Direct Interview with Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth’s Character Designer Suzuhito Yasuda

A translation of this Famitsu interview from February 19, 2015, with Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth‘s producer Kazumasa “Habumon” Habu and character designer Suzuhito Yasuda.

(Producer and director interview | Character designer interview| Eater designer interview | Sub-quest writer interview | BGM composer and sound effect producer interview)


An opportunity to gain new fans

The PlayStation Vita game Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth will be released on March 12, 2015. Touted as “Digimon for adults”, it’s an impressive game with designs that give off a very different image from previous entries in the series. Playing a part in this sudden change of image is the game’s character designer, Suzuhito Yasuda. Today, Famitsu.com has taken the initiative to interview this illustrator for the Yozakura Quartet manga, Durarara!!, and many other works. We asked him about his thoughts creating the character designs for his work. Producer Kazumasa Habu (hereinafter, Habu) also participated in the interview.

Suzuhito Yasuda (hereinafter, Yasuda)
Illustrator and manga creator of the manga Yozakura Quartet and Durarara!!. Following Digimon World Re:Digitize, he now designs characters for the Digimon series.

The combination of Digimon and Yasuda’s illustrations

Habu: Digimon World Re:Digitize had a target audience of adults, so we requested Yasuda-san to do the character designs for it. Continuing on from there, we asked Yasuda-san to do the character designs for this game, too. It’s already been about three or four years since you became involved with Digimon, hasn’t it?
Yasuda: It has.

–That’s a long time to be involved.
Habu: I think it’s been around four years since we started making Digimon World: Re:Digitize.
Yasuda: About right after the Durarara!! anime had ended, I had my first meeting with Habu-san, and he told me about how he liked Durarara!!. (laughs)

–(laughs) When you initially got the offer to do the character designs for Digimon, how did you feel?
Yasuda:
It’s a long-running series with historical value, and there are a lot of deep-seated fans. It’s not an easy thing to deal with, since there are a lot of times I’ve been vilified for things like this, and I wondered if there were anyone else who might be able to draw “something more likeable”, but when I heard what Habu-san had to say, about how all of the franchise’s current fans are so valuable to them, and how they really want to get more fans, I took on the job.

–What would be the sort of “likeable” drawing you’re referring to?
Yasuda:
My drawings don’t have a lot to them, but for some reason there are a lot of aspects that people tend to dislike. (awkward laugh) But a lot of people have what they definitively consider to be a “likeable drawing”. For instance, I think the old-time Digimon drawings would be “likeable” art. Nobody who sees them would dislike it. I’m more in-your-face with my art, there are a lot of people who find it disagreeable. So I thought, “people are going to either love it or hate it, so is that okay?” Of course, I do try to match the image of whatever I’m working with, but I was told that I don’t have to make a universally likeable drawing, and that it’s fine if some people are touchy about it, etc.
Habu: Yasuda-san chose some pretty extreme words, so I’ll add onto it so there aren’t any misunderstandings (laughs), but what Yasuda-san means by a “likeable” illustration is basically trying to make a universally acclaimed illustration that won’t ever give off a harsh impression and nobody will dislike it. On the other hand, since Yasuda-san’s drawings are somewhat fanservicey and in-your-face, the fact it’s a very strong quirk of his work makes people divided on whether they like it or not.
Yasuda: It’s really something I’ve been called out on over and over again since the very beginning…But I’d rather people talk about it than be indifferent about it (laughs nervously).

–I see. (laughs) But personally, I feel that it’s perfect for this work that’s “for adults”.
Yasuda:
Thank you. (laughs)

–Incidentally, did you know anything about the Digimon franchise itself from the beginning?
Yasuda:
I knew of it ever since the first toys came out. So my strongest impression of it came from the pixel sprites. After that, I took a look at the anime…

–So you got to see the anime, too. Did you feel any pressure, like “I’m going to be involved with that one and only Digimon franchise?”
Yasuda: Very much so. But nevertheless, it was something I’m very grateful for. It’s happened before I got involved, and even after, too, but before there were people saying things directly like “kick Yasuda out of Digimon!” on Twitter, etc., and nowadays there are a lot of people more accustomed to it saying things like “well, sure, whatever”, so I’m really grateful for that.

–I suppose you could say that people are gradually getting used to your illustrations. Is there anything you have to pay particular attention to when you design Digimon characters?
Yasuda:
It’s very hard to get used to drawing Digimon. There’s a lot of variety with Digimon, like hard, scrape-y Digimon being cute and fluffy or mechanical-looking Digimon that are like rigid robots, you know. (laughs) But I also think that’s what’s so good about them. In any other series, when there’s a robot-like character, they’ll screech to a halt at designs like Hagurumon, and they won’t go beyond that. That kind of form really does embody a “robot”, and that’s something that’s very Digimon-esque. Also, with characters like Angewomon or other humanoid Digimon, it’s difficult to design them in the lineup next to everyone else. I have to be diligent when designing the Digimon, and I can’t slack with them. Keeping them consistent with cute Digimon throws me off even further. Going through all of this, I realized that the old Digimon anime really pulled off something very unique with those forms.

–Ah, I see. The character concepts were very unique.
Yasuda:
The humanoid Digimon have a fairly normal shape, they weren’t quite like normal humans, and I really liked that part about them.

–Was it difficult to design the Digimon to realistic scale proportions?
Yasuda: When you see humans and Digimon together running together, it runs the risk of looking very odd, even on the game screen, so it was difficult.

–Now that the promotional video’s been released, how did people react to it?
Yasuda:
As I’d expected, there were a lot of people who said “I’m already used to it.” (laughs)
Everyone: (laughs)
Yasuda: There were times I considered giving up on it, but also I feel there are a lot of very kind Digimon fans.
Habu: We’ve done so many things to them already, they’re probably used to it…(laughs)
Yasuda: But that also leads to the pressure of “so do your part, and do a proper job making it.”

–What do you think was particularly required of you, for this game in particular?
Yasuda:
I think they wanted the designs to really attract people who weren’t already Digimon fans. As far as promoting the actual game goes, of course the game system takes priority, but I think the illustrations are also getting more and more prominent, and so I feel something along the lines of “we need you to make something catchy that’ll grab people”. And so the biggest thing they needed from me was for them to create this experience even for those who knew nothing about the Digimon franchise.

–I see. Habu-san, what’s your response for how the designs worked out in practice?
Habu: 
I actually have a very good follow-up for that one. It may be a little rude to say something like this, but it was very difficult to convert Yasuda-san’s illustrations to 3D.
Yasuda: Oh no, I get it (laughs).
Habu: Because he always draws stuff in such an in-your-face manner, every time he drew something new, I ended up saying something like “huh? Isn’t this part a little different?” (laughs) Actually, if you look at the main illustration, the protagonists are wearing their gloves in slightly different ways, and their T-shirt designs are slightly different, and such.

–Is that so (laughs)…You’re right.
Yasuda:
When I was doing the composition for this, if I had the girl put out her right hand, it would look sloppy, so I changed it.
Habu: In this case, while we were supervising the illustration, we probably should have told the illustrator “please change it”, but…
Yasuda: But it went through anyway. Let’s just go with this.
Everyone: (laughs)

Habu: If you interfere too much with Yasuda-san’s in-your-face style, I think it’d kill the entire charm of the illustration, so I didn’t dare touch it. The players say something like “this is off!” at certain times, but I think the first priority is for it to be cool. Also…for instance, this character, Mirei.
Yasuda: Ah. You mean her legs?
Habu: In her actual character design, Mirei was originally wearing boots, so normally she should be wearing boots in this illustration. But then here Yasuda-san went ahead and drew her toes protruding in black tights, and I think he wanted to capture that feeling of stretching tights in the illustration.
Yasuda: Exactly.
Habu: When you think of this illustration as something that should be introducing the character, the fact she’s not wearing the boots is wrong. But if you kill the fanservice element, then you might as well have not asked Yasuda-san to have drawn this at all, and so we decided that it’s okay to not have the boots for this one.
Yasuda: Of course, there’s the fanservice factor, but the white boots would have overlapped over the white numbers on the bottom and it would have made the picture look sloppy, so I did think through this. (laughs) But I really did, in the end, want to show off the tights.

–So that was it, after all. (laughs)
Yasuda:
I’ll be honest, I think that came out really well (laughs).
Everyone: (laughs)

The cyber feeling coming from tights

–How did the production process go?
Habu:
First, our company writes down character setup and profile in prose. We usually do this at the start of game production, and since we make this request before the plot has been fully fleshed out, when Yasuda-san prods us with “what will this character do in the end?” we can’t say anything but “we’re still working on it, little by little…” (awkward laugh) But Yasuda-san says he wants to design them while putting some proper thought into what kind of character they are, and we have to sort of vaguely dodge him and ask him to draw it anyway.

–The protagonist’s clothing has changed considerably from the initial draft
Yasuda:
The game concept itself was not quite as cyber-filled as it is now. It was a bit closer to reality, so I thought it’d be better to dress him in normal clothes. But Habu-san requested me to give it more of a “cyber” feeling. There was a bit of a dispute on what we were going to do about the sweater.
Habu: Did I ask you to give him a T-shirt?
Yasuda: No, I decided the sweater was a bit unfashionable.
Habu: Ah, right. Because there were other long-sleeved characters, there was some talk how a hoodie or a jersey wouldn’t give a proper sense the seasons, so we wanted him to wear a sweater. The protagonist originally had a fairly Japanese-style design, but I asked Yasuda-san if he could change it to a more cyber-like one. Yasuda-san was the one who gave us the ○ and × on the shirt. If you asked “why is the ○× there?”, the answer would be something like “there’s no particular reason for it.”
Yasuda: But on the other hand, it got implemented on things like the logo, and I’m grateful for that. You would usually use 0 and 1 to give things a digital feel, but I consciously used ○ and ×, because I think it sticks out more as a design.
Habu: In this sense, I think this is the kind of thing you’d call Yasuda-san’s “in-your-face style of design taking priority over conformity”. (laughs)

–Which character’s design changed the most?
Yasuda:
The one that caused the most dispute was Kuremi.
Habu: Indeed.
Yasuda: It was a dispute about color.
Habu: The color of her tights. In the first rough draft Yasuda-san drew, she was wearing full-length tights. Here’s the rough draft, but…

–Ah! You’re right.
Yasuda:
I think the tights give off a cyber feeling.

–It gives off a very snug feeling.
Habu:
At first, she was wearing pink tights, but we thought there were too many characters wearing tights, the hero’s hair was red, and the heroine’s hair was also red, and we didn’t want Kuremi to blend in with everything else when she wore red-tinted tights, so we asked him to change it.

–Other than that, Yasuda-san, was there a character you had a particular attachment to, or was easy to draw?
Yasuda:
I had fun with the characters from the last game, I felt like I was saying something like “hey, why are you guys here again?” I understand Mirei, but why is Rina here?
Habu: Well…I can’t just tell you that. (laughs)
Yasuda: I’m guessing Mirei’s involved in the plot, but Rina doesn’t get involved, does she?
Habu: She does, a little.
Yasuda: She has!? I love Rina. I thought she was an amazingly good character in the last work. She’s a really obnoxious character, but that obnoxiousness is a defining trait of hers. So when I draw her, I end up thinking that I have to draw her poses as obnoxiously cute as possible. (laughs)
Everyone: (laughs)
Yasuda: The characters from the last game really are easy for me to draw.
Habu: When Rina’s initial design came up, since the bikini left her exposed, people within the company were saying things like “is this okay?” The CERO rating of the series had always been “A” up until then, and there was concern over whether she’d cause it to become a “B”1. In the end, the company decided that it was okay even if we got a “B”, and so we only asked Yasuda-san to make a few adjustments.2
Yasuda: Because Rina was an new character for Digimon World: Re:Digitize Decode, I thought I’d have to make her grab the audience as much as possible. So I gave her the design she has now. I was also working partially under the assumption that they’d ask for modifications, so I was shocked. “They actually let it through!”
Everyone: (laughs)
Yasuda: And that’s why sometimes I actually end up being the one to go “okay, I’ll make some changes” (laughs).

Matching the realistic cityscape and Yasuda-san’s illustrations

–What kind of image did you want for the boxart?
Yasuda:
Actually, this picture wasn’t originally intended for the boxart. We originally intended to have it as the main promotional illustration, so at the time I drew it with a focus on having a catchy and bustling feeling, and in the end ended up settling into a form that made it look like a boxart design.
Habu: When I saw the design, I was so impressed, I thought, “we could just use this for the boxart.”
Yasuda: I’m glad the PlayStation Vita box shape is vertically oriented.

–Which means?
Yasuda:
For instance, when the box is square, and you say you want to use the same art for the posters and the box, you’ll be cutting off the top and bottom, and you’ll have to draw while keeping that in mind from the very beginning, and it’s difficult. But I did my best while drawing it, worrying about what we were going to do if we couldn’t ultimately find a place for the logo on it. (laughs)
Everyone: (laughs)

–If you look at the illustration, there’s a convenient place where the logo fits.
Yasuda:
Even back when I was making the rough draft, I set aside a space for where the logo should be. In the past, I didn’t think too hard about it, but when I began to take on jobs for game packages and other similar things, I would be told things like “it’ll be hard to find a place to put a logo on it like this”, and I realized that it might be better for me to have a better sense of awareness about this in the composition stage.

–Now that Yasuda-san’s illustrations are in full 3D for this game, how did they come out?
Yasuda:
The characters are a highlight, but I particularly thought, “they really did a good job making the background look realistic.” My characters have little density and not a lot of distinct components, and there’s nothing particularly iconic that sticks out about them, so if the background looks cheap, the whole screen looks cheap. But the background is rendered properly here, it makes the whole image come out better, and I’m grateful for that.
Habu: Because I really do like Durarara!!, I wanted the image to really match Yasuda-san’s illustrations. A realistic Tokyo matches well with Yasuda-san’s characters, so I thought it would be a good fit, and we put a lot of focus into the backgrounds as a result.

–I see. Incidentally, does Ikebukuro3 appear in this game?
Habu:
Ikebukuro does not appear. (laughs)
Everyone: (laughs)
Habu: It was a candidate. Also, as far as the models go, I’d often heard Yasuda say, “My illustrations don’t really suit the Digimon franchise, do they?” So we decided to use 3D models for this game, for this very reason. In Digimon World: Re:Digitize, we used Yasuda-san’s illlustrations as-is, but when they were put next to the Digimon, they felt mismatched.

–Ah, I see.
Habu:
The Digimon were drawn with thick lines like those from American comics, and there was a strong disparity between them and Yasuda-san’s thin lines. Therefore, to create a sense of unity on the screen, we decided to make all of the characters into full 3D.
Yasuda: But things like the new Omegamon illustration are really cool. It doesn’t feel like something out of an American comic. Actually, it’s difficult to draw Digimon in a way that makes them look cool. Cute Digimon are easy to draw, but not the cool ones. The presence of a humanoid Digimon is strong, but if you think too hard about that while you draw, you’ll overemphasize them too much. Omegamon, in particular, has different colors on his left and right hands, and because their shapes are different, I think he was drawn with a very good balance.
Habu: Fundamentally, WiZ Co., Ltd. designs the Digimon for the franchise, and so for this game we left the Digimon designs to WiZ. In accordance with this particular entry of Digimon Story, we asked someone named Haito Nakano-san to draw the Digimon in the key visuals.
Yasuda: When it comes to mechanical-looking Digimon, balance is important. The balance on these legs is the best. It’s amazing.

–This Omegamon certainly gives off a new impression of modern style.
Habu:
It does. It’s deeply coated with the taste of American comics at its base, and aspects like the shadows and the solid color paint assert themselves with a proper feeling of an official picture. But Kenji Watanabe from WiZ, who supervises everything Digimon, still has to have everything, even the current illustrations, run by him.

Wanting people to enjoy Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth as a new series

–Yasuda-san, you’ve become involved with various things in the game industry, but have you always liked games?
Yasuda:
I’ve always been playing games. I’ve always been playing RPGs, and recently I’ve been playing FPS games as well. I don’t really get to go out a lot, so games are like stress relief to me.

–Are there any games you’ve speedrun?
Yasuda:
When I decide to speedrun a game, I speedrun all the way. I play things like 3D dungeon games, too. I like Wizardry and Dungeon Master, and, more recently, Dungeon Travelers. I think more people should know about Dungeon Travelers. It’s a really amazing, well-balanced game. 3D dungeon games are the type where you try and play them when they first come out, the balance will turn out to be difficult-ended after all, and even a solid work gives off an insufficient impression. I think games like Etrian Odyssey are built really well.

–Now that we’ve heard about Yasuda-san’s gaming life, please leave a final message for our readers.
Yasuda:
I only know a little about this game, but it’s a really well-made game. If you sit down in your spare time and decide to have some fun, this game will give you your fun. Whenever it comes to entertainment media, that part about deciding to have fun is very important. If you decide from the start that you’re going to be bored anyway, no matter how great something is, you’re not going to have fun with it. So if you go in without bias in your feelings, then I hope you enjoy this new Digimon Story entry. Please, by all means, send your impressions to Bandai Namco. Everything, whether you liked or disliked it. After all, responses are very important.


Translator's notes
  1. The CERO rating is the equivalent to the ESRB or PEGI in Japan. In this case, A refers to all ages, B refers to ages 12 and up. []
  2. Incidentally, Digimon World: Re:Digitize Decode ended up getting an A after all, and Cyber Sleuth (the actual game aimed exclusively at adults) ended up getting the B. []
  3. Ikebukuro = Refers to the fact that the other work mentioned that Yasuda draws for, Durarara!!, takes place in the Ikebukuro ward of Tokyo. []

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