The Women That Make Japan’s Games Industry Great

 

 

In celebration of international women’s day, let’s look at some of the awesome women that defined the video games industry:

Kinu Nishimura: Artist behind many of Capcom’s flagship titles

If you recognize these characters you’ve played a game Kinu worked on

Kinu Nishimura has been with Capcom since 1991 with Street Fighter II and has worked on countless titles since, rising up to become the most senior artist in the whole company.

Designs for Street Fighter III: New Generation

I’ve also heard stories from Capcom staff on how Kinu was the most intimidating person in the studio, relentless in making sure the high standards of Capcom artwork were maintained by everyone, and an immense amount of respect was given to her in turn.

Many of the games that had a profound impact on who I am today and my career path in video games is directly related to Kinu Nishimura’s masterful designs.

Some of the girls of Capcom games, illustrated by Kinu Nishimura

Keiko Erikawa, co-founder of industry giant Koei and #34 wealthiest person in Japan

She must be from the same generation as my aunt ’cause they have the same fashion sense

Keiko Erikawa started off in the fashion industry but then co-founded the prolific Koei company with her husband Kou Shibusawa.

Keiko Erikawa is credited for getting some atypical games made, like the stylishly odd rhythm action game Gitaroo-Man, hotel cooking game Shaberu! DS Oryouri Navi Marugoto Teikoku Hotel, and deciding that Koei should pick up the Gundam license because in her words: “I want to use a Gundam in a Koei game!”

But one of her most notable accomplishments would be…

 A very very very very very obscure to get title for English speakers, even the console it was on wasn’t released in the US!

Though video games is usually seen as a male dominated hobby, Koei’s female co-founder  believed there was no reason women couldn’t be part of the core audience so she assembled an all-woman team to created what would be the first ‘otome game’ (lit. ‘girl’s game’, a genre of Japanese games which seek out women as their prime audience).

Koei at the time was most famous for hardcore strategy/kingdom building games like Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms that starred macho mustached men of military history. With those roots Koei created Angelique (1993), where the protagonist is a young woman given the responsibility to rule over her own kingdom, if her kingdom thrives then she will inherit control over the world. Will she do so as a benevolent queen or martial despot? Such choices are up to the player to decide.

Many of the women I’ve worked alongside in the games industry have told me that their interest in games started with the otome genre that Angelique created,  That is the difference that a single person in power like Keiko Erikawa can make on a whole industry.


Many industry marketing specialists today would say strategy/conquest games are a ‘man’s genre’ that would scare away women with ‘hardcore’ mechanics, but Keiko Erikawa proved that wrong over two decades ago!

Tomoko Namba: founder of mobile games juggernaut DeNA and #47 wealthiest in Japan

Tomoko Namba founded one of the world’s first billion earning mobile game companies (revenue of $1.8 billion in 2012) with many titles that have enjoyed a top 10 position in app stores across the world. The world of mobile games was changed forever when Tomoko Namba’s DeNA entered the fray (mostly because everything since has been copy-catting their innovations!)

Rage of Bahamut, DeNA’s first big hit on mobile

Mari Shimazaki: designer of the titular Bayonetta & contributor to Soul Calibur

Mari Shimazaki is best known as character designer for Platinum’s Bayonetta, a title regarded as the successor to the genre defining Devil May Cry. Her style is known for its stylishness in creating towering, larger than life personalities that dominate any scene they step foot in. She’s also contributed costume design to the long running Soul Calibur series. 

You can read various interviews with Mari Shimazaki where she talks about her design process:
Designing Bayonetta
Character Design Pt. 1: Bayonetta and Jeanne
Mari Shimazaki ” PlatinumGames Inc.

Mari’s most famous character, Bayonetta

Ayami Kojima: The artist behind Konami’s most beloved Castlevania title

It was back in 1997 when I first came across the hauntingly beautiful artwork of the genre-defining Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Gameplay and story wise it is among my favorite titles, but it’s Ayami Kojima’s artwork that gave it timeless longevity.

Ayami Kojima’s distinct hand painted style is the definition of gothic horror and beauty for an entire video gaming generation. 

Rieko Kodama: creator of Phantasy Star and every other cool franchise from Sega


Interview from the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection (PS3)

Reiko Kodama grew up passionate about archaeology but found her way into video games, starting off as an artist but also taking on the roles of writer, designer, producer. Her archaeological interests show in her work, such as the Phantasy Star series she created haing a strong focus on uncovering the mystery of lost civilizations among other themes.

Reiko Kodama’s diverse portfolio reads like a list of Sega best hit titles, because it is:

Where would Sega (or the games industry as a whole) be without Reiko Kodama?

Kazuko Shibuya: Founding member of Square’s Final Fantasy team

A photo of the team from 1986

Inspired by Leiji Matsumoto’s  Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999, Kazuko Shibuya’s first passion was in animation (she started animating for fun in Middle School) and after graduating worked on the Transformers TV show. When Kazuko decided that animation was ‘not as fun’ as she had hoped she quit her animation job and joined a then small company called Squaresoft as a graphic artist.

Kazuko Shibuya’s sketch book on display for Squaresoft’s 25th anniversary

Kazuko worked on various titles but is best known for being part of the start of the Final Fantasy series. Even back in the 8-bit NES era Squaresoft wanted to deliver an epic feeling so they had Kazuko create the very first ‘cut scene’ of Final Fantasy, a series now known for cutting edge highly detailed cinematics. She also contributed with pixel art, implementing designs from famed artists like Yoshitaka Amano as well as designing her own characters for a multitude of Squaresoft titles to follow.

“There were people who knew about me from before, but there also some comments like: “I didn’t know these were drawn by a woman?” There have never been many women working in the game industry, so I hope my work can serve as a small inspiration to them. Although, it can be a difficult work environment for a woman… (laughs)”

-Quote by Kazuko Shibuya from a very thorough interview hosted atshmuplations.com

She even designed the distinct UI (including big pointing finger that has since become a mascot of the series) that became iconic of the Final Fantasy series.

The beginning of a dynasty

 

Tomomi Kobayashi: Defining artist of Square’s SaGa series

 

Tomomi Kobayashi was the character artist that defined Squaresoft’sRomancing SaGa series of console RPG’s which stood out with it’s open world exploration and branching story paths with multiple characters

She also worked alongside Kazuko Shibuya, who implemented many of her designs into in-game pixel art. If you’re not able to read Japanese though it’s pretty difficult to experience her contribution to the history of video games.

Kaori Tanaka (aka Soraya Saga): graphic designer for Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and co-writer behind Xenogears

From these two rare internet photos we can imagine what her unobstructed face looks like
From these two rare photos we can imagine what her unobstructed face looks like

Kaori Tanaka (田中 香), better known by her pen name Soraya Saga (嵯峨 空哉) got her start as a graphic designer with Squaresoft working on the Romancing Saga series alongside Tomomi Kobayashi and Kazuko Shibuya. For Final Fantasy VI Soraya created Edgar and Sabin FigaroShe and her husband Tetsuya Takahashi then submitted a script for the next Final Fantasy title, which eventually became the cult classic Xenogears (because they were told it was ‘too dark’ to be called a Final Fantasy title!).

Xenogears was one of the first video games that I’d hear people described as art and deeply philosophical with its themes of self-identity, human desire, and the function of religion in society.

Games, particularly RPGs are kind of like a journey, and game designers are like tour guides. Always be with players, walk a little ahead of them, but never leave them behind. Your work will be completed when players clear the final stage.

Ghost in the Machine: Getting to Know Soraya Saga

Here’s her official website: http://sorayasaga.blogspot.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/sorayasaga
Tumblr: http://sorayatokyo.tumblr.com/
PIXIV: http://www.pixiv.net/member.php?id=2922449
DeviantArt: http://sorayasaga.deviantart.com/

Xenogears can be downloaded from Playstation Network too

 

Ayano Koshiro: Creator of Actraiser 2 and Streets of Rage 2

The final battle in Actraiser II

Ayano Koshiro worked as a writer and character designer at Ancient, a company founded by her mother that also employed her brother Yuzo Koshiro as music composer so you could say games run in her family!

Actraiser II had it all on the SNES, playing as a mighty hero battling against devilish fiends in a vibrant world set to evocative music to tell a wonderfully gripping story one stage at a time. Actraiser II appeared as a straightforward fantasy action game, the story was that of a god that was not omnipotent or all powerful, yet struggled with all his might to protect his people from harm. The sequence leading up to the final end-boss sequence was such an incredible blend of gameplay and story elements that it had me tearing up, this was a game that showed me how powerful the story telling of a video game could be.

Perhaps the most famous game Ayano Koshiro worked on was Streets of Rage 2, which many consider to be the best Beat em Up of all time. Ayano Koshiro was the art director on the game, creating its iconic cast and amazing visuals. She was also the main writer and basically the main game designer as she planned out all the character’s moves and how they should work. You can read about her immense contributions to this all time great game in this fantastic interview, translated by Shmupulations

http://shmuplations.com/streetsofrage2/

Mutsumi Inomata: Character artist of the Tales series

Mutsumi Inomata began her artistic career as an animator (from Urusui Yatsura to Gundam) and manga author (GB Bomber

but is also known as a character artist for the ‘Tales of’ series of role playing games, as well as contributing costume designs to Tekken.

Michiko Sakurai: UI designer behind Smash Bros & more

This picture of her eating ice cream was all I could find on google…

Though Michiko Sakurai’s husband Masahiro Sakurai is better known as the creator of the Smash Bros series, Michiko has always contributed to the series and other HAL Labs titles as UI artist and level designer to some of the most iconic stages in Smash Bros history.

As someone who has spent countless hours struggling to make functional UI for various games I look to Michiko’s designs for inspiration.

She’s since formed Project Sora, with her husband where they continue to make new games with Nintendo’s classic characters.

Emiko Yamamoto: Game designer that brought Disney magic to gamers worldwide

I didn’t see Mickey Mouse as a movie or TV personality, I first knew of him as a static mascot that occasionally appeared on backpacks and pencil cases. Emiko Yamamoto changed that with her adaption of classic Disney characters into hit games like Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse back in 1990, as well as Kingdom Hearts into the 21st century!

Castle of Illusion is also noted as the game which invented idle animation. We take it for granted today that game worlds are always alive and in motion, but back then if players didn’t input anything the character they controlled would hold still. Emiko decided though that, as Disney was world renown for lively animation, they could not have a static world for Mickey Mouse. And with a simple foot tap for the titular mouse, idle animations were born.

When I was thinking about what people remember fondly about the game … at the time, I think it was enjoying the thrills and getting the timing right when they played it. I think enjoying the game world, and experiencing the fantasy world of Disney were a big part of it, too.”

-Emiko gives her thoughts on Castle of Illusion

 

These are but a few of the women that have made the games industry what it is today. Stay tuned for further updates as we cover other great women in the games industry!

Quick Note: This article is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other awesome Japanese women in games that we are hoping to get to, particularly the amazing composers behind some of the best video game soundtracks of all time. If you feel there’s someone really important that we missed (and believe me, it’s painful that we didn’t get to everyone we wanted), please Tweet at us or tell us in the comments section.

We actually spend the majority of our time developing games. We write these posts whenever we can make some down time on weekends. Apologies for the glacial pace of output. Your support gives us inspiration to keep going!

If you enjoyed this post, please follow us (the Chaisiri bros–yes we are real life brothers) on Facebook and Twitter:

Andy’s Twitter
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And take a look at our other articles (thanks so much for reading!):

Wolf Smoke Studio: The Dynamic Duo Behind Batman of Shanghai
The world’s first English language interview with the coolest new animation studio in China (co-founded by a woman too!)

DarkStalkers and the 12: Principles of animation 
An introduction to the basic principles of animation with examples from the classic fighting game Darkstalkers

A Buddhists Guide to Asura’s Wrath
A look at the real life Buddhist imagery behind the 2012 video game, Asura’s Wrath, written by an actual Buddhist

WE ARE NOT THINGS
A look at the themes and imagery of Mad Max: Fury Road and it’s message of reclaiming one’s humanity in a world that reduces all people to objects only valued for their utility

From Mickey Mouse to Jesus, This Dragon’s Crown Trailer is Full of Epic Homages
An analysis of the myriad historical and pop cultural references in Dragon’s Crown. We actually wrote this before the game even came out. So much to dig into just from a single trailer! 

King of Characters
A look at why King of Fighters XIII has such a great, diverse, interesting roster of characters. Recommended for anyone interested in Character Design.

Terra’s Black Marker
A report on master artist Katsuya Terada’s first major solo show in the US which took place in Portland Oregon. Full of beautiful black and white illustrations!

 

 

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Author: Andy Lee Chaisiri

I make videogames in Beijing

27 thoughts on “The Women That Make Japan’s Games Industry Great”

  1. Growing up these women inspired me to get more into game design, especially the art side of it. This is also the right way in getting ladies into gaming… Not the silly social justice warrior rubbish, and trying to make female heroes mannish (coughcoughDragonAge2/3) the way we do in the west, and then pretending that people have a problem with females in games- when nobody cares- and many male gamers (such as myself) grew up with these games, and being that I was so set on developing, learned who was behind them, and what they did.

  2. Hey..why I’m not included here?
    I wrote music for Metal Gear Solid and prouted all the music for MGS franchise .Silent Hill and Castlevania SOTN.
    I think I can say I was the first to bring Hollywood composer to gaming industry !

    1. Are there any sultry photos of you on the internet? Are there any photos of you eating ice cream?

      If not – maybe that’s why.

      1. What exactly are you trying to say? There is a single picture of someone eating ice cream and everyone else is hardly posed or dressed in a ‘sultry’ manner. They are literally just standing there, either in front of their artwork or at one con or another.

        But I guess it’s just easier to make a shitpost alluding to some sort of hidden sexist adgenda of the article rather than simply acknowledging that it was a mistake.

      2. Ah nice, this article has reached enough people that we even have a troll! That’s super rare for us. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

        To answer the question, this list is not anywhere near comprehensive. It pains we that we didn’t include Rika Muranaka. We hope to update this list in the future with more awesome women. We have been working on a post about the amazing women composers behind some of the most classic game OSTs (we’re really slow writers sorry!). And we’d be happy to devote an article to interviewing Rika too, if she has the time.

        Seriously though, thank you for taking the time to read and comment here. I hope you have a good day!

    2. Hey! Rika Muranaka! I’m a big fan of your work! I still listen to “Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday” from MGS2 along with Miles Davis and Bill Evans in my playlist.

      I’m sure Art-Eater will happily include you!

    3. Hi Rika, thank you so much for reaching out to us! We’re really excited that you even noticed this article. We are huge fans of your work. Would you be up for an interview? I can email you with more details.

  3. In real life and even in contra you can only shoot
    in one direction at a time. Turbo mode gets unlocked when you clear the game after collecting all 5 question mark symbols.
    While the overall port didnt lose much in the conversion process, even on the NES and ZX Spectrum,
    the control scheme took the biggest hit and to this day I feel the SNES is the only appropriate place to play the
    home version thanks to the four face buttons easily emulating the second joystick.

  4. glad to see that Kazuko Shibuya interview get some love! Yours is exactly the kind of article I was hoping it would be of use for. I’ll probably be posting an interview with designer Kinu Nishimura soon too, btw… and for your women composers research, check out this 1986 interview I just translated with Capcom composer Ayako Mori –> shmuplations.com/gamemusic1986

    1. Oh mannnn, thanks for the correction! In the rush to get this article out on time, I blindly used the image that Google had used as its official image of her. I can’t believe they have that image SO WRONG (I even searched in Japanese!). Fixing this now. Thanks!

  5. Great article! I would have also added Yoko Shimomura and Michiru Yamane, two extremely skilled composers responsible for some of the most beloved games such as Street Fighter II and Castlevania: SotN.

  6. Great article, really enjoyed the different stories about the persons behind our beloved games. Keep up the good work!

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