Due Diligence: That Time I Met Tetsuya Nomura

Due Diligence: That Time I Met Tetsuya Nomura

Leigh Harrison meets his maker.

Seven mops. By anyone’s standards, that’s a lot of mops.

It’s early June in the East End of London, and I’m about to meet a childhood hero. As I wait, I stare at the neat row of cleaning apparatus hanging from the wall opposite. I’m at EE3, the European leg of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. This year’s venue is the George Tavern, a pub in Whitechapel where the toilet in the men’s room has started to sink through the floor. Seven mops.

Away from all the buzz of the show floor, I find myself perched on a box of bleach cartons in a downstairs utility room. It’s no bigger than a department store changing cubicle, though rather than smelling faintly of feet, it smells mainly of soggy wood and ammonia. This is exactly the sort of off-kilter place I’d expect to meet Tetsuya Nomura, auteur provocateur and captain of the good ship Kingdom Hearts.

This is a massive honor, given my longtime interest in the series. Especially because he’s flown in to see me whilst at the same time appearing on stage at the main expo in Los Angeles. At first, I wasn’t sure how this was even going to be possible. But Dave the landlord – who also runs EE3 – reminded me of the time difference between the West Coast and London. This was Tetsuya Nomura, no question.

In he strides, brushing the plastic sheet covering the doorway to one side. A gentle breeze of fresh pub air dances through the room for a moment. As the door closes, it vanishes under the familiar scents of damp and the human filth clinging to all those mops. Nomura lowers himself onto a beer keg in silence. He’s sat bolt upright, hands clasped betwixt manspread thighs. I glance at him and smile. Then, wholly intimidated, begin staring at the bare energy-saving lightbulb hanging above us.

Here it comes.

“Nomura-san, I love the Kingdom Hearts series,” I say, still transfixed by the ceiling. “What inspired you to combine Disney and Final Fantasy? And in such an elegant way, might I add.”

In such an elegant way? WHAT am I thinking? I’m a credible critic of seven years (!) and I’ve launched into an interview like a sycophantic amateur. I imagine Nomura will stand up and leave our cloistered cupboard of chat this instant. But he doesn’t.

“Well – and may I say what a wonderful question that is,” replies Nomura, not at all phased by my adoration. I relax a little at this and decide it’s safe to resume eye contact. The designer goes on to tell me how proud he is of his life’s work, of characters like Cloud Strife, Squall Leonhart, and Sephiroth Jones.

“They’re all icons in their own right. I wanted to harness the power of the PlayStation 2 to bring them to life in an exciting new way. I mean, I won’t lie. All I could think about in the early days of the project were the extra polygons I could use creating spiky hair!” Nomura does a little laugh-snort, clearly amused to be living up to his absurd public caricature. “You can convey so much through expressive hair.”

I press: “But why Disney, specifically?”

“Dante and Beatrice. Bonnie and Clyde. Cloud and Aerith. They’re all timeless,” says Nomura. He tells me he spent most of the late ‘90s searching in vain for a suitable pairing for his creations. “Nothing was as culturally important as Final Fantasy back then. Nothing.”

It wasn’t until the release of Disney’s Tarzan in 1999 that he began even considering the studio’s oeuvre. “I loved the Lion King,” he gushes, “but couldn’t get past the soundtrack. Elton John is a talented musician – I want to go on record with that – but when it comes to piano-based singer-songwriters, nobody comes close to Billy Joel. He’s the Final Fantasy of popular piano music, I suppose!”

But it was another musician, Phil Collins, the former Genesis drummer-cum-frontman and writer of five songs for Tarzan, who would prove instrumental in the creation of Kingdom Hearts. Nomura had met Collins in 1987, backstage during the Japanese leg of Genesis’ Invisible Touch Tour, and the two had remained in contact ever since.

“Phil called me up once the edit was locked on Tarzan and invited me to fly out for a viewing. I don’t think I blinked a single time during the whole movie. I was spellbound. The characters, animation, and songs – everything about it was magical. To this day it’s still one of my favorite movies, after Advent Children.”

As soon as the revelatory viewing party was over, Nomura headed to the Disney Vault and bought a mountain of tapes. “I watched every single Disney theatrical release in one feverish week-long marathon,” Nomura remembers fondly. “After that, I was a convert.”

The calm and poise of the man who walked into the room minutes ago are nowhere to be seen. He’s animated and gesticulating wildly, and with every heartfelt movement is mere inches away from sloshing soggy mop water across the room. But neither of us cares. We’re having too much fun.

“At that point, I realized that Disney was the perfect fit.” And when you think about it, he’s completely right. The grand tales of good versus evil; the morality at the heart of their stories; the humor; the pathos. Disney and Final Fantasy operate on very similar planes. “And so I sketched out a plot that brought all these wonderful elements together. I think it took me less time to write the script than it did to watch all the movies.”

Kingdom Hearts I is the gleeful and nonsensical mashup that resulted. In it, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty unleashes a hoard of soul-sucking beasties called the Heartless, monsters created when people succumb to darkness, to take over the Disney/Final Fantasy multiverse. Child protagonists Sora, Riku, and Kairi put an end to this by battling bad guys like Jafar, Captain Hook, and Ursula, in action RPG levels inspired by their movies. Nomura’s boys Cloud, Squall, and Sephiroth, along with a whole host of other Final Fantasy characters, fill out their end of the roster.

It shouldn’t work at all, but the two properties share so much DNA – narratively, symbolically, thematically – that it does. Disney and Final Fantasy do not exist in the same art style, let alone the same universe. But in deftly slotting his characters – who already conformed to recognizable archetypes – into corresponding roles within Disney stories, Nomura managed to make it work.

Squall is a brooding-yet-charismatic leader in Final Fantasy VIII, so he’s perfect as the brooding-yet-charismatic resistance leader going up against Maleficent. “KH I, I always say, is a Disney story with Final Fantasy characters in it. It’s simple: save the princesses, defeat the bad guys, save the world.”

If that’s the case for KH I, how, then, would Nomura describe KH II? “That’s a Final Fantasy story with Disney characters in it,” chuckles the designer.

For the first five hours of KH II, you play as Roxas, a new child protagonist adorned with what was, at the time, Nomura’s spikiest hair yet. The prologue is a very long tutorial that introduces game mechanics, but it also sets the stage for the game’s labyrinthine story. Roxas is pursued by a new enemy, the Nobodies, phantoms created when beings with particularly strong hearts become Heartless. (Imagine that a Heartless is a zombie and a Nobody is a ghost. When they die, great people like Sir Phil Collins would spawn both.)  He’s watched throughout by DiZ, a seemingly omniscient character of ambiguous allegiance, and Ansem, the real chief antagonist from KH I (Maleficent was a mere pawn and he is supposed to be dead).

Roxas dies at the end of this intro, sacrificing himself to awaken Sora from suspended animation. The rest of the game sees Sora once again traveling through Disney worlds, this time to learn more about the Nobodies and stop their probably nefarious plans.

KH II isn’t really concerned with these adventures, though. Where KH I was a game about the dream mashup of its premise, here there’s more delineation. You play a Disney story – say, relive the events of The Lion King – and then get to see a bit more of the Nobodies plot. The two aspects aren’t linked in any meaningful way beyond happening to coexist in the same game.

“With I I’d already achieved everything I set out to with Final Fantasy meets Disney. I’d picked my favorite movies – you’ll notice Tarzan is one of the first levels – and had a blast translating them into my game. In II, I wanted to break from the constraints of telling a simple Disney story. I don’t think players wanted to see that again. So I distanced the plot from the Disney elements.”

As KH II progresses, the amount of Disney content decreases, until, by the game’s last 10 hours, it vanishes completely. “The most powerful thing about II is the world-building. In I, Donald, Goofy, and Mickey are Disney characters. Throughout II, though, they become Kingdom Hearts characters. They’ll always be Walt’s on some level, but I created my version of them here. They transcend the origins of the mashup and became fully-fledged characters. For the first time, they had believable motivations and arcs within the Kingdom Hearts universe itself.”

This back portion of the game also harbors many revelations. “I wanted there to be surprises for the player,” beams Nomura, playfully.

Ansem, it turns out, is Riku who just looks like Ansem. The Ansem we knew in KH I was not, in fact, Ansem, rather the Heartless of Ansem’s apprentice, Xehanort, whose Nobody, the big bad of KH II, is called Xemnas, who was, for a time, the boss of Roxas, Sora’s Nobody who was created when Sora briefly turned into a Heartless in KH I. Oh, and DiZ, the lad watching Roxas with fake Ansem Riku during the prologue, he’s the real Ansem, who’s actually a good guy and has been working with Mickey Mouse all along. Yeah.

I stare, dead-eyed yet politely, at Nomura, willing him to justify this level of convolution. “It’s ambitious and I will not apologize for that.” He goes on to cite the 23-minute Genesis song Supper’s Ready and the kitchen sink drama of Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant as inspirations.

“I wanted to tell the stories of these characters. The Disney hook was only ever intended as a jumping-off point for the first couple of games. Kingdom Hearts was always more about Sora, Riku, and Kairi than it was Mulan or Beauty and the Beast or whatever. It’s about their struggles, their growth. This is what the series was always going to be in my mind.”

But at the cost of the wider public’s goodwill? It’s a commonly held truism that the plot of Kingdom Hearts is nonsense. “You’re a fan. You understand it,” says Nomura, with force. “There are twists and there are turns. I withhold information from players for the sake of drama. I introduce new characters and retcon my own stories. I do this all for the players. I believe that they are intelligent enough and interested enough to follow this story and allow me to take them on a journey. All I ask is that they are as invested in it as I am.”

With that Nomura rises. I switch off my dictaphone; the interview is over.

As he leaves the room, Nomura turns to me. “Does it smell terrible in here, or is it me?” I reply in the affirmative, asking if he chose the room to create some sort of cryptic ambience. “Na, mate,” he responds. “Dave told me to do the interview in here if I wanted my fifty quid. I’ll ask him for a hundred when I see him, though. Danger money,” he chuckles, while heading through the door.

As Nomura slips off into the humid night air, I can’t help but think this is probably my high watermark with the series. To sit down with its creator and learn its most intimate secrets. With all I’ve seen and experienced, can it ever possibly be this good again?

Leigh Harrison lives in London, and works in communications for a medical charity. He likes canals and rivers a great deal, and spends a lot of his time walking. He occasionally says things about videogames on the Internet, and other things on The Twitter.