider web, because it depicts the way she handles love. She’s kind, reliable, skillful and good at cooking; all the men that go out with her get caught up in her before they know it. In the game, there was one man that escaped from her web, and it just happened to be a con man. Taking a blow psychologically and financially, her goal in life became to get revenge on that man. By regularly attending the boxing gym, she overcomes her weakness and at the same time strengthens her body. The reason why she wears tape around her fists all the time is so that she’ll be prepared just in case she runs into that con man, as well as a warning to her own self not to make the same mistake again.
Because the world of Persona is based in the real world, the characters must be people that wouldn’t stick out in the real world. Still, there is a need to add a bit of unrealistic heroism, and in the case of Ulala, I used the mismatching of the stylish clothes and the tape on her fists to do so.
[ Persona 2: Eternal Punishment | Mysterious villain ]
Kaneko: Joker is the cause of the bizarre murder case in Persona 2. His motif was a ludicrous, mysterious man that appears in urban legends. There have been cases in Japan of people being attacked by strangely dressed men.
School and the characters attending school are an important part to both Persona 1 and 2. In Japan, each school has its own uniform, and there are people that actually select their school based on the uniforms. Since such students spread the rumor about Joker, he himself is wearing a typical school uniform. This type of uniform is usually black and plain, but in order to emphasize the ludicrousness of this mysterious man, I choose this design. Also, because Joker is a monster that feeds off of people’s dreams, I gave him a demonic clown look.
The flower Joker is holding is an Iris, whose meaning is “revenge”. This is a way that Joker’s true identity, Jun Kurosu, expresses himself. Jun is creating the character Joker in order to get revenge on a certain someone. On a side note, the character Joker appeared in Eternal Punishment as well. That one isn’t Jun Kurosu, but another character that appeared in Innocent Sin. Not only did he suck energy from people, he also possessed them and forced them to commit crimes. The design and image are the same, but he is much more vicious, so it’s interesting to compare the two Jokers.
[ Revelations: Persona | Insecure schoolmate ]
Kaneko: Mary [Maki in Japan] Sonomura was sick and spent most of her time in bed at a hospital. Her only source of entertainment was to dream of a world where she is healthy and having fun with all her schoolmates. But because she has been bed-ridden for most of her life, she doesn’t know the outside world, plus she doesn’t know how to communicate well with others. Due to that, the world she imagined was a world that revolved around her. At that time there was a project to create an alternate dimension using electromagnetic waves, and by pure chance the waves and Mary’s ideal world linked together, making her world a reality. The Mary in this world is the ideal healthy Mary, but as I mentioned earlier, she doesn’t know how to express herself, so I designed her to be like an expressionless doll.
St. Hermelin High School is where Persona 1 primarily takes place. All the characters wear the uniform to show that they are all part of one group. In order to distinguish each character, I stressed their personalities through accessories and the way they wear their uniforms, which is an idea that applies to Persona 2 and DDS as well. I figured that Mary didn’t grow much psychologically, so in order to emphasize her girlishness, I had her wear a ribbon given to her by her mother, and wear a charm, believing that it could grant any wish.
Mary also wears a St. Hermelin uniform. There is a reason why the uniforms are gray. As the story progresses, Mary’s personality splits into two: a good Mary and a bad Mary. The good is dressed in white while the bad is in black. So the middle, Mary Sonomura as a whole, is gray. Since her uniform is gray, then of course the entire school’s uniform color had to be gray.
[ Shin Megami Tensei II | Arena-trained hero ]
Kaneko: The world of Megaten II takes place in the 20th century, where after mass destruction by demons in Megaten I, human society begins to rebuild the world alongside demons. The surviving humans build a giant colony known as the Tokyo Millennium and set up a centralized power-of-state, much like that of ancient Rome; this is where the story starts. Many people live inside the Tokyo Millennium, which is unified by the Center, a group of mysterious intellectuals living in a former nursing home. The colony is divided up into several areas, and the largest area is called Valhalla. Here the citizens are separated into two classes: the upper class and the lower class. The lower class has a much larger population. All the rage with the lower class is the fighting tournament held at the coliseum. This is a tournament where the fighters fight alongside demons, which they control, and the winner earns the right to become a member of the upper class. The champion is indefinitely the hero of Valhalla. Aleph is one of those fighters aiming to become the champion, and his design comes from this view of the world. For example he wears a handheld computer and visor to control demons and comes equipped with swords, guns and armor for battle. He embodies the world of Megaten II.
Aleph, like the Demi-fiend and Serf, is controlled by the player, so I made him without personality, but there also is a reason for that storywise. Aleph is actually a being created by the scientists of the Center in order to become the world’s savior. The reason why there’s a need for a savior is that the mysterious men running the Tokyo Millennium are angels, and because a savior has yet to arrive as planned, they began fearing that God has abandoned them. They believed that, if they carried out the plans as God foretold, God would once again appear before them. In order to do so, they need a savior they could control. That savior is Aleph. But Aleph didn’t play into the angels’ plans, because Aleph is the player.
The story of Megaten begins when you obtain the Demon Summoning Program, a program that turns the complex ceremony of demon summoning into a simple executable file. All the heroes of Megaten use this program by carrying a handheld computer strapped to their arms and by wearing a heads-up display on a visor, and in that sense Aleph is your average Megaten hero. His computer is even more compact and the visor is connected without wire, which is to show that the time frame of Megaten II is farther in the future then present time. In reality there probably will be computers smaller than we can imagine, but there was mass destruction in Megaten I, so technology’s pace probably slowed down. Of course, it could be said that the bigger the items on a character, the easier it is to leave an impression. The Demi-fiend of SMT: Nocturne has no computer and thus is an oddball, but there really is no need for computers once he is reborn as a demon. You can say that he holds potential for new routes.