I’m probably still dreaming.
Reading the news about the Shenmue III E3 reveal through bleary eyes, I was sure I wasn’t awake yet. I was just thirteen the first time I saw the end credits roll for Shenmue II, and hope for a sequel had diminished in the fourteen long years that had since passed.
I’ve written a few words on the history of Shenmue and its importance to the medium of video gaming. In short, from the first preview images I saw of Shenmue, it was apparent that this was a project of ambition and passion, venturing beyond previous technological limitations to make more than a game: visuals that strove for both realism and beauty, a world of hundreds of characters, all with their own voice and daily routine, and a soundtrack comprised of pieces from some of the most talented Japanese composers.
All of this stemmed from the vision of one man, Sega’s Yu Suzuki, who had already established a reputation as an innovator by the time of Shenmue’s release: from the white-knuckle thrills of Hang-On which saw players straddle a replica motorcycle, to spearheading the first 3D racing and fighting games with Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter, going so far as to employ military technology from Lockheed Martin to have texture-mapped polygons for the sequel to the latter, Suzuki’s ambition was limitless. While his innovations would serve as foundations for games from other developers, Suzuki never rested on his laurels, always keen to move onto something completely new.
And here on my laptop screen was the KickStarter web page for Shenmue III. The funding total rose by the second, breaking records in the process.
I quickly pledged more money than was sensible, but could only dream of being one of the lucky few $10,000 backers who would have dinner with Yu Suzuki in Monaco, LA or Tokyo. To have the chance to thank him, let alone ask the multitude of questions I had whirling around my head all these years...
Trying to put such thoughts out of my mind, in the final days of the KickStarter campaign the Monaco dinner slated for February 2016 was made all the more enticing by the addition of a planning meeting for Shenmue III in the nearby picturesque town of Èze.
At the same time, a fellow Shenmue fan going by “yuc02” posted on ShenmueDojo.net that he was looking for a plus-one if someone would help pay a little towards it. While he wasn’t asking for much, it was still a leap of faith to trust an anonymous person on the Internet with any amount of money.
After a few phone calls and emails to yuc02 my concerns were assuaged and we came to an arrangement. In the ensuing months, though, I kept the news from friends and family, convinced that something would go catastrophically wrong before I could meet the man responsible for conceiving of my favourite video game series of all time.
In the months leading up to the dinner, yuc02 and I would meet up a few times to get to know each other and to organise the trip. Over lunch he asked if I had given any thought to what I was going to ask Yu Suzuki.
In truth, I had devoted an inordinate amount of time to drafting four pages worth of questions to Suzuki, with topics ranging from Shenmue to the multitude of games he had worked on in the late 2000s that never saw release. I eventually whittled the document down to a mere two pages, but even then I doubted how many I would be able to ask during a single meal without being a nuisance.
Sharing Suzuki’s passion for cars and interest in China thanks to his own heritage, yuc02 planned to ask him about his work on games such as Ferrari F355 Challenge and the aspects of Chinese culture that would be present in Shenmue III.
On the 26th of February we flew out to Nice, spending the day seeing the sights of the French coastal city. Though we had rotten luck with the weather that weekend, we hardly cared about a spot of rain.
Taking a train to Monaco in the early hours of the morning the following day, we stood in line outside the Grimaldi Forum for the 2nd annual MAGIC (Monaco Anime Game International Conferences), hosted by Shibuya Productions, co-producers on Shenmue III. With the first presentation of the day being given by Yu Suzuki, we were determined to be there front row centre.
Rushing into the auditorium and taking our seats, it soon came to our attention that we were sat next to another fan who had pledged for the Monaco dinner on Kickstarter, Rob Scharr. Moments later, we espied Suzuki standing in the wings, ready to walk on stage. This was the first time I had ever seen Suzuki in the flesh, and I could not help but wave like the fanboy I am. Suzuki smiled and waved back, and the conference began.
Sat in awe of the new insights into Shenmue’s past and future, one of Suzuki’s assistants came up to us after his presentation had finished. Though it had not been planned that we would meet Suzuki until the day after the conference, his assistant asked if we would like to sit in on some of the interviews he was giving to the press and to Shenmue fan sites.
I leapt out of my seat before he could finish his sentence.
Entering a small room, we saw Suzuki prepping for his first press interview for the day. Timidly approaching him, Suzuki walked up to us with a smile on his face.
As we introduced ourselves to Suzuki, Rob explained that he grew up near Daytona Beach, Florida. Suzuki grinned and quietly sang “Day-ton-aaaaaaaaaaaaa…” in the style of Takenobu Mitsuyoshi’s theme for Sega’s 1993 arcade racer Daytona USA, chuckling afterwards.
Soon after, Suzuki’s assistant accidentally dimmed the lights thinking it was a thermostat. To break the awkward silence, I quipped that he was making it “more romantic”. Suzuki burst out laughing. We’d broken the ice.
It was all so surreal.
Leaving Suzuki at noon, we met again in Monaco the next afternoon, travelling with him to the town of Èze for a guided tour from Suzuki himself, before sitting down to discuss Shenmue III over tea.
The rain could hardly detract from the town’s beauty, and Suzuki’s love for Èze came through in his excitement in taking us around the castle.
Though we were all ecstatic to be involved in the Shenmue III planning process, I thought it would also be a good opportunity to ask about a game I had read about that was inspired by the Côte d’Azur that is home to Èze:
I’ve already drawn characters for the game. I’ve drawn them myself. There are the protagonists, there is the sea, and there is a mountain and on the very top of it is a castle. It stands so high, to be able to see far away and watch for pirate ships that could attack the city. I like an artist Alphonse Mucha, and I decided to work in his style. Usually, designers are making all the illustrations for me, but this time I decided to draw them myself. This game already has a script, even the music.
While Suzuki’s existing games are known for their attempts at realism, Suzuki declared that he wished to develop a few fantastical concepts in future. Sharing his hand-drawn character designs for the unreleased project with us, his youthful enthusiasm for the game was infectious, talking animatedly with his hands and with an expression of unabashed joy on his face.
At dinner that evening in Monaco, I could hardly contain my inquisitiveness and deluged Suzuki with a barrage of questions. All of this was translated by French superfan David De Ville, whose hard work that weekend cannot go unthanked. To my surprise I had nearly every one of my queries from my two-page document answered, though after a series of them Suzuki smiled and told David, “[Amir] asks all the hard questions…”.
One that stumped him was when I asked about a woman named Zhang; Suzuki’s translator during his trip around China that would inspire him to create Shenmue, her tragic life story would serve as the basis for the character of Xiuying. When I asked Suzuki if he was still in contact with her, he could not recall who I was talking about. Presenting Suzuki with a photo, he looked at his younger self and gasped. “Who is that? Is that me?! I was so young!”
At one point during the dinner I asked about his experience meeting Steven Spielberg.
“Gentleman… すごい [sugoi, amazing] gentleman.”
Suzuki spoke reverently of Spielberg’s pure, child’s spirit as the legendary director played with a maquette of a T. Rex in one hand, planning shots for Jurassic Park with a camera in the other.
Despite having spent years out of the limelight since the release of Shenmue II, Suzuki’s passion for his art has not waned, and while he may not recognise his younger self from a photograph, he still possesses that same sense of childlike wonder. As the evening drew to a close and we all said our goodbyes, I could still hardly believe any of it was real. Throughout it all, Suzuki had been a most gracious host and indulged our curiosity for his life’s work. A true gentleman.
A すごい gentleman.