Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Famitsu Interview with Yu Suzuki, Masaya Matsukaze & Yu Kiyozono | Shenmue Anime Release Commemoration

Shenmue the Animation commenced online distribution in Japan in weekly episodes from April 2022, and on the TOKYO MX television channel in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area from the beginning of May.

To commemorate the anime's release, Famitsu.com conducted an interview with YS Net's Yu Suzuki, creator of the Shenmue series and supervising director of the anime; Yu Kiyozono, producer of the anime; and Masaya Matsukaze, the voice actor who plays the main character Ryo Hazuki in both the game and animation.

The interview was held on 29th April 2022, on the day of the livestream talk event that was held in Yokosuka. Our translation of the interview starts below.

Yu Suzuki's Supervision Started With the Roof...

This was the first time I had spoken with Suzuki and Kiyozono since our online interview about the announcement of the anime adaptation.

Kiyozono: So we meet at last in real life! [laughs]

Q: Matsukaze-san, how did you hear about the Shenmue animation adaption?

Matsukaze: If I calculate backwards, the anime project must have already been in the works since the production of Shenmue III, but I didn't know about it when I was working on the game.

Thanks to the fans, and the efforts of Yu-san, Shenmue III had been released at last. Just as I was reflecting how lucky I was to be alive, and that it was truly a miracle, I was approached about the anime adaptation. It was well after the project was underway.

Following on from the release of Shenmue III, I was thrilled that the miracle of Shenmue was not over yet! I was thrilled.

Q: As a fan, it felt miraculous to me that Shenmue III was developed and released, and now it has been made into an anime - so it has truly been a series of miracles. What kind of response have you been receiving about the Shenmue anime?

Matsukaze: The Shenmue series was a game that took on the world in full 3D and it realized high-quality 3D graphics in the Dreamcast era. Now, it has gone against the times, being animated in 2D with a style that retains the atmosphere of the 1980s, which is wonderful. I am also astonished by the high ratings it has received since being released. I'm surprised at the appreciation people have for it.

Suzuki: Shenmue fans have always been warmly supportive. However, after Shenmue III was released, I felt that the buzz about Shenmue dropped away a bit. And so I'm glad that we were able to propose the idea of making an anime. I realized the importance of the fans' continuous support. It makes me very happy.

Kiyozono: Shenmue has many fans not only in Japan but also in other countries, and its anime adaption was initiated for distribution overseas. Since it was created for such passionate fans, in a way I had anticipated a positive response, but it turned out to be even greater than I had expected.

I think the reason it has been accepted so well is because there are many fans who have grown up over the past couple of decades who haven't lost their love for Shenmue. Moreover, compared to the past, the culture of viewing Japanese anime has taken hold overseas.

Q: Oh, yes, indeed when Shenmue I and Shenmue II were released, high-speed Internet was not yet widespread, and video sites of course did not yet exist. So it makes sense for an anime adaption now.

Kiyozono: With this anime adaptation, we can see a cultural link where the anime can be enjoyed alongside fans of the games.

Suzuki: It would be great if there is a connection between the two going forward. I had been thinking about what would be next for Shenmue, and just then along came the anime. I hope that this will lead on to another "next" in some form.

Matsukaze, Suzuki and Kiyozono holding Shenmue Anime promotional items

Q: We look forward to hearing more! I understand that Shenmue the Animation was released first overseas where it is just about to come to an end. Has it also been highly evaluated by overseas fans?

Kiyozono: Shenmue the Animation is streamed overseas on Crunchyroll, on a weekly episodic basis, just like in Japan. The ratings for each episode are very high, and has been close to the maximum of 5 for each episode.

Suzuki: Oh, I'm glad to hear that.

Matsukaze: If it were a restaurant, it would be rated as one of the best establishments!

Kiyozono: When I heard the weekly ratings, I almost couldn't believe my ears at how good they were [laughs]. I think a major reason is how enthusiastic the overseas fans are towards it.

Matsukaze: The voice actors of the anime version also worked very hard on it, and I think that also had a big impact.

Q: I believe the anime can be watched with Japanese voices (and foreign-language subtitles), even in the overseas version.

Kiyozono: Yes, you can choose between English and Japanese voices. Recently, there are a great number of fans who choose to enjoy anime with the Japanese voice actors.

Suzuki: It's great that there are people who want to hear the original voices. With the games, everything had to be dubbed, but I am glad to know that there are people who want to enjoy the original sound.

Matsukaze: I'm called "Shenmue's original sound guy" by people overseas [laughs].

Q: [laughs] The animation had a very fast-paced story progression, and I felt that there were aspects that I was able to enjoy even more because I already knew the story. Was this effective pacing done with game fans in mind?

Kiyozono: The reason it has such a good tempo is because we wanted to wrap up the story in a single season, and also because we wanted to include lots of different things, so as a result... we were forced to speed it up. [smiles wryly]

Q: It has a lot packed into it.

Kiyozono: Even before we started production, there were differences of opinion as to whether we should do a one-season story about Yokosuka alone or whether we should include the story of Shenmue II from Hong Kong as far as Kowloon Walled City. I had wanted to do one season just in Yokosuka, but ended up feeling that I did after all want to include the story of Shenmue II as well.

Since Shenmue II's story is so large in scale, there were elements of Shenmue I that I couldn't fit into the anime. For example, I really wanted to have given more onscreen time to Nozomi Harasaki, one of the heroines, and bring out her appeal. So I channeled all my regrets about that into the ending sequence illustrations.

Nozomi Harasaki, from the ending credits

Q: Harasaki looks cute in the ending.

Kiyozono: One of the staff is a very talented artist. She was not involved in the production of the main story, but I entrusted her with the entire ending.

Matsukaze: The main story is fast-paced and packed with content, while the ending, on the other hand, is restful with still images, which is very nice. I thought to myself, "This is exactly what an anime ending should be!".

Suzuki: But with Harasaki in the ending, I just had to correct her nose and lips.

Matsukaze: What? I didn't realize such strict checks were carried out!

Kiyozono: Indeed, they were. Yu-san corrected them directly himself, by hand.

Q: What kind of modifications did you make?

Suzuki: The creator is different, so it's inevitable that things are portrayed in different ways, and in many ways this is a merit of anime. However, there are some parts that I was particular about. The nose and lips were a bit wrong, so I had to fix that. But I'm glad it's a wonderful Harasaki.

Kiyozono: Yu-san oversaw and adjusted many details. For example, the roof of the dojo. It was the very first thing he reviewed, and he immediately pointed it out. He made it clear with a drawing there on the spot, and I remember being surprised and thinking, "Oh, so that's what he meant". At the same time, I honestly thought, "This could be trouble!".

Q: How do you mean?

Kiyozono: The fact that his first correction started with a building's roof at the very beginning of the work made me wonder how much of everything we were going to make from here would be corrected! I was terrified [laughs wryly]. I was determined to make sure everything was done properly or we would be in big trouble. I told myself I mustn't let anything go unnoticed, right down to the roofs in the background! [laughs]

Q: Was there something wrong with the dojo roof?

Suzuki: The Hazuki residence dojo has a back story of being a converted Buddhist temple. Japanese shrines and temples are divided into private residential areas and publicly-accessible areas. And I noticed that the orientation of the roof of the main house was wrong. Before the modification, the roof was like the one on a Western-style modern house. The old-fashioned Japanese character of the building was lost, so I asked for it to be corrected.

Hazuki residence exterior

Matsukaze: It's the first time you've heard that the Hazuki residence was converted from a temple, isn't it? [laughs]

Q: Yes.

Matsukaze: [laughs] But, if you ask me, with the Hazuki house being on a hill, it's a very shrine-like location. I had been thinking, "Why does he have to climb this hill, Ryo must have a hard time every day." But it all adds up.

Suzuki: If it were any other building, I wouldn't be so concerned about it, but it's the Hazuki residence. I thought, "I might as well point it out".

Kiyozono: And you also commented, for example, on the size of Goro Mihashi's pompadour hairstyle.

Q: That's... pretty important [laughs]. Speaking of Goro, the character of his girlfriend, Mai Sawano, was more active in the anime than in the game.

Kiyozono: I think the main reason for this was the desire to have more active scenes for female characters in the anime as a whole. In the anime version, Shenhua is seen in glimpses since the first episode, but even so, there are not many female characters in the first half of the anime. I also wanted to create a more "perky" atmosphere for the voice recording studio, so I increased the number of Mai-chan's appearances.

Q: "Perky"... that's a very 1980's expression. [Note: in Japanese, the word used is kyapi kyapi]

Suzuki: I think a spin-off work could be done with Goro and Mai.

Matsukaze: Oh, that sounds great! In terms of the game, the relationship between Goro and Mai is something you don't get a handle on until you've progressed through events, and even then it's just a side story, but I was glad that it was included in the anime.

Masaya Matsukaze shows off his Ryo Hazuki jacket (from his Twitter account)

Q: In the game, it's a sub-event that begins with Hisaka Sawano of Hoku Hoku Lunches asking for your help with her sister Mai, who is about to go off the rails.

Matsukaze: Yes, that's right. Also, in Shenmue III, we get to hear later in the story over the phone that Goro and Mai are getting along well.

Kiyozono: We managed to incorporate this relationship into the anime. If I had produced the anime after having seen only Shenmue I, I might not have featured it. It was only because I had experienced Shenmue III that I was able to touch on Goro and Mai a little.

Matsukaze: In Bailu Village shown in the first episode, when I saw the village's tall watch tower, I thought, "Wow!". In the prior two games, we didn't know about that tower. Speaking of Shenhua, the anime has taken care to portray her also as she appears in the latest game [Shenmue III], although she's most often associated with standing on a cliff or running around in Guilin.

Q: Did Shenmue III make it easier for you to recreate the story for the animation production?

Kiyozono: We had the opportunity to be shown Shenmue III during its development. The main focus of the anime was the story up to Shenmue II, but we also wanted to include elements of what would happen later on. In particular, the scenario writers want to know the outcome for the characters before structuring the story, so I think it really helped to have had Shenmue III, as a continuation of Shenmue II, from the time the anime was created, even if it does not complete the story to its end.

Q: I have the impression that Nozomi Harasaki is more deeply integrated into the story in the anime than in the game. Yu-san, in Shenmue I had you originally planned for her to be involved in the story to the extent seen in the anime?

Suzuki: I think she was just right, for the game. She is an old-fashioned, demure female character, a classic type.

Q: When I watched the anime, I was reminded that even now, the design of her clothing and so on is cute, and doesn't feel old-fashioned at all.

Suzuki: I don't know what female players would think, but the game had many male players, so I was mindful of costumes that would be popular with men. Also, I was thinking of the era in which it takes place. Because it was 1986, I used a checkered skirt and a "fisherman's sweater" to incorporate the fashion trends from back then.

Q: I see. By the way, was there the thought of casting Megumi Yasu, the voice actress from the original game?

Kiyozono: Nozomi was originally voiced by Megumi Yasu, wasn't she... I was hoping to have the same major characters in the anime as in the game, such as Matsukaze-san [wry smile].

Suzuki: And even in the games, there are people like Shenhua and Ren who have changed between Shenmue II and Shenmue III.

Matsukaze: If we go there, we'd have to have Hiroshi Fujioka as Iwao Hazuki!

The Voice Actors Studied Shenmue Of Their Own Accord

Matsukaze: Although there was no directive from the production team, the voice actors studied Shenmue on their own initiative before attending the recording sessions. Everyone had checked it out beforehand.

Guizhang and a few other characters are the only ones whose voice actors were chosen through auditions. That may be why Ryuichi Kijima, who plays Guizhang in the anime version, sounds very similar to Tetsuya Sakai, who played him in the original game. The rest of the cast also had voices that were very similar to those of the original cast.

As another example, in the game the character of Mai had a slightly husky voice, and so Mari Hino who played her in the anime, used a slightly rough voice. Yoshimitsu Shimoyama, who played Chai, and Hayato Kimura, who played Goro, also said that they based their performances on the originals. In the original game, Goro was played by Takahiro Sakurai, who also played Lan Di, while Chai was played by Issei Futamata. Both of these veteran voice actors are still very much active in the industry. I sensed that the anime voice actors were under the kind of pressure they don't usually feel, taking over the role of these characters from such veterans [laughs].

Q: It's amazing that they chose to learn about Shenmue voluntarily. Yu-san, did you see the recording studio?

Suzuki: Yes. For the game, I had been looking for spontaneous performances to bring out the essence, but for the anime, the focus is more on making the character memorable, so I wanted to utilize the voice actors' natural expressive abilities. I gave very few orders, and I felt that it was fine to have a different Mai than in the game, for example. I thought it would be better for the animation for her to be more free and easygoing.

Q: So you didn't give any specific instructions?

Suzuki: At the auditioning stage, I listened to a variety of voice tones, and requested the type I thought fitted best, so there was no need for me to give instructions at the recording.

Soundtrack Confirmed!

Q: On the topic of sound, the BGM during the story is also wonderful. The game's main theme appears in guitar arrangements and ballad style. Is there any plan to release a soundtrack?

Kiyozono: Anime soundtracks can be quite a challenge. Having said that... we will be releasing one. I would say it's only because it is Shenmue that we're able to do so. Please wait for further information.

Matsukaze: Speaking of background music, during the production of Shenmue I, the Sega sound team used to come up with several new songs every week. When I think about it now, that was amazing.

Suzuki: Ah, it was really an amazing time.

Matsukaze: But, Yu-san! You used to reject those new songs one after another, saying "Not this one". I remember the sound team members were almost dying because of the quota of 4 new songs per person per week. [laughs] I remember him saying, "This one's no good, this one's no good... oh, as an example, this song's good, isn't it?" The song in question was one by Hikaru Utada, and was a big hit at the time.

Suzuki: I used to tell them, "You have to make songs that are as good as this one" [laughs].

Matsukaze: The sound people were at a loss, saying, "We have to surpass Hikaru Utada" [laughs].

Suzuki: In the case of a game, you don't have to write an entire song. Ultimately, all you need is a phrase that fits the scene.
Since the interview: the anime soundtrack has been officially announced (in Japan only, so far) for release on 3rd August, 2022. It will contain 33 tracks, including the opening theme, UNDEAD-NOID, and closing theme, Sympathy. It can be pre-ordered on some Japanese sites such as Rakuten Books for 3300 yen. Note: if ordering in Japan, note that it may be necessary to use a forwarding company.

A High Bar to Clear

Q: I was surprised that Ryo's voice doesn't sound any different in age compared to his voice in Shenmue I more than 20 years ago.

Matsukaze: I've heard very different opinions from people about of my voice acting. Some say, "You've become much better," or "You haven't changed at all," while others say, "Even though Matsukaze has improved a lot now, he's intentionally reverting back to the Matsukaze of that time".

For those who played the game, it's likely that Ryo was you yourself. The impressions and memories of playing the game stay with you as impressions of his voice. Therefore, those who talk about Ryo's voice are not talking about Masaya Matsukaze's voice. As I was recording for Shenmue the Animation, I was reminded that people loved me through that close relationship between myself and Ryo.

Q: When recording for the anime, did you try to stay as close to the original games as possible?

Matsukaze: I am in fact getting older, so I paid attention to that. However, when the games were developed, my younger voice was much higher. So, for the game version, I intentionally lowered my voice to make Ryo sound cool. As I got older, my natural voice became lower and lower, and it was a perfect fit for the voice of Ryo. In fact, when I listened to my voice at that time again, I was surprised  at what a low voice I was using when speaking.

Suzuki: Your current voice suits the anime very well. Anime requires a lot of energy in the voice.

Matsukaze: Thank you very much!

Q: Something that me happy when I watched the animation was the line "I see" [laughs].

Matsukaze: It's one of the generic lines from the game, or rather one of Shenmue's frequently-appearing words [laughs]. "Excuse me...", "Um...", "I see".

Q: Yes, yes, that's it!

Matsukaze: You've all heard that line a thousand times, it's Ryo's signature line [laughs].

Q: Thank you very much. Other famous lines include "Father? Father! Father.....!!!" How did the recording go for it this time?

Matsukaze: It's a line that fans like to tease me about. The script for this event even had "3 Fathers" written on it, and I was told, "Mr. Matsukaze, this is where you do your Father line" [laughs]. In the  beginning, the anime script had him calling his father twice - 2 Fathers. But then I said, "No, it should be 3 Fathers!" I had them increase it [laughs].

A Further Yokosuka Version May Be Made.... Possibly!?

Q: Is there a possibility that you will adapt the story of Shenmue III to anime in the future?

Kiyozono: I think there is the possibility. But for my part, I would like to portray more of Yokosuka's story. I think I could do it even after Shenmue the Animation has finished, so if I'm able to make another one, I would like to dig deeper into Yokosuka's story.

Q: So you would like to make another anime with elements that you weren't able to include in the anime this time?

Kiyozono: I wanted to include forklift races and other things, but there were so many elements that I just couldn't fit them all in. We packed a lot into a single episode that could have been created with the characters alone.

Suzuki: I could see that they wanted to do Yokosuka over a single season. Then you've got Hong Kong, so it was very difficult to fit it all into a single season.

Matsukaze: Yokosuka is already dense [storywise], and Hong Kong is even denser.

Q: Finally, let's wrap up the interview by asking about what we can expect to see in the future.

Kiyozono: If you have played the game, I hope you will enjoy figuring out and noticing the parts that differ.

With anime, you can exaggerate and omit as much as you like. However, in Shenmue the Animation, we kept that in check and preserved the "Shenmue" feel and the relaxed atmosphere of the 1980's. Even just to take the scenery, it is something that you would be hard-pressed to find among the anime of today. By the way, I personally really like the character of Guizhang, and as those who have played the game will see, we've put a lot of effort into the action scenes that will be shown in upcoming episodes, so please look forward to them.

Matsukaze: Thanks to all of you, the miracle of Shenmue continues. Shenmue the Animation has been received very favorably, so if you haven't seen it yet, please watch it from the first episode.

A collaborative promotion will be starting with Yokosuka City, and we also have games Shenmue I & II and the latest Shenmue III. Please enjoy Shenmue in all sorts of ways, including the anime, games, and live events.

Suzuki: The games are very extensive, and it would be quite a challenge to play them all. First of all, please watch Shenmue the Animation. I would be very glad if you then become interested in the Shenmue series and tried out the games.

-- End of interview --

Source: Famitsu

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  1. Thank you Switch for the very helpful translation and well-written post, as usual! I hope you have a nice weekend too.

    1. Thanks for your comment! There are some other interviews that have been published recently also which I plan to translate too.

  2. Thank you for the translation, Switch! I have a question regarding Nozomi. It seemed in the anime, Ryo called her "Harasaki" most of the time, while in the game - at least the English translation - he calls her "Nozomi." Could you describe the cultural aspects of which name is used and considered appropriate for their relationship? Also, in the original Japanese version of Shenmue, did they use "Harasaki" more often?

    1. That's a great observation, and as you guessed, it is to do with the cultural norms in Japan. In both the anime and the original Japanese version of Shenmue, Ryo also addresses Nozomi as "Harasaki". This is because in Japanese society it is generally rare for people to call others by their first name. (Some exceptions are married couples, senior family members, between two female classmates / workmates and occasionally between childhood friends.) Also, as we know Ryo is also a stoic type who does not like to show emotion unnecessarily, so simply using Nozomi's surname would be his preferred form of address. Nozomi, on the other hand, calls him "Hazuki-kun". She also uses the family name, but with "kun" added which gives a softer, slightly feminine, impression - this is the form that is more commonly used by a female addressing a male classmate (or "chan" toward a female classmate).