Thursday, May 27, 2021

Shenmue Characters Based on Actual People: Susumu Aketagawa, Takeshi Hirai, Akira Nagai, Yoshihito Nishii, Hiroaki Takeuchi, Manabu Takimoto, Hiroshi Tamura, Yoshihiko Tashiro, Hidekaze Yukawa, Kenta Shimizu, Jin Xin Nan

Several characters that appear in the Shenmue games have in-game models based on real-life people.  This is not surprising in the case of Shenmue III, where several higher-tier backers were included in the game as a reward for their pledges. What may not be so readily realized is that several of the people Ryo meets in the first game of the series, as workers or residents of Yokosuka, were also modeled on actual people, including but not limited to members of the project development staff and people associated with Sega.

Today's post presents the findings of research to identify and gather together as many of these characters from the early games in the series as possible.

Let's get started!

Characters Based on Actual People: Shenmue I

Susumu Aketagawa

In the game: He is the hard-working owner of Yamaji Soba Noodles in Dobuita who is now considering retirement.

In real life: The name and model of this character are those of the voice & recording director for Shenmue I and II, Susumu Aketagawa. He was invited to provide his own voice for the game, but  declined, commenting with a laugh in a 2019 interview that "I wasn't willing to go that far".

When he worked on the Shenmue project, he was approximately the same age as his character in the game, although they do not share the same birthday date. It is unknown whether he is a big fan of soba noodles, although he did mention in the interview that he used to enjoy going for a lunch of boiled whitebait on rice at a restaurant near the Sega offices.

Left: Susumu Aketagawa in the game is the owner of Yamaji Soba Noodles in Dobuita. Right: directing a recording session for Shenmue around 1998 (top-right) and in a 2019 interview (bottom-right).

Aketagawa-san's profile: retirement from the noodle business beckons.

Face on the Energy Drink Advertisements

While not a full character in the game, this cameo deserves a special mention.

In the game: At the Abe Store and Tomato Convenience Store, poster advertisements can be seen for an energy drink called Hararon - the drinks can even be seen through the glass doors of the refrigerator in the convenience store, although they can't be bought. The face of a smiling, bushy-haired man can be seen on these posters.

The broken energy drink vending machine outside the Abe Store

In real life: the face on the posters is the likeness of popular actor Hiroshi Fujioka, who provided the voice acting and motion capture for Iwao Hazuki in the game and also played the character of Segata Sanshiro to promote the Sega Saturn in a series of commercials.

These in-game poster advertisements are a parody of an actual television commercial Fujioka appeared in back in 1985 for an energy drink called Real Gold.

Top: Hiroshi Fujioka's likeness on an energy drink poster outside the Abe Store in Shenmue (left) vs the original 1985 television commercial (right). Bottom: Fujioka as Segata Sanshiro in 1997 (left), and during a present-day event (right).

Takeshi Hirai

In the game: Takeshi Hirai is the owner of the MJQ Jazz Bar in Dobuita, where Ryo is challenged to sink a pool shoot by a couple of U.S. base workers in exchange for information.

In real life: Takeshi  "Tak" Hirai was the lead System Programmer for the first Shenmue games and is credited as an "early contributor" in the credits of Shenmue III. Hirai-san went on to found his own company, Neilo, in 2010. While his namesake in the game has a love of jazz music, Tak's declared hobby is underwater photography. 

Left: in the game, Takeshi Hirai operates the MJQ Jazz Bar in Dobuita. Right: Takeshi Hirai himself in 2005 (top-left) and present day (top-right).

Takeshi Hirai's game character profile: dissatisfaction with certain types of customers may be the reason for his ceaseless scowl.

Akira Nagai

In the game: The head of the shady Nagai Industries fronting for a Yakuza office in the game takes both his character model and full name from the senior managing director at the time Shenmue was released. The resemblance is striking.

Left: Akira Nagai, the boss of Nagai Industries in Shenmue. Right: in real life, a senior executive officer at Sega at the time of Shenmue's release.

Did Akira Nagai at Sega also tell his subordinates chivalrous stories?

Update: sadly, Akira Nagai passed away in November 2022 (tweet from Yuji Naka).

Yoshihito Nishii

In the game: Yoshihito Nishii is a regular patron of the Slot House in Dobuita.

In real life: The character was modeled on a Sega staff designer who had been working on the Shenmue project since the earlier Saturn version, Masato Nishimura. He is credited as a 3D Background Designer in both the first two games, and was also in charge of the capsule toy designs. While a new name was chosen for the character, it does share the first kanji of his surname: "Nishi".

The character model of Yoshihito Nishii (left) and Nishimura's selfie in 2018 with his on-screen character model (right - source tweet).

Trivia: Although the official profile for Yoshihito Nishii describes his hopes at winning big on the slot machines; Nishimura tweeted in 2019 that he has in fact never played a slot machine. He has also jokingly claimed that he doesn't think his actual facial features are as strongly-defined as those seen in the game's model.

Yoshihito Nishii's profile: his love for slot machines is not something shared by the developer upon who his model is based.

Trivia: Masato Nishimura's nickname is まぢん (Mazin / Majin), and as a nod to him this was used as the product branding for the bottles of milk in Shenmue. The same brand can also be spied on cartons of juice in Shenmue 2.
Shenmue's milk brand is taken from Nishimura's nickname.

Hiroaki Takeuchi

In the game: Hiroaki Takeuchi works alongside Ryo as a forklift operator at Alpha Trading, taking part in the morning forklift races with him.

In real life: Hiroaki Takeuchi is an animation and film producer who is a trusted friend and adviser of Yu Suzuki and who has had a deep involvement with the Shenmue series since the beginning, including as animation producer for Shenmue 3. He also provided the voice acting for his own character in the first game.

Hiroaki Takeuchi in the game (left) and in real life (top-right: during development of Shenmue in 1998/1999, bottom-right: Shenmue 3 interview video in 2015).

Hiroaki Takeuchi's character profile

Manabu Takimoto

In the game: Manabu Takimoto is a beleaguered architect who can often be found at the constructions site in Sakuragaoka, working on a project for a friend.

In real life: Thankfully, Manabu Takimoto is a much more successful architect in real life, and runs his own architectural company. He was the environment designer for all three Shenmue games released to date, creating incredibly-detailed and realistic buildings and architecture.
Official profile: a companion sadly lost due to Lan Di's visit.

The character of Manabu Takimoto in the game (left) and in real life (top-right: 1999 magazine article, bottom-right: 2015 interview video for Shenmue 3).

Hiroshi Tamura

The owner of Tamura Butcher Shop in Shenmue is Hiroshi Tamura, whose character's appearance is modeled on Hiroshi Asou, who was the Shenmue Production Manager. Asou worked on a number of games and ports at Sega, particularly for the Mega Drive / Genesis (including Virtua Fighter 2) and Saturn. He is now a producer at Gotch Technologies which specializes in highly-accurate ports of classic arcade games.

Trivia: the ID used inside the software for this character is "ASOU", matching his real-life surname.

Left: Hiroshi Tamura, who runs the butcher's shop in Dobuita. Right: the character's model was based on Hiroshi Asou, who was Production Manager for Shenmue (top-right: 1985 magazine article; bottom-right: giving a lecture for college students in 2014!).

It is unknown whether Hiroshi Asou shared Tamura-san's love of fighting when young - however he has certainly worked on fighting games.

Yoshihiko Tashiro

In the game: Yoshihiko Tashiro is a rather plump worker at New Yokosuka harbor.

In real life: The model for this character is based on Sega's Hiroshi Noguchi, who is credited as Motion Camera & Animations coordinator for the first game, and who also served later as the localization director for Shenmue I & II. He could sometimes be seen cos-playing as Dou Niu on the website.

Left: the character of Yoshihiko Tashiro works at the harbor. Right: His model was based on Hiroshi Noguchi (top-right: cos-playing as Dou Niu in 2004; bottom-right: interview at TGS 2018).

Yoshihiko Tashiro's profile

Hidekazu Yukawa

Hidekazu Yukawa was the senior managing director at Sega during the Dreamcast era and stars as a version of himself in What's Shenmue (a demo game that was distributed in Japan prior to the game's full release) as the character that Ryo promises to protect.

In addition, there are a couple of small easter eggs included in the main game that allow Ryo to see him briefly if certain conditions are fulfilled, as described below.

How to meet Yukawa in Shenmue:

At Takara Sushi:

  • Enter the prize raffle at the Abe Store multiple times until you have both types of Mr. Yukawa capsule toy: the Mr. Yukawa Happi and the Mr. Yukawa Suit. These can be won as the 2nd and 3rd prizes.
  • You can then see Yukawa making sushi behind the bar at Takara Sushi on the 9th of any month after 8pm. If the version of the game being played has Japanese audio, the conversation button is enabled: Ryo will say in Japanese, "You're Yukawa-san, right?" to which he replies "Oh no!" (these lines are reused from the What's Shenmue demo which had only Japanese dialogue); he will run out through the staff doorway.
The Shenmue Dojo has recorded some great footage of this easter egg:

At Bar Yokosuka:
  • Trigger the cut scene where Nozomi reveals her feelings for Ryo. To do so: after your first trip to the harbor, but before you get the sword handguard, return home by 7pm and wait to answer her call.
  • On the following evening after 11pm, visit Bar Yokosuka. This will trigger another cut scene in which Yukawa can be observed nursing a drink by himself.

Yukawa promoting SEGA batteries ("long-lasting") at the Tomato Convenience Store

Hidekazu Yukawa's game character profile - "feared"?!

Kenta Shimizu

In the game: Kenta Shimizu works as a surveyor at the harbor (and often claims to be "too tired" if Ryo attempts to speak with him).

In real life: This character model is thought to be based on Kenji Miyawaki, the character designer for the Shenmue series.

Left: the character of Kenta Shimizu in Shenmue. Right: Kenji Miyawaki in 1999 (top-right) and 2015 (bottom-right).

Kenta Shimizu's profile: rude and self-centered!

In fact, this is not the only character for which Kenji Miyawaki was the model - he also makes an appearance as another character in Shenmue II, as we shall see in the next entry.

Characters Based on Actual People: Shenmue II

Jin Xin Nan

In the game: In Wan Chai's White Dynasty Quarter is a 30-year-old guy named Jin Xin Nan, who is wearing a black tee-shirt with the words "I LOVE JET CITY"  and a picture of a rather creepy clown's face. He doesn't seem to be running a stand however, and is just standing next to some crates.

In real life: As hinted at in the previous entry, this character is also based on the Shenmue character designer Kenji Miyawaki, with the resemblance here leaving little room for doubt.

The character of Jin Xin Nan in Shenmue II (left) and Kenji Miyawaki (right).


That wraps up our summary of in-game characters based on real people in the first two Shenmue games - how many did you already know? If you have information on any others not mentioned, please leave a comment!

This topic was selected by the Phantom River Stone blog patrons via our monthly poll on the Phantom River Stone Patreon and was available for early access.

The character profile images in this post are from the Suka Pass app, using the new screenshot sharing feature that will be released as an update in the near future!

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  1. Dark Arc Shenmue (and not too far-fetched from what could've actually happened)

    » Manabu Takimoto's cat (kitty's mommy) gets run-over;
    » Megumi and her sister bury the mommy cat at the construction site;
    » Not knowing the whereabouts of his cat, Manabu and Yohei Sakamoto spend their
    mornings chatting and laughing, standing above the buried cat.

    Another thing! Based on some of the characters' profiles, it might be possible to "guess" cut content:

    "Naomichi Tsukamoto (Japanese: 塚本直道) is a thug who can be seen wandering around Dobuita with his sworn brother Akio Enoki, or his other classmate, Takuya Maruyama, looking for trouble and picking fights with people."

    Considering this description and the gang having a dedicated C.G.I portrait in which Naomichi and Takuya are featured, that easy-to-miss fight at the back of Wakaba Apartments may have been a late implementation/afterthought. Perhaps the original intention was to have them wandering around too, just like the other gang members (Mai's "friends").

    Having said that, seeing the girls hang out with Enoki and Nagashima instead of the other two guys also feels like a later change, directly correlated to that apartment fight -- the two had to be included in the game, somehow, just like others making an appearance later, in II.

    1. Interesting point about the difference between the backstory description and the "wandering around" that is not shown in the game. Which is the part where we see Mai and/or friends hanging with Enoki & Nagashima? I enjoyed your "dark arc" take on the mommy cat's burial place!

    2. The two girls (Rena & Yumiko) can be seen hanging around with them after 7 p.m. at Wakaba Apartments.

      It's a bit strange (or maybe for story-telling consistency) that Mai is never found roaming around.
      She could've been added at the end of Disc 3, when Goro is hopping around joyfully, since it's implied that she changed her ways, willing to help Hisaka at the stand.

      Or even seeing her walk around Dobuita with her girls, after she's introduced/"unlocked" in Disc 2.

      Ryo: "You shouldn't steal from your sister..."
      Mai: "Don't be such a band-aid!"
      Rena: "Bomberboy!"
      Yumiko: "Harakira!"

    3. Haha, those insults! That's interesting about Rena and Yumiko, I don't think I've seen them at the Wakaba Apartments.

  2. Oh, I forgot!

    Enoki: "Despite his nature, he has a soft spot for animals and goes to the Yamanose Shrine around midnight to feed the orphaned kitten."

    It'd be really amazing if this was still hidden deep within the code, and even more mind-blowing if re-implemented, just like the 'Sure Ryo Can'.

    1. (It took me a few seconds to get the 'Sure Ryo Can'...) If it's not already hidden in there, it would be a great one for the Dragon & Phoenix project to include!