[Original article in Italian, “Intervista a Matsuzo Machida e Miyako Kato: il duo creativo della serie Shadow Hearts”]

Koudelka and Shadow Hearts take place in Europe, nestled in a well-established historic setting. There are only a few J-RPG brave enough to mix historical events and esoteric contents; therefore, we can almost define Shadow Hearts as a sort of historic Dark RPG. This is the main reason for its acclaim here in the Western World, or rather, for its uniqueness. When you created the characters and the environments, what did inspire you? Is there any specific movie or book that helped you with the creation of this world?

[Machida-san] Since I was just a little kid, I loved to daydream.

I’m fond of mythology, fairy tales, horror stories, traditions and habits, stories about divine creatures, the youkai, supernatural… and more.
I remember that I used to ask my mother for bedtime stories all the time before sleeping.
I learned that all of those stories came from a real fact, and by researching, I started to develop an interest in history.

I like to fantasize on the background of historical events. It always fascinated me.
To give an example of things I imagined

Lets go back to 150 years ago. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan started to modernize, and in 1904, after only 36 years, it managed to even come out as a winner in the war against Russia. Compared to nowadays, those 36 were massively dense for Japanese history. People who still lived sporting a chonmage hairstyle, and between ninjas, geisha and seppuku, after only 36 years managed, with iron ships built by themselves, to defeat the Russian Empire army.
To make an exaggerated comparison, its as if modern Japan built a robot waving a Hinomaru flag capable of defeating an alien spaceship on the surface of the moon! Just like in a manga.
If people from that time could hear me, they would probably think of me as impolite, but thats how I saw things through my imagination when I was a kid.

Since I grew up in a pro-American age, I’ve seen with my eyes only the new Tokyo that, after the Pacific war, rose from the ashes and entered a big progression phase. If we could go back to about 100 years ago though, we would be able to see the beautiful Tokyo of the Taisho age, built by the Japanese people who, at that time, were strongly influenced by the sophisticated western culture and technology.

When I learned how Japan used to be before the war, my mind was instantly filled with fascinating and amazing landscapes.
People dressing in Kimonos, living in houses built in a mixed oriental/western style, in a city barely lighted by neon and warm gas lamps. In the shadow of that age, many mysteries were still lurking and perhaps even youkai and inhuman creatures were hiding somewhere. I thought that one day I would have loved to tell people about this world. The idea thrilled me.
Thats how, when I was about 10 years old, a whole world combining fantasy and modernity was born in my mind.

Once I grew up, I started my career as a game creator, in the golden age of PS2.

The majority of Japanese RPGs were based on western world fantasy and sci-fi but, in my opinion, they all looked very alike. I like the “classic” fantasy, Lord of the Rings, or Excalibur style, but I wanted to create something that would stand out from the rest, a more peculiar world. Once I finally had the opportunity to work along with Koudelka on a project, I decided that I would have created a story that combined real historical events with fantasy, like a spiral drawn with a ribbon having reality and fiction on its sides. That’s how the Shadow Hearts project began.

Concerning things that influenced and inspired me, I can say I really enjoyed books, movies, and anime. In particular, I found plenty of inspiration in the works of Keisuke Fujikawa e Go Nagai. To be honest, though, what inspired my creativity the most were the stories my mother told me before sleeping.

*Keisuke Fujikawa is a famous Japanese writer who created a screenplay for many anime such as Mazinger Z, Uchuu Senkan Yamato (The Yamato Battleship), Galaxy Express 999.

Koudelka, Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts 2 relate to each other through Bad Endings. Should we consider the BAD ending of the second chapter as canonical? Why this choice of linking the saga through the grimmest epilogue?

[Machida-san] Shadow Hearts III doesn’t exist yet (meant as a progression of Yuri’s story, Shadow Hearts from the New World is the third chapter of the saga, but is not linked to the previous chapters), but I don’t think that the bad ending of part II is the real conclusion. I can’t tell you exactly what inspired that, but I’m sure that Yuri (the player), after seeing the destiny of part II, will lead Shadow Hearts I towards a good ending, proving that the actual conclusion of part II is a positive one. I’m sure about that.

Why for SH2 you decided to abandon the typical gloomy Horror-J-RPG style of Koudelka and SH 1, replacing it with a lighter screenplay (at least in the first part)? Was it due to marketing reasons? Don’t you think that, persisting on the comedy side, the saga might have lost its charm? After all, Shadow Hearts 3, which is the most “comic” part, resulted in the end of the franchise…

[Machida-San] After the release of Shadow Hearts, I received a lot of different type of feedbacks, among which several opinions about its being too dark, too scary, about monsters being too freakish and so on.

Honestly, to me they were nothing but compliments, although unfortunately there have also been “big fishes” who compared Shadow Hearts to other classic best sellers RPGS and told me “No! No! What are you doing? Look at how the other games are. Make something more standard”.

Part of what they said even made sense, and in the end I was even willing to adjust the atmosphere if that meant receiving a more positive support. Let’s just say it was a “political decision”.

That’s why in part II, in order to attract a wider public, we decided to go easy on the dark atmosphere and to reinforce it only in the most important scenes.

Uru (Yuri in the western version) is an atypical hero and the charm of the saga is wrapped around his charisma. He is not the typical, naive, androgynous main character, but apparently an arrogant boy. At first, he’s anguished over the memory of his missing father and later over the bereavement for the loss of his lover. Due to his abilities and attitude, I always thought you were inspired by Akira Fudo, main character of the manga “Devil Man” by Go Nagai, but I’d like to know your idea behind his creation.

[Machida-San] The rule I imposed to myself when creating the main character was: He absolutely needs to be different from the typical Japanese RPG main character” who, as you said, is naive and androgynous. At the same time, the muscular macho style characters of western game, are not really appreciated in Japan, so eventually we opted for a slim design.


Anyway, the cornerstone is in his attitude. The idea of Yuri was clear to me since the beginning, i.e. the unlikable dumb, who helps the weak and smashes the strong Hes a stupid with a sincere heart, praising morals and justice and thus hating falseness, selfishness and injustice. He doesnt despise them for a specific reason. His instinct simply gives him a sense of what is right and what is not, without using the law as ruler. This being silly and his hilarious, slightly childish side are what clearly differentiates him from typical videogame characters and, in my opinion, his most appreciated feature by fans. He shows his dumbness while talking, his strength with his actions. We were basing on this concept during the writing of the script.

You said that Yuri resembles Akira Fudo, the main character from “Devilman” by Go Nagai. It’s very true. Akira Fudo is exactly what I consider a hero. He has a boulder to carry: when he becomes Devilman he’s a monster, a despicable creature. But at the same time, without that power he wouldn’t be able to protect the people he loves from demons. Apparently, this is a contradiction, but actually that’s exactly how the society we live in works, the “grown-up” world. Even the world from “that age”, when Shadow Hearts take place, is rotten and filled with injustices, just like the real world. The “stupidity” of Yuri is the “purity” that we all had as children. Even though people can feel hurt or look silly, they shall not lose this treasure. I myself always think that I’d like to live my life with more self-confidence, just the way Yuri does, in this world where you can’t always turn your head.

[Kato-San] My answer concerns the character design point of view. In RPGs, the most important thing is the script, so my priority was to try and create a character as faithful as possible to the idea of Machida, the game director. Machida had already decided that Yuri would have red eyes and scruffy, short hair, so the first thing I thought about was the design of his body.

As of late, in a lot of Japanese games design comes first, but in Shadow Hearts part of the script was already in place, so I was able to start my work after having read and understood the historical setting, the plot and the personality of characters. For me it proved to be a very positive experience. My personal rule when I create a character design is to find the elements that collide, and lay emphasis on them, in order to highlight the unique features of each.

For example, about the main character Yuri and Alice, I managed to allow them to be compared to light and shadow. Yuri is a fighter, so he’s slim yet muscular, and to give him a wilder look during fights I figured out he should wear a long jacket and belt. In the PS2 period there were still a lot of limitations on what you could do with graphics, and I realize that animating these characters must have been not easy for the modeling and programming teams (chuckles).

Other appreciated details of the Shadow Hearts saga are the soundtrack and the design of monsters. Yoshitaka Hirota-san (and partly Yasunori Mitsuda-san) provided the chapters with a unique mix of musical influences which highlighted in the best possible way the mature atmosphere of the entire saga, introducing among others “ICARO”, the main theme which we’d love to hear again one day. In your opinion, did it manage to properly convey the spirit of your story? Does any specific creature or demon inspire the monsters in Shadow Hearts? Are you fans of H.P. Lovecraft?

[Machida-san] Shadow Hearts was lucky enough to have outstanding composers. Yoshitaka Hirota, Yasunori Mitsuda and even Kenji Ito. They perfectly expressed the unique and particular dark atmosphere of the story. I’m not expert at music, so I didn’t give them any direction to follow. I trusted their expertise and let them free. Every time a new track was ready I couldn’t wait to listen to it and I used their music as BGM while I was writing the script.

Personally I also genuinely enjoy the ending in Shadow Hearts II, “Getsurenka”. The lyrics of the song perfectly reflect the real feelings of Karin, every time I hear it I feel touched. I highly recommend you to read the translated lyrics.

Concerning the design of monsters, I like H.P. Lovecraft a lot.

To create monsters in Shadow Hearts I drew plenty of inspiration from the legend of Cthulhu. Most of the monsters seen in anime or movies are typically just deformed versions of real existing creatures, like dinosaurs or other animals, but I think that H.P. Lovecraft managed to create something that goes behind those standard schemes. Starting with part II, the atmosphere got a bit lighter, but the design of monsters is still loyal to the concept of the Shadow Hearts saga, even in From The New World.

 The female main character in Shadow Hearts 2, Karin, couldn’t replace Alice in Uru’s (Yuri’s) heart. Is the idea of letting her replacing his mother a way to introduce a “selfless love” that goes beyond the typical adolescent love stories so common in J-RPG? This choice wasn’t really popular in the western world, what do you think about that?

[Machida-San] Regarding the ending, where Karin becomes Yuri’s mother, I was actually unsure myself until the end when I wrote the script .
According to few people, it would have been better to create a happy ending where Yuri accepts Karin and the two, now survivors, become a couple. However, I preferred to keep a pure love theme. If Yuri accepted Karin, he wouldn’t have had a motivation strong enough to decide to go back to the past and change it. When I finished writing the ending I felt the way I did many years before, when it took me an entire night to decide between Flora (“Nera” in the western adaptation) or Bianca. Maybe if I hadn’t played Dragon Quest V, the ending of Shadow Hearts II would have been different (laughs).

Albert Simon is one of the most fascinating and deceptive foes in the history of J-RPGs, given his paced and smart look and his seraphic nature. How was this character born? Who are the characters that you and Kato-San loved the most in the saga?

[Machida-San] The model we used to create Albert is the character of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the LambsDr Lecter. A gentleman that hides his madness behind a smile.
The first time I saw the movie, it hit me very hard. Although Lecter symbolized evil, in a certain way he also held a role of dark hero. In the horror that he conveyed you could also perceive a sort of purity, and this contrast deeply fascinated me.
In Shadow Hearts, Albert was simply the bad guy but in part II, where Rasputin and Jovis appear, eventually his reason to fight and idea of justice become clear. It is my opinion that every person have their own idea of justice and truth, and I thought that by showing this new side of the character the player, through Yuri, would have retained an even different impression compared to Shadow Hearts I. The character I have loved the most is certainly Yuri.

But let me talk for a while also about his father Jinpachiro Hyuga (Ben in the western adaptation).

Hyuga is to me the ideal father. Probably owing to the fact that I grew up in a fatherless family, I would have wanted one like him, and I myself would like to become that kind of father. It was these feelings that led me to create his character. Should a sequel of Shadow Hearts ever exist, I would like to use Jinpachiro Hyuga as main character.

[Kato-san] I created the design of Albert Simon basing on directions by Machida, who described him as “an elegant English gentleman”. Differently from Dehuai, who had his headquarters in Shanghai, Albert has a very refined appearance, to the point that he doesn’t even look like evil and I hope that this might make his secret craving for revenge against society look even more terrifying. The characters I loved the most are Yuri and Alice because they’re the ones that took me a long time to figure out how to design them, but also Nicolai (cardinal Nicholas Conrad in the Japanese version) from part II really impressed me for his unfortunate story. I found both his life and death very sad and I actually hoped that one day he might find happiness.

After Shadow Hearts you have been working on a project titled Arms’ Heart which, unfortunately, never made its way to the West. Can you briefly tell us about it? What are you and Kato-san working on now? Will we ever enjoy your new works in the West?

 [Machida-San] “Arms’ Heart” is a steam punk fantasy styled RPG. It’s the story of Jenah, the youngest, mechanical-hearted son of a mafia family who, in order to defeat his enemy, comes to the point where he has to choose whether staying human or becoming a mechanical god. Due to the plot, originally the title should have been “Deus ex Machina” (The Mechanical God). Eventually though, because of how things developed the game was released with a different title.

Game wise, unfortunately I can’t state to have managed to create a satisfying product. I loved the characters though, the steam punk world and the story, so one day I would like to give it another go. Moreover, the atmosphere of this game is basically the same as the one I’m using in “Akkan no Grimoire” (Grimorium Verum of Thirteenth), a novel I’m writing just out of passion. Unfortunately, right now I can’t reveal any detail of it, but I’m working on a new game. In the future, I would love to create a western adaptation of it.

Have you ever thought about turning to crowd funding or to sites such as Kickstarter to fund your projects? A few well-known Japanese designers including Yu Suzuki, Keiji Inafune and Koji Igarashi have found new lifeblood through funding from fans. Do you think that there’s no place anymore in current market for a saga with the features of your J-RPG? Would you like to go back to creating a J-RPG that could seize the historic-horror heritage of the saga?

[Machida-San] I know crowd funding and if I was to have a potentially successful idea I wouldn’t mind to use it. I think highly of Suzuki, Inafune and all the other colleagues who bravely decided to try it, and I wish them the very best. I guess that there are people interested in an RPG with features from Shadow Hearts, but I also feel that they are a minority compared to fans of other RPGs in general. On a personal level, obviously the presence of such fans is indeed precious. Should I get the chance to, one day I would like to create something able to answer their expectations, and I would definitely throw all of myself into it.

And now a key question: should Yuri (Uru) meet the main character from Shadow Hearts III, what would he say to him?

[Machida-San] Well, obviously “How’s it going?” isn’t it? (laughing)

We’re almost at salutations, but before that part we gathered on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook a few questions from American and European fans that we’d like to ask you.

How much time did you reserve for historical research before writing the script of Shadow Hearts? Are there any historical characters you couldn’t include due to production cuts? I want to let you know that this Scottish fan is immensely thankful to you for making him move with your saga! – TriannaTake2

 [Machida-San]I carried out an extensive research about the international situation and habits of different countries before and after World War I but, having a second thought about it, I guess that anyway it wasn’t enough. I was particularly careful not to limit myself to a mere chronological observation of facts, but rather to try to understand how people involved felt.

I tried to convey in dialogues the social conditions of that age. There are many characters that I would have liked to include in the story. Hitler living on paintings selling, or Richthofen before becoming a legend in aviation. The activist De Gasperi when he was just an editor, or young Ferragamo when he was a skilled shoemaker. Or even Welles, held as father of science fiction.

Eventually, while I was thinking about who and how to make them appear, the available time expired…

 Judgment Ring was a terrific invention! Was any food for thought available to you when you created it? – kytokinesis

[Machida-San] Thank you so much. In order to create the judgment ring we drew inspiration from beat’em ups. The difference consists in the fact that, being the game an RPG, instead of using complicated combinations we opted for a simple system based on timing. We created it so that, once the hit area of the ring had been visible, the player was able to instinctively understand the difficulty.

 I loved the Shadow Hearts saga so much! Will we ever be able to play a remake or remaster of these titles? – samuraigaiden

[Machida-San] Thank you so much. Currently there’s no such project, but I will continue to work hard with the rest of the staff to make so that one day it will be possible.