Fumito Ueda: Colossus in the Shadow

Fumito Ueda, the Japanese creator of the video games, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian, is one of the best-loved but least-known game-makers working today. He has a reputation for being a shy interviewee and a private colleague. A Sony employee recently told me that when, during another interview, Ueda mentioned his family, Ueda’s staff who were present were surprised; the director had never before mentioned that he has a wife and child.

When I spoke to Ueda a few weeks ago for a New Yorker story about his latest, extraordinary project, The Last Guardian, I was eager to find out more about his background and journey. While, by his own admission, Ueda is a “not a good talker”, he gave generous and thoughtful responses.

The story, ‘Fumito Ueda’s Slow Route to Perfection’ was published on the site last week. As relatively little is known about the director, here is the full transcript of our conversation, which contains many additional details that help to explain, if not the message of Ueda’s work, then something of the substance.

Simon Parkin: What was your childhood like?

Fumito Ueda: I was born in 1970 in the Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan. From a young age I loved drawing. In pre-school one of my drawings actually won an award. At that early moment I realised that I had a talent. It boosted my confidence. Until today art is the one thing that I’m pretty good at.

SP: What was the picture that won the award?

FU: It was a drawing of a turtle. I drew it from the perspective of someone looking down on the shell and I filled up the entire sheet of paper, with just the head and the feet squeezed into the margins at the edges.

SP: Who encouraged you to draw?

FU: Neither of my parents were in arts-related fields. But my father was skilled with his hands. He could create intricate objects. He would break off a piece of bamboo in the fields behind our house and make something out of it, like a toy bow and arrow, or a spinning top. He would make these little, detailed, craft items.

SP: In Ico, the animation of the boy is so well-observed, in terms of how young children move and behave. Which bits of yourself as a child did you put into that game?

FU: Even though I liked to draw and I’d do that inside our house, I enjoyed spending time outdoors equally. Whether it was fishing, or a taking light hike up the mountains… there was always a little bit of adventuring involved in these outdoor activities. Perhaps that had an effect on some of the things that you might have seen in my work.

SP: Did you have a castle near your house?

FU: [Laughs] There is, actually. Himeji Castle. It’s a world heritage site.

SP: Did you work hard at school, or were you distracted by the drawing?

FU: It’s true: I was probably known as that kid who just liked to draw in the corner. My grades were not the best, but they weren’t the worst, either. From the outside, people would know me as, more or less, a quiet student. I didn’t stand out much, that’s for sure.

SP: Which artists did you admire?

FU: Maybe not an artist, per-se, but I was a fan of manga artists. Especially Fujiko Fujio, the creator of Doraemon. I’d go out and get tiny, thick notebooks and draw flick comics starring Doraemon. I was so into doing that. I’d draw a hundred pages at a time. As with anyone, when you’re growing up your interests change over time. Through elementary school into junior high and on to university my tastes changed from Doraemon to, say, Katsuhiro Otomo.

But here’s a thing I just remembered. The first Doraemon movie was titled “Nobita’s Dinosaur”. In that film a dinosaur hatches from the egg. Slowly they become friendly. There’s a similar nuance in Trico, between the young boy and the creature. There are similarities there.

SP: Your games don’t look like manga or anime. In this way they stand out from typical Japanese games. Why did you want your games to look so different when you enjoyed manga as a child?

FU: I wonder that too. Perhaps, until high school, comics were the source of my entertainment and interest. But they’re the kind of standard Japanese stuff that Japanese kids enjoy. When I got to university, there was a layer of culture shock that hit me. I began to learn about modern and abstract art. Until that time my drawings were more realistic in style. Then I was opened up to abstract images. I was encountering things I’ve never paid attention to or recognized before. I liked that, behind those abstract images, there was always an idea. That set me thinking about art in terms of ideas, rather than depictions. What could I make that had a clear idea behind it, looked unique, and yet wasn’t alienating? All of that led me to the aesthetic of my games.

SP: When you were studying at college, what was your plan? Did you hope to make games?

FU: I was at Art College. A few months before graduation, typically you go job-hunting in Japan. It’s almost like a mandatory thing. Well, I wasn’t a very diligent student. In fact, I think in general it’s safe to say that art students are not all that proactive. I was pretty laid back about it. So as graduation was approaching, I panicked a bit. It was around the time that computer graphics were becoming more interesting. I went out and bought a computer, and studied it on my own. I’m self-taught in computer graphics.

SP: What type of computer?

FU: A Commodore Amiga. This was actually a rare computer in Japan at the time. The operating environment was all English language, so I learned with a dictionary in one hand. I wanted to get my hands dirty so I dove in and figured it out as I went along. Iterating and learning from doing, really. It wasn’t my original intent. I was interested in multimedia, and using that to artistic ends. It was this exciting territory between full-scale installation and drawing. A new, emergent form. But soon enough I felt like there was something I could discover in or express through the computer. As I was spending so much time with the computer I decided to give animation a try, and then computer graphics, It was slow, independent process.

SP: That doesn’t explain why you chose an Amiga though.

FU: There were two reasons, when I think back. There weren’t any Japanese computers with graphical displays that would help me study that field. So I was limited to a Mac or an Amiga. The Amiga was less expensive, plus I was able to hook it up to a TV, so I didn’t need to buy a monitor as well. Those are some of the logistical reasons. But I also knew that Amiga would be a better option for film-making. It was a huge advantage because at the time my friends and I would create short films here and there. Rather than try to express something through still images I was more into moving images. The Amiga had a stronger showing in that regard.

SP: The Amiga was also a strong platform for computer games. Did they interest you at all?

FU: Yes, but while I’m sure there was a large library of games for the Amiga, I didn’t have much disposable income to spend on lots of games. So I was highly selective. The ones that interested me were the ones that I was attracted to in terms of animation. Lemmings and Flashback, to name two. The real reason for the Amiga was to learn computer graphics and I spent more time doing that than playing games.

SP: At what tine did you decide to apply for a job in the games industry?

FU: After I graduated, I bought the Amiga and got hooked on it. I was still trying to find a way to express my art using this machine. Shortly after, I saw that Sony was holding an art competition. I entered with an art installation piece. Somehow I got through the first round. Then the second round and into the finals. I ended up receiving a judge’s stipend for it. I realized, however, I couldn’t live off this. So I collected the film projects I’d worked on and sent them off to the video game studio Warp. That was the first place I submitted the work to, and they offered me a job.

SP: Wait. You need to go back. What was this winning instillation?

FU: The first round was that I had to submit a written concept to Sony. The second stage awarded me the allowance to make the instillation. It was around $1,000 or so. After that, I’d go off and create this thing. It got displayed at Minato-Mirai 21 in Yokohama. It’s a gigantic complex. There was a huge tent there that would display these installations and people would come and vote on their favourite. The finalist was awarded the prize at Sony’s headquarters in Ginza.

In terms of the project itself: imagine a worn down small cage for a pet rabbit or parrot. It was intentionally aged and worn. At the bottom, there was a layer of soil. Beneath the soil was a series of small motors. They were hidden. The surface structure of the dirt maybe looked like a mole hill. It was patchy and churned up. The sides and the ceiling of the cage had scratch marks, like an animal had tried to escape.

The motors hidden in the dirt were controlled by a radio controller. The idea was that there was a cat that lived under the earth in the cage. There was a sign to that effect. So people would walk up to the cage and peer in to look for this animal. I’d secretly control the motors, and it would spit out dirt onto people’s faces or noses.

I wanted to make something that would have more of a lasting impact than a painting. I wanted people to go home and find soil on their shirt or in their hair. That would be memorable art, I thought.”

SP: Wow.

FU: There’s one more part to this story… I mentioned the final judges’ award presentation took place on the rooftop in Ginza. It was filled with executives from Sony. The competition was called the ‘Art and Artists Exhibition’ but it was less about the artwork than the artists. They wanted to find a new, emerging voice in the art world. The final event was that you had to showcase your talent in front of this panel of judges on the rooftop of the Sony building in the Ginza. This took the form of performances: dances or whatever. The previous year someone responded to questions by playing a guitar. As you can imagine, there were lots of whacky ideas as everyone tried to impress these judges by showing off how creative they were…

My colleague and I who had worked on the art piece together were not good talkers. We don’t do well in front of crowds. So we were discussing how we could make a great impact. Something people would really remember. We settled on the idea of a street fight. We wore costumes and then I decorated my headgear to look like a wild animal.

When it came to our turn to perform, we just went for each other. There was no holding back. So much so that my friend knocked me out. It left a huge pain around my face, neck and shoulders. If I remember correctly that took place in 1994. Twenty-two years later, I still have a pain in my neck from that fight. It still creeps up sometimes, on a cold day.

SP: Now, it’s interesting that the art instillation was based around a cage. Ico had a cage in which Yorda was trapped, if I remember correctly. Then Trico escapes from a cage, or at least a cell, at the start of The Last Guardian. What’s this fascination with imprisonment?

FU: It’s funny you point that out. I don’t think there’s a connection there in my head. At least, it wasn’t intentional. I need to think about that. For me, with Trico, it was more about what is it that I can create that will stand out, and trigger people’s interest. I want people to feel intrigue, and want to peek inside this piece of art. If I somehow, cleverly use an animal then maybe people will naturally gain interest in my game, including people who are not necessarily game-players. Ever since this was in development since the beginning on the PlayStation 3 I was committed to that approach.

SP: When you came to Sony to make Ico, previously you’d only worked at a small studio as an animator. Suddenly, you’re director of a lavish project. How did you convince Sony to take the risk on you and your idea when you had little experience. And why did they subsequently keep on funding the project when it ran into so many development difficulties? Who believed in you to do that?

FU: I’ll take you one step back, to let you know why I left Warp. At the end, I wanted to work on my own ideas. I had some savings so I left the company, bought myself another computer, and my plan at the time was to create something for myself, on my own.

As I was doing that I heard through someone I met online, who was working at Sony Computer Entertainment, that the company was looking for someone who had expertise in a particular CG tool. Nobody at Sony could use it but I had learned this piece of software while at Warp. They knew this. They invited me to come and work with them. I refused, explaining that I was taking time off to work on my own idea. I told them to check back in with me in about three months’ time.

They came back with an offer for me to join Sony and simply work on my own project there, in their offices. They basically gave me a contract position. They provided a computer and a desk at Sony, and someone to work alongside me. That was the beginning of Ico. Akira Sato was the executive who offered me this opportunity. As to how I convinced them to allow me to work on this game… from my point of view all these concept pitches were done in writing, whether it’s a PowerPoint slide or document. I was able to present the idea with a trailer and, through that, give them a true vision of what the game could be. It’s quite different from the other folks pitching game ideas. The crowd who needed to approve what I was doing saw the potential.

SP: All three of your major works have been long projects that have become, at some point during their development, delayed. How have you convinced higher-ups to continue to back your games, even when they’re in trouble and, presumably, costing more money than originally anticipated?

FU: For the team and staff, back then internally, the team was called Yoshida Group. It was Shuhei Yoshida’s group. We had healthy competition in terms of pitches and showcases. We’d show each other what we’re working on. Our team would put together our current status in a video, with a soundtrack to create a target mood piece to present to everyone else at the office to show either our current status or where we’re going. Those were special moments for us, even when we were weary. People’s reaction would always reinvigorate the team.

SP: Are you a perfectionist?

FU: No. But I supposed the definition of perfection varies from person to person. I do have high standards. It’s very simple. All I strive for is to do what I think is right and to execute it in the manner that it should be presented. I will give you an example. You’re in the Ramen shop and the bowl comes at you from the other side of the counter. If you see the person that’s serving you has their thumb positioned so that it’s just touching the soup you might decide to pretend not to have seen that. It’s not like you’ll get food poisoning because of what’s happened. But as long you’re the customer and they’re serving you food, it’s just not right. If I’m presenting something I cannot cross the line of sticking my thumb into the Ramen soup. [Laughs]

SP: Last year I met with From Software’s Hidetaka Miyazaki. He told me that he decided to enter the video game industry after playing Ico. In fact, he transitioned from another industry entirely. How does it feel to have influenced such well-respected creators in such a profound manner?

FU: I am honoured to hear that. As I mentioned, to keep my motivation going I do the same. I don’t travel or go out drinking. The source of my energy is other people’s creative work. Wow. Yes. That really is an honour. You don’t hear that every day. Thank you for telling me.

SP: When you were in college you wanted to become a fine artist. Is there ever a regret for you that you didn’t get to do that outside of your games, or are you satisfied that, in this medium, you’ve been able to express everything that you hoped?

FU: I don’t have any regrets. At that time, I was still questioning my art but I was always interested in pop cultural art. I was never the kind of sophisticated student who’d spend their days in museums and galleries. Equally, my work never fit the manga tradition. I had to find my place. I wasn’t too sure if I was going to be able to make it as an artist. Video games became the place for me to express my art. It is perhaps the best pairing there could be.

That said, I think I’ve only come to accept the label of ‘game designer’ in the past few years. Perhaps that’s because I haven’t finished many games? I’m in the games industry, but I find it difficult to consider myself as part of that industry.

SP: I think that comes across in your games. They feel as though the come from a different tradition to many major video games made today… an artistic tradition rather than a computer science tradition, perhaps.

SP: Anime, film, mange and games — I can say with confidence that nothing I’ve enjoyed has been wasted for me. They all add flavour, I don’t know too many people who can say that, perhaps.

SP: What do your family think about your achievements? Have they ever said anything to you about them?

FU: I hope that they’re impressed at what I’ve achieved. I’ve had wonderful comments from people around the world about my games and the way that they’ve been affected by them. The younger me — the me at high school — he would never have imagined that this would one day be the case. It would have been incomprehensible. It feels like a dream, often. It’s unreal.