There have always been differences between the way Japan and the rest of the world approach game design, but in recent years, there's a growing divide around the representation and depiction of women. This isn't true of all Japanese games, obviously, but it's why companies like Nintendo have found themselves at the center of heated controversies when they change the way some women are portrayed during the localization process. What irritates more than anything, however, is a lack of transparency: why are things happening this way?
In my years of reporting on this subject, one of the more consistent roadblocks I've hit is getting Japanese game designers to speak openly and honestly about this subject. Clearly, some in Japan think about sexuality and depictions of sexuality differently, but you don't usually see the creators responsible for those decisions talking about why. That's not true today.
There are few Japanese game developers as outspoken as Kenichiro Takaki, producer on the "busty brawler" series known as Senran Kagura. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Takaki doesn't make apologies for the sexual content in his games. Senran Kagura is full of panty shots, women bursting out clothes, and girls touching each other suggestively. You might not be into that—I'm not!—but Senran Kagura is a popular series where sex is part of the appeal.
(After playing a few hours, it's clear that it's a pretty good brawler, too.)
After reading interviews where Takaki owned up to this, rather than dancing around it, I had to talk to him about it. Fortunately, Takaki agreed to speak with me via translator over email. What's featured below is the back-and-forth conversation we've had over the past few weeks.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Waypoint: What inspired you to become a game designer in the first place?
Kenichiro Takaki: I don't remember what really inspired me to become a game designer, but I really liked drawing, building robots with blocks, and creating my own card games by using few pieces of paper. As a child, my friends and I would play with the things I drew and built, so I've always wanted to become a person who could create something that entertains people. Out of all the parts of the entertainment industry, I've been attracted to the interactivity of video games.
As a designer, what has changed about you since you first got into the industry?
When I first entered the industry, I originally thought that a game's mechanics were its only important aspect, and I didn't think much about games' characters or story. After experiencing the development process for few titles, I started to realize that the way I was thinking wasn't right, and I realized that balancing each aspect is very important to creating games. That experience helped me understand that world-building and character development are two of the most important aspects when creating games.
Can you talk about the original inspiration for Senran Kagura , the series you're most known for?
I wanted to create something that is very easy to understand but very deep and detailed for those who appreciate beautiful female characters. The first Senran Kagura was a very tight-budget project, and I didn't expect it would sell much. I didn't even think of the game going outside of Japan, so I decided to do my best to pursue what I wanted to do, and that turned out great as the game became very deep and detailed, and a fan base started to grow. I
had the idea of Burst, the sequel to the first one, from the beginning, but at the same time, I didn't think it would grow to be the series it's become.
I have to imagine you have a favorite character?
I'd have to say Kagura is my favorite character since she walks hand-in-hand with death. She was first introduced in Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson. To be frank, when we were working on the first Senran Kagura, all the characters were supposed to die at the end. Because the game started as a small project, I wanted the ending to have a big impact on the players. I really didn't expect it to become a series! However, once production ramped up, I started to feel as though I didn't want to put my characters in that situation—I wanted them to stay alive. The more I thought about their deaths, the more the girls' personalities shone in the game, so I decided to change the ending.
So I guess you could say Kagura is kind of my personal specter of death, and I believe that her presence in the game will give the other characters a chance to shine.
You're one of the few Japanese developers who is unafraid to express why they put sexual content into their games: because you like it. Why is that?
I'm not afraid of adding sexual content into the games, as I would always love to make games that players have been waiting for. I'm more afraid of running out of inspiration or ideas and not being able to create anything that entertains people. As long as I know what I want to create and there're fans waiting for my titles, I have no reason to stop making these games.
What prompted you to introduce sexuality into your games in the first place?
During the development of a certain PS3 title, which I was involved in before Senran Kagura or Ikkitousen, I was thinking how we could make the game's boss battles more impactful, and I simply thought that I would be very happy if an extremely attractive lady showed up once you destroyed the boss's armor. I apologize if this comes off as a "guys' point of view." Unfortunately, that title wasn't able to make it to the public, but I was able to implement the idea into the Senran Kagura series, which we sometimes call the "busty brawler" series.
What do you think sexuality adds to your games? Is it style? Is it humor? Is it purely meant to arouse?
I guess it's become a style nowadays. People who are not interested in this type of game might think Senran Kagura is just another sexual game, but I'm always very careful of how I implement that element into the game, how I portray the sexual aspects, and how that element should appear in context. I don't think it's hard to imitate what I do in terms of costume destruction, but I believe overall, I've built up my own sense of balance and style when it comes to in-game sexuality.
There's a growing divide between how Japan and the rest of the world views the sexualization of women in games. What's your response to this shift, and has it given you pause about what you put in your games?
I've been careful of how we treat sexual content in games, but I don't want to pause in what I do. I understand that there should be some types of restrictions, but if there are too many rules or restrictions, not only will games become very boring, but the world will too. It's important to make everyone happy, but at the same time, we don't want to contradict people who are looking for this type of entertainment, and we'd rather be the ones who can provide something entertaining and different.
People who are not interested in this type of game might think Senran Kagura is just another sexual game, but I'm always very careful of how I implement that element into the game, how I portray the sexual aspects, and how that element should appear in context.
When some Japanese games are brought over to the US, there are changes made to the sexual content, including the young ages (some as young as 14) of some characters. Some fans call this censorship, others call this localization meant to ensure the game can be sold to the largest audience possible outside of Japan. How do you feel about it?
It is necessary to consider cultural differences. However, we have a policy of trying not to revise contents based on regulations for my titles like Senran Kagura and Valkyrie Drive . If there is any content or section that does need to be revised, I would love to change that part with different ideas and recreate something else for that section. I don't think fans are looking forward to seeing illustrations that show less exposure than the original (Japanese) version. I've had similar experiences, where I was so disappointed by games that have less gore than their original versions. From the beginning, I wasn't expecting to create a wide fan base on this series, so I just want to keep this deep detail and stay true to the core.
Have you been involved in any changes made to your games when they were brought west, in terms of sexual content? How did you handle it?
We've never really changed anything on the gameplay front, but we have been asked to cover up character illustrations on the North American cover art before. The originals showed a little too much skin for the ratings board to allow on store shelves. So, instead of putting more clothes on characters, we drew a new illustration for the North American box. I think that was the right decision, since this way, fans were able to see a brand new illustration. Because of that, I now feel we need to put more thought into our box art, not only because of the ratings boards, but because the game's going to be seen by lots of different people in stores and online, some of whom might be a little taken aback by the illustrations.
Do you ever feel some of your Japanese colleagues push the line too far in how they sexualize women in games?
Haha, yes, multiple times.
What bothered you?
I'd rather not name any specific titles, but I'll just say that one of the most important elements for us to balance with the sexual element of Senran Kagura is humor. I also don't like the idea of sexual aspects in a game without any reason.
For example, the costume destruction all results organically from battle against other characters, or when Asuka crosses her arms to draw her swords from her waist, that movement would emphasize her boobs, but there's a reason for that. When characters lose their clothes, or there's a focus on their boobs or an upskirt, it should be supported with some sort of reason. Even when it comes to the illustrations, I always try to think about the stories behind them and try to make sure that people can see where the image organically stems from. I believe most guys—myself included—are sort of romantics. There's something clinical and unexciting when someone just stops and gets naked in front of you. Some games are like that.
Images courtesy of Marvelous Entertainment
What's unique about your games is how humorous and playful they are. You mix sexuality and humor to create absurd situations. How'd you land on that tone?
As I got older, I started wanting to play video games that weren't so taxing on my brain. I've been wanting to play something that makes me feel good and makes me laugh. I started seeking something in games that wasn't erotic, but rather this kind of fun and sexy essence, and now, I've landed on this tone. I feel like I would totally laugh at my answer if I'd heard it in my 20s.
If some people are offended by your games, does that bother you? Does it ever influence how you think about designing your next game?
I wouldn't say that bothers me, but it isn't a good feeling. Once I realized that there is always some type of negative feedback for any genre of games, even if the game doesn't have a sexual element, I started to work on what I think it's fun and want to keep creating games that fans are waiting for.
You've made plenty of games with women, but what about men?
Well, I recently released the game Uppers on PS Vita, and all of the main characters in the game are men. If I come up with more ideas having male characters in a game, I would love to make it something like Mortal Kombat! I still do have more ideas and lots of stuff that I would like to do with adorable female characters, but I'll look into it!