Nov 12, 2012

Belts & Chains: DE-accessorizing Tetsuya Nomura

If J-Pop can be embodied as a game in the way that Suda 51’s No More Heroes embodies punk, Tetsuya Nomura has already designed it.

Nomura’s games and character art inhabit a weird spot between genre fantasy and urban Japanese fashion trends. Gross exaggerations of real (and almost-real) styles and products, they are often off-putting to the critical circus and a majority of the gaming population.

Yet his games are also successes, engendering a cult niches of fans and solid-to-blockbuster sales: Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy VII-on, and The World Ends With You are just some of those that present Nomura’s unique thumbprint.

On a basic level, Nomura excels at his craft. The silhouettes of his characters are simple and discernible from one another, but, in the wake of Final Fantasy VII, intricately detailed. Not a bit of space on Sora, Lightning, etc. goes to waste.

Turn to Nomura’s break out, Final Fantasy VII. Every major character is simply designed, but iconic in their simplicity. Reduce them to silhouettes, and most are still immediately recognizable: Cloud Strife has spiked hair that slants diagonally and a man-sized sword, Barrett is inhumanly large and squat with a Mr. T hairstyle, and even Tifa and Aeries appear separate (despite being two long-haired women with vaguely similar builds) due to their poise. Aeries has her hands drawn in, awkward and shy, while Tifa is confident with her hands posed on hips.
top left and center image courtesy of

This is key character information rendered simply in an expressive, unique hybrid of styles.

Why, then, is Nomura so rejected?

Because bold styles usually are challenged or ridiculed. Sam Peckinpah didn’t exactly win many fans in his day. Alex Cox still can’t catch a break.Hopefully, Nomura will one day take a critically rebounded position next to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor as a wild creative of new media. But for now, the response to Nomura and prior game developers and film makers leave us with a problem.

Why the hate for unique stylists?

What we’re not used to shocks us, forcing us to confront new avenues of vision to deal with that shock.

In Nomura’s case, what shocks most is his revolt against game design norms. Rejecting both realistic Western games and anime Eastern styles, he has increasingly fused the two into photorealistic anime. The characters of Advent Children and Final Fantasy Versus XIII, particularly, are notable for their “Asian-ness” while still maintaining “Otherness.”

That most capital-G gamers react to Nomura with mumbling along the lines of (to make this simple, I’m boiling it down to two words) “Japanese bullshit” and cite cartoons or Hasbro or some other Western market force (probably experienced in childhood) as a positive use of animation is telling.
It is the Japaneseness of Nomura that offends. The foreign nature of his designs—it is clearly present in that sentiment above, shared and altered across thousands of message boards, Youtube comments, and magazines but still the same: unburied prejudice.*

Choosing urban Japan as a basis for the genre fantasies of The World Ends With You, Advent Children, Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII is a rebellion against Anglo-centric media imagery from video games and RPGs. This includes Square’s own quasi-European “castles and knights”-orientated Final Fantasy I-V. It is a rejection of Tolkien-inspired tropes seen filtered (and watered) down through the years via Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy literature up to 1994, and the Final Fantasy series itself.
Example of one of many "harajuku" styles. Nigh identical to Nomura's mish-mash of fantasy cultural artifacts. [Courtesy of]

More than that, by positioning his heroes and their entire culture as representative of sub-cultures of Japanese youth style, he lends them cultural legitimacy. In Japan, some of the youth fashions Nomura displays are not just treated with the disrespect that Goths receive in America; key to remember is that youth clothing styles such as harajuku are not only openly mocked, but can result in outcomes as extreme as parents disowning their children. 
Not fantasy, or cosplay, but another Japanese fashion style similar to Nomura's Versus XIII. "Dandyism." [Courtesy of]
Like Nomura’s tagline for Final Fantasy Versus XIII, his characters—and their games—are “fantasy based on reality.”


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