USG: Going back, your key illustrations of Terra and the Magitek Armor from FFVI were the first paintings I ever saw by you. They were so striking — I just stopped and looked and said, "Wow, that’s amazing."
YA: The image I had in my mind when I drew this was the industrial revolution in England. FFVI was the first time that mech robots showed up in the Final Fantasy series, and from here and beyond it was mech-based. I'm really into robots and mech, so that’s why I created this kind of image.
USG: When I look through books that collect your works and then see the video games, compare the video games that were based on the illustrations you created, it’s almost like peeling back layers and saying, how do they get to this pixel art from this illustration? How involved were you in the classic Final Fantasies, with taking those images and turning them into what was on the screen?
YA: From Final Fantasy I to IV, what they would do is approach me and ask me to draw, for example, Bahamut — to draw this or that. You know, outside of Japan, Bahamut is known as a being with a sheep's face. But I didn’t know that, so I was thinking maybe a dragon sounds really cool, so I created a mecha dragon for Bahamut. Now everybody in Japan, when you say Bahamut, they just picture the mecha dragon, never the sheep thing. That’s actually written in Wikipedia. I inadvertently made the standards for Bahamut in Japan! My point is that the influence of a game is really big — my art defined the image of the legendary creature Bahamut is in Japan.
So, from I to IV, they would ask me to draw specific images for each creature or monster or character. But from V and beyond, what they would do is take the basics that I had already created and rearrange the art. So whenever they had a new creature or monster, they would come to me and ask me to create the original of it. I guess to answer your question, the process has been that they gave me keywords and asked me to create the original image of it. Then from there and beyond, they would take that and implement it into the game on their own. After I submitted my drawings, I wasn't involved in the game process.
USG: Do you still ever contribute designs to the Final Fantasy series or do you just do key art illustrations after the fact?
YA: I do the key visual — the logo, the poster art, the package art, and key visuals like that. But lately, I don’t do the character art or the monster art. [Laughing] I'm not an employee of Square Enix. I'm a freelancer.
USG: If they came to you and asked you to design characters, would you want to do that or do you prefer doing some of the bigger-picture type things?
YS: Of course, if they ask, I would draw it. I'd would do either one if they asked — it’s easier to make the characters or the monsters than creating key art. I created a poster for the whole series and had to draw in all of the characters from I to XIII. That was pretty tough! It’s much easier to create the original. But now, I don't remember every single character, so I had to go back and remind myself what they looked like and reproduce them, so that poster was a lot of hard work. There was a crystal in the middle and all the characters around the crystal so it was pretty complicated. It’s way easier to create something original.
USG: I don’t think that I’ve seen that poster. It sounds interesting. I will have to go look at it.
YA: It’s the cover of a box, so it was for the 25th anniversary of the series.
USG: I’ve noticed in recent years your work has been most strongly associated with Final Fantasy XI and XIV, specifically. Do you know why they’ve chosen to work with you so closely on those two particular games?
YA: I'm not really sure, but those are online games. So, since they’re online titles, it’s not just one package. It goes on for a long time, so maybe that might have been the reason. I'm not too sure.
With Final Fantasy XI, they asked me to create a map of the world. And creating a map is not something I'm good at. So I got to thinking, "Well, Final Fantasy is a mythology, it’s an online game, so everyone in the world will be playing this game. I’ll just create an image with a mythology element to it." And that’s how I created the map for Final Fantasy XI. Years and decades from now, if in the future people will dig up this art piece that I've created, it’d be exciting if they’re wondering, "Did this world actually exist?" [laughs] That’s a super fantasy kind of thought, but I really got excited about that notion, so that’s what I was thinking about when I created this piece. So if you go to Square’s office, you will see the piece. It’s in their lobby. Well, it was at the previous office... I think it’s still there in the current office.
USG: They have a lot of your poster prints or paintings up in their headquarters. I know that even when you don’t do the design art, the original art, for a Final Fantasy game, you still contribute illustrations and key illustrations, images, that sort of thing, to each game. Is the process different for you when you’re working on a game where you didn’t have any involvement in on the creative side? Working on illustrations for Final Fantasy XIII, is that different for you than working on images from Final Fantasy IV?
YA: Recently, the characters come to me already designed, so basically what Square Enix asks is, "Can you draw this in your style?" And honestly, I didn't exactly know what they meant for a while. However, nowadays, how I understand the work I do for Square Enix is that I put in the flavor of "Final Fantasy" — basically, I paint the Final Fantasy flavor into all of their art to make it look like "Final Fantasy.' That’s how I think of my participation when they approach me.
USG: Have you done much work for Final Fantasy XV yet?
YA: I just finished a [Final Fantasy] project last week, and I'm currently still working on a project right now. There are so many titles that honestly, I'm not sure if one of them was XV or not. There’s a whole bunch of Final Fantasy projects that I have been working on, and am still working on, but I'm not sure which specific game I'm dealing with. The only thing that’s different for me is the person I talk to from Square Enix. The person I meet with will be different from game to game, but I'm still not sure which project is which.
USG: The career path you’ve taken — you got your start and made your name doing commercial pop culture art for anime and then video games and then comics and then, now you’ve moved into fine art, contemporary art. That’s pretty uncommon. You don’t see a lot of pop culture artists able to make that transition. Maybe Jim Steranko or someone in American comics, but it’s really unusual. What do you think it is about your work that has enabled you to make that jump from pop art, commercial art, to something more creatively driven?
YS: It’s not that I had contemporary art or fine art as a goal and worked my career upward. It was more like I was just working on the thing that interested me the most, and I work really hard. I draw a lot. I'm drawing, drawing, drawing to the point where there’s not much to do anymore here, or I’m kind of bored of doing this because I’ve been doing it over and over again. And then I will move on to the next thing that catches my interest. Like now, I'm drawing what I want to draw, and maybe that just happens to be something in the fine art category, and that’s the only reason that I'm here right now. That’s how I've been moving. I haven’t always had some big goal. Maybe somewhere in my mind, subconsciously, without my knowing about it... but for me, as far as I'm conscious of, I'm only thinking about the super near future in front of me.
I'm not sure if that answered your question, but it's how I honestly feel.