Author Topic: English translation of a French interview with Yoichi Kotabe  (Read 616 times)


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English translation of a French interview with Yoichi Kotabe
« on: December 06, 2018, 03:33:05 PM »
Today the French magazine Le Monde published an interview with noted Mario artist Yoichi Kotabe about his work at Nintendo. It's all very interesting and while you're certainly going to see bits and pieces over the internet in the next few days, I figured I could put the full thing in English somewhere.

Skipping over the intro:

How did you end up working in the game industry?

I was contacted by a former colleague, Hiroshi Ikeda [director of the 1971 film Animal Treasure Island], who was in the same unit at Toei Animation. He was in charge of the development for Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. He told me video games were getting closer and closer to animation, and that he needed my help. Personally, I knew absolutely nothing about video games: I didn't even know who Mario was. All I knew is that I saw my newphews playing Game & Watchs and saw Space Invader. As for Nintendo, I mistook it for a model kit manufacturer!

Why did you accept the job?

I was a freelancer by that time. I was no longer a core member of a tem responsible for defining the core of a project. It was a little frustrating. And the trend in the tv business was to cut cost and the number of frames. Quality was no longer a priority.

At Nintendo, I was asked to teach my know-how. I thought I'd only stay one or two years, but when they showed me Super Mario Bros, I found it surprisingly entertaining. Even if it was just a pixelated image, there was something in there that invoked animation: wind-up frames [not an animation buff so if someone can opine on the proper jargon I'd appreciate it], simulating inertia... etc. All old challenges the animation industry had tried to solve before slowly giving up. I thought video games were grabbing the torch.

At first, I drew reference pictures for external contractors, merchandises, stickers, etc. I'd draw Mario dancing, wearing a New Year kimono, as a cowboy, etc. Later I was asked to draw the cover to Super Mario Bros. 3. I had asked Mario's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, what his personality was like: He told me "Do what you want but Mario doesn't kill". I always asked him to check things over.

I kept the thick outlines of the character, but I did exagerate the features on the "M" on Mario's cap to diffentiate it from McDonald's logo - who in turn, asked us if it could be made more similar.

How did you think up the definitive the design of characters like Bowser?

At the beginning, my only reference was the cover artwork for Super Mario Bros. that Miyamoto had drawn. In that, Bowser looked like an hippo [laughs]. He responded that he was supposed to be a turtle. He had based his design on the demonic oax king villain in Saiyuki, a 1960 feature from Toei. But he still looked like an hippo to me. So I took inspiration from the most aggressive turtle I knew, the Chinese softshell turtle, to redesign and make him look truly mean.

I also ended up redesigning Peach, Donkey Kong and Luigi. I wanted to differentiate him, on one side a dynamic, outgoing Mario and a more timid, reserved Luigi.

Were you at any point involved in game design?

Never, I'm completely ignorant in that field. I stuck to visuals. However, I always drew what I wanted. I remember that the Famicom Disk System had a feature that allowed you to save pixel drawings. I had fun replicating animal animations on that. I made many such animations, including a chameleon sticking out its tongue.

Some time later, I found it in a game: it had become Yoshi. But the development team of the game didn't picture what I drew as a chamelon: they explained to me his name was originally supposed to be Nessi [japanese name for the Loch Ness monster]. That's when I began to picture him as a dinosaur.

What did you think of the character design of other companies, like Sega's Sonic?

I didn't really look at what the competion was doing. However, sometimes I happened to draw for other teams within Nintendo. For example, I did artwork for Kid Icarus. I also helped define Wario's design. His creators had in mind an evil twin of Mario, so I drew him with Bluto (Popeye's nemesis) in mind, as well as the circus owner in Pinocchio, to highlight his evil nature.

Did the advent of 3D change your job?

Totally! It was a big change. In 2D you can do what you want, stretch as much as you'd like. But Mario's classic proportions didn't work in 3D: if he raised his arms, they'd clip into his belly or his head. So I redesigned him from multiple different angles, giving him a smaller head. So I gave the references to the developers and we ran tests with the 3D camera to see what needed to be changed. It was a painstaking job, but we found a balance for Super Mario 64.

Is it following this  that you became a supervisor on other 3D games like Mario Party, Smash Brothers, Mario Tennis, etc?

Totally. We worked on every possible cases. If we remove Mario's cap, what's under it? If he's naked? Angry? Or fooling around?

Are you responsible for the unique art style of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker?

I often hear that, but I had nothing to do with that game! Really, what happened is that I worked on the movie "The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon" when I was at Toei and, to give a very "Japanese" feeling to the drawings, we were inspired by haniwa sculptures. I strongly suspect the Wind Waker team saw that movie.

However, I did have a very indirect influence on Donkey Kong 64. To test games at Nintendo, we had a debug unit and when you died in a game, we could use its functions to go back to the beginning of a section after dying instead of going back to the start of the level. I borrowed it one day and managed to finish the game. But when Miyamoto learned that [without being made aware it was using a debug console], he was shocked and thought it meant the game was too easy. He made the game harder, and as it turned out, players found it too difficult and it sold poorly [laughs].

Did you ever try to get your former animation colleagues, MM. Takahata and Miyazaki, to join Nintendo to work on games?

Once, I was with Shigesato Itoi (the famed marketing slogan writer who notably wrote the taglines for Ghibli films) and M. Ikeda, and we went to see Miyazaki to propose to work with him on a video game for Nintendo. He didn't say no: he said he'd be interested in working on a video game set in a world of bugs, where you'd play from the perspective of one. But it ended up not happening because he was too busy.

What's your defining memory of your three decades at Nintendo?

What struck me the most, is that as much in animation as in video games, we found a worlwide audience and managed to convey the same feeling. That never stopped amazing me.I think what's at stake in both professions is giving life to something. It's not disconnected, there's a spark. Both explore a form of animation, in the true sense of the world.

Could you draw us Bowsette, the fusion of Bowser and Peach?

[laughs] Sorry, can't picture that!

Merci à William Audureau pour la super interview!
« Last Edit: December 06, 2018, 03:56:36 PM by Glowsquid »
Rest in peace, Walkazo.

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Re: English translation of a French interview with Yoichi Kotabe
« Reply #1 on: December 06, 2018, 09:55:11 PM »
So, Wario is Mario+Bluto+Stromboli, hm? Makes a bit of sense.