The Creator Of Yakuza And Judgment Brutally Owned My Haircut

At E3, I had an opportunity to sit down with Toshihiro Nagoshi, chief creative officer of Sega and the director of both the Yakuza games and the upcoming not-exactly-a-spinoff game Judgment for a half an hour. Basking in the chance to ask my personal favorite industry luminary anything I wanted, I of course inquired about jackets and haircuts.

Toshihiro Nagoshi has done just about everything a person in the video game industry can do. Seriously, look at his credits on Moby Games. Sitting down and talking to him is like sitting down and talking to the history of the Japanese video game industry. He was a game designer on Daytona USA. He was the producer of F-Zero GX. He directed Super Monkey Ball. He’s done 3D art. He’s written stories. In recent years, he’s most famous as the producer of the Yakuza series. The Yakuza team’s new game, Judgment, comes out tomorrow.

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On the one hand, with E3 happening loudly outside the paper-thin walls of our interview booth, I felt the urgent need to extract newsworthy sound bites from this man.

On the other hand, at some point between producing F-Zero GX and conceiving the Yakuza series, Toshihiro Nagoshi became my personal style icon. In other words, he terrifies me.

I don’t say this facetiously. I first met Nagoshi at the Nintendo booth at E3 2003. This was a year before Reggie and the Nintendo DS. Nintendo’s big draws that year were The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures on the Gamecube and a beautiful deluxe cabinet of F-Zero AX, the arcade counterpart of F-Zero GX. I was lucky enough to enjoy a half-dozen races in AX’s big, loud, tilting, twirling cockpit with minimal line waiting in between go-rounds. It was a simpler time.

At one point, I noticed Toshihiro Nagoshi himself standing by, watching attendees play the game. It would be released in a little over a month. I was a bigger weirdo then than I am now, so I walked right over and told him I loved Daytona USA. We talked for several minutes. Somehow, despite my being a weirdo, looking like a scumbag, and speaking pretty bad Japanese, my kind words about Daytona, Super Monkey Ball, and F-Zero must have entertained him enough to earn me his business card and a casual invitation to “get a drink sometime” when we were both back in Tokyo.

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I emailed him exactly once. I said, “Hey, I’m the American guy who loved F-Zero and Daytona.” He replied before the end of the day. He said I could stop by Sega’s office any time and play more F-Zero if I wanted. I never took him up on it, probably because I have no self-esteem and assumed he was just being polite.

The next time I met Nagoshi, it was at Tokyo Game Show 2005. My friend Brandon Sheffield, then editor-in-chief of Game Developer magazine, had booked an interview with him on the subject of his upcoming game Ryu ga Gotoku—the first Yakuza game, which Sega PR was translating at the time as “Like a Dragon.” A localization of the game had not been announced as of September of 2005, though Brandon and I shared similarly curious tastes, so we had wanted to talk to Nagoshi about it. Sega PR obliged.

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I hadn’t seen Nagoshi in person in two years. The man who appeared before us looked like he’d been through a wringer of reality television makeover shows. He looked like there’d been a whole season of Queer Eye with just him on every episode. The guy had transformed. As I squinted at his brilliance, I struggled to recall the blown-away afterimage of the man from two years previous. He’d been wearing a suit. The suit had been gray. His hair had been long. He had looked like a friendly game developer. The guy who sat before us in 2005 looked like he drove Lamborghinis on the beach.

He answered our questions matter-of-factly.

Brandon Sheffield had been drinking. Not that day, per se, though he’d been drinking so consistently that week that it’s impossible to say he was clear of the wicked influence when Nagoshi began taking our questions. By the end of the long, cold interview, whatever weird urge remained nauseating at Brandon’s core had evidently bubbled up. Brandon, no doubt seeking for some visceral reaction or another out of the man, produced a digital camera from his backpack.

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“So Ryu ga Gotoku has Don Quijote in it, right?”

“Yes,” Nagoshi said.

“We love Don Quijote,” Brandon said. We were referring, of course, to the large, always-open, impossible-to-navigate, everything-selling chain of Tower-of-Babel-like Tokyo department stores. They are roguelike-made-architecture.

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“We love the theme song,” I offered.

Nagoshi nodded in agreement.

“We also love the store,” Brandon said.

Nagoshi nodded again.

“It’s itsudemo manzoku fushigina janguru,” I said, quoting the store’s theme song.

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Nagoshi nodded.

“It’s nandemo sorotta benri na omise,” Brandon said.

Again, Nagoshi nodded.

I quoted another line from the theme song in a casual speaking cadence. Again, Nagoshi nodded stone-facedly.

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“Here is a video of us enjoying Don Quijote,” Brandon said. He flipped his digital camera around. Playing on the tiny screen was a video of myself and Brandon Sheffield, each of us wearing a different suburban mall’s Halloween store’s approximation of a business suit, dancing a garish twist in front of the Kabukicho Don Quijote the previous night as the store’s theme song bellowed from an unseen boombox. At the time, Brandon had been very drunk; I had no such excuse. Let’s not even talk about the innocent passerby who Brandon had begged to shoot the video.

Nagoshi stared at the video for thirty seconds. His lips pursed for one moment. I distinctly recall his eyes tentatively narrowing for a fraction of a second as though in the tremor before a grin. No such grin came.

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Naruhodo,” he said. (“Ah. I see.”)

Fourteen years later, at E3 2019, I summarized this to Nagoshi as “I met you once, at E3 2003. Then I met you again in 2005. You—of all the people in the video game industry, I think you have the best sense of style.” The compliment worked: he spoke, uninterrupted, about his clothes-buying habits for a full eight of my allotted thirty minutes. If you pause this video at just the right moment, you can see me wishing I’d just flat-out sincerely complimented his outfit back in 2005.

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Nagoshi at E3 2019 was every bit as fashionable as he has been since 2005. He spoke of his work like a proud parent. He smiled and laughed many, many times during our interview. Especially at my final question, for which I asked him what I should do with my hair.

As the video shoot concluded and producer Matthew Reyes and I were putting away our camera gear, Nagoshi came to me smiling. He had his phone in his hand. “Look at this,” he said.

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I froze. Oh my god. Was he about to show me a video of himself dancing a dainty twist in front of the Kabukicho Don Quijote? Had my career come full circle? Was I about to literally die of incredible shock?

He turned the phone around. It was LINE messenger. The name at the top of the chat was “Kimura-san.”

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“I told Takuya Kimura about our interview,” he said.

I read Nagoshi’s most recent message.

“I met an American in Los Angeles who knows a lot about your dramas.”

Takuya Kimura had replied: “That’s great!”

So, in summary: I’m basically best friends with Takuya Kimura now.

If you check out this video, you will hear Nagoshi talk about his work, how the tonal differences between Judgment and Yakuza inform the depths of the game design, the decision to collaborate with the superstar-famous actor Takuya Kimura, his personal fashion philosophy, and the challenge of designing the exact jacket a real former lawyer-turned-tough guy detective would wear on the streets of Tokyo in 2018. Also, you will hear him brutally own my haircut. (By “brutally own,” I mean he was polite and constructively critical, which my low self-esteem requires me to consider brutal ownage.)

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Note: this video interview has been edited for length, clarity, my haircut’s dignity, and to make me look like slightly less of an idiot.

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About the author

Tim Rogers

I make videos for Kotaku. I make video games for myself and my friends. I like writing fiction. Someday I will publish a novel. Who knows!