UDON Chief Erik Ko interviewed by Japanese games site 4gamer.net! (English Translation)

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This year at San Diego Comic-Con, UDON’s Chief Erik Ko was interviewed at length by Japanese video game site 4gamer.net! If you can read Japanese, check out the interview here: http://www.4gamer.net/games/225/G022539/20131127038/

UDON came to their attention because we were announced as producing alt-costumes for the newly-revealed Ultra Street Fighter IV, and they wanted to know all about the business! Thanks to our Japanese Liaison M. Kirie Hayashi, we’re happy to bring you an English version of this interview! If you want to know allll about UDON, keep reading!

4Gamer.net – Interview with UDON

UDON is the company behind the alternate costume designs for “USFIV”, but who are they? We took SDCC as an opportunity to investigate everything from the reason for their popularity to the state of anime in the foreign market.

From November 22nd to 24th of 2013, “Ultra Street Fighter IV” (AC / PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC) [USFIV] was finally revealed through a hands-on experience. Much of the game is still shrouded in mystery, including an as yet unknown fifth character, but one of the tidbits that was released to the public was the new alternate costumes.

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The new alternate costumes were announced during a panel session at Evolution 2013, where the game was first presented. The audience was treated to an image of four new characters – Poison, Hugo, Elena, and Rolento – in their alternate costumes. When it was revealed that the creative force behind these new designs was UDON Entertainment [UDON], the entire hall erupted in a roar of excitement.

The passionate support of the Evolution 2013 crowd was obvious to anyone standing in that room, but UDON itself was still an enigma to us. Their name may not be particularly well-known in Japan, but UDON is nothing short of an icon to North American Street Fighter fans. Curious as to their identity, 4Gamer was compelled to investigate. Shortly after Evolution 2013, on July 18th, we caught up with UDON’s Chief of Operations Erik Ko at San Diego Comic-Con 2013 and he was kind enough to humor my curiosity. Due to unavoidable circumstances, the interview is only now seeing the light of day but I hope you will enjoy it all the same.

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What kind of company is UDON Entertainment?

4Gamer: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. We heard UDON would be designing the alternate costumes for “USFIV”, but not many people in Japan know about your company. Please start us off with a simple description of UDON itself.

002Erik Ko: Sure. UDON was founded 12 years ago as a collective of artists creating original comics. After doing some work with the “X-Men” comic series for Marvel Comics, we gradually expanded our horizons to work with other companies like DC Comics and Capcom. Currently, we offer two distinct services: creative and publishing.

4Gamer: So not only do you produce illustrations, you also publish books.

Erik Ko: That’s right. Creative services refers to things like illustrations and character designs for movies and video games. The alternate costumes we are designing for “USFIV” would be perfect examples of this type of work.

4Gamer: Capcom’s Ono-san (Yoshinori Ono) told us that UDON and Capcom have been working closely together for over a decade now. (link to Ono article) What other projects have you worked on?

Ono Article

Erik Ko: As Ono-san stated, UDON has enjoyed a solid relationship with Capcom for over a decade, and our most well-known Capcom project is probably the “Street Fighter” comics we were officially licensed to produce. This comic series was announced at SDCC 10 years ago and is still going strong, so this year is actually its 10th anniversary. We also worked on “Capcom Fighting Jam” in 2004, the ending illustrations for “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom” in 2008, and all of the visual aspects for “Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix” ( PS3 / Xbox 360) also released in 2008.

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The SDCC panel looked back at some of UDON’s work in 2013. The content related to “Street Fighter” ended up being an impressive total of nine series, including titles like “Street Fighter Legends: Sakura” and “Street Fighter Origins: Akuma”.

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These are the sprites UDON produced for “Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix”. The image is a bit blurry, but the top row shows side-by-side comparisons of the original sprites on the left and the new UDON sprites on the right. It is clear to see how UDON preserved the original flavor of each character while also making very noticeable improvements.

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Aside from Capcom, UDON has also collaborated with many other companies, including Konami for “New International Hyper Sports DS” and Nintendo for Wii promotional art.

4Gamer: Ono-san essentially told us that he felt they had nothing to worry about if they left the “USFIV” alternate costumes in your capable hands. Now I can see where his unwavering confidence in UDON comes from. Four of the characters have been revealed with alternate costumes, but are you working on other characters as well?

Erik Ko: I’m afraid I cannot comment on that. You’ll have to ask Ono-san. (lol)

4Gamer: To tell you the truth, Ono-san avoided this question as well. (lol) Still, asking a few questions about the characters we know about shouldn’t be a problem, right? Would you tell us about the concept behind these designs?

Erik Ko: The concept behind these designs was to give SF characters a fantasy RPG twist. Poison is a pirate, Hugo is an executioner, Rolento is a sorcerer, and Elena is an amazon.

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4Gamer: I see! All of these designs are very cool, so I have no doubt they will be very popular with the fans in Japan as well.

Erik Ko: Thank you very much. I am honored by your words.

4Gamer: Looking at these alternate costumes and your “Street Fighter” comics, I can’t help but feel like UDON’s illustrations have a certain amount of Japanese flavor to them. It certainly looks more like Japanese manga or anime than the classic American comic.

Erik Ko: Indeed. UDON was originally founded by artists who enjoy Japanese art styles, so I suppose that is to be expected. We were particularly influenced by the Capcom artists Akiman, Bengus, and Kinu Nishimura. We have always looked up to these talented artists, so we felt very blessed when our relationship with Capcom provided us with the opportunity to work with them.

4Gamer: I can imagine so. That is so awesome! How many artists do you have working for UDON?

Erik Ko: Approximately 15 at the moment. If you were to count our part-time talent, it would be more like 35.

4Gamer: How can fans in Japan purchase UDON books?

Erik Ko: We have a few products up on Amazon.co.jp, so I would recommend looking there first. In particular, the “Darkstalkers Tribute” book is very popular in Japan and it was even ranked number one in foreign book sales at one point. I remember the moment well because it just so happened that we released it on the same week as Michael Jackson’s passing, yet it beat out all of the Michael Jackson related books for the top spot.

4Gamer: Wow, that is truly amazing! I am also curious about the other service you said UDON provides: publishing. Based on what I saw at your booth and panel, it seems you publish art books for Japanese games, anime, and characters.

Erik Ko: Yes, that’s right. Translated Japanese art books make up the majority of our published products.

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4Gamer: Now I promise this is a sincere question: Who in North America would buy such books? What I mean is, in your panel you announced the art book for “Border Break”, but that was never released in North America so you wouldn’t have many fans of that particular title here, if any.

Erik Ko: I suppose I should start off by noting that North American gamers have a very healthy interest in games coming out of Japan. The unfortunate thing is that many Japanese games are not released in North America. An example would be the “Valkyria Chronicles” series, for which “1” and “2” were released in North America while “3” was not.

4Gamer: That is sadly quite common, isn’t it?

Erik Ko: Far too common, I agree. In such cases, North American gamers turn to translated art books to discover the story of the game they missed out on. In this example, “Valkyria Chronicles 3”. This is a very popular coping method for North American fans.

4Gamer: Ah, I get it now!

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Erik Ko: Alternatively, as is the case with “Border Break”, some titles are known for things like figures produced by Kotobukiya. Despite the lack of release here in North America, “Border Break” has garnered quite a bit of attention due to its cool robots. With their curiosity piqued, fans will turn to our art books to discover the story behind those robots for themselves.

4Gamer: Gamers in Japan who enjoy western video games often struggle to feed their interest, so it’s fascinating to find out that North American gamers face the same issues. Of course, Japanese gamers probably have it easier simply because things like Steam make it somewhat easier for them to feed their addictions. (lol) So how do you decide which art books to translate?

Erik Ko: UDON itself is comprised of people who are fans of Japanese video games, so we often simply pick art books for games that we like. Of course, we also take fan requests into consideration.

4Gamer: Interesting! Does the same apply for the anime art books?

Erik Ko: The anime art book line is actually something that we just started this year (2013). We’re still a small company so we don’t always have the resources to allocate to anime art books, which means we sometimes have to make our anime fans wait a little longer.

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4Gamer: From a Japanese person’s perspective, it seems like a lot of the anime books you chose to release are for somewhat outdated series. Was this selection intentional?

Erik Ko: The line-up is indeed a reflection of public demand. Many North American anime fans have a taste for some of Japan’s more classic anime series, such as “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, “R.O.D”, “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”, and “Gurren Lagann”. Well… either that or our product line-up is just a reflection of my personal tastes. (lol)

(everyone lols)

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The “R.O.D” art book. The image on the top is UDON’s translated version, while the image on the bottom is my own personal copy of the original Japanese version. The English version was bound on the left while the Japanese version was bound on the right, so the order and layout of the content had to be adjusted somewhat.

4Gamer: You really do love Japanese games and anime, don’t you? (lol)

Erik Ko: Of course! In fact, the company name UDON was derived from our love of Japanese anime and manga. We think of udon noodles as Japan’s soul food. By adding different ingredients like tempura and meat, you get a very different udon experience, right? Similarly, by collaborating with various companies, UDON offers a slightly different flavor with each project. In addition, we hope that the hard work we put into our books leaves a warm and fuzzy feeling in the hearts of our fans, much in the same way a good bowl of udon noodles would for a hungry diner. That is the philosophy behind the UDON name.

Anime in North America – How popular is Japanese anime?

4Gamer: I’d like to step away from video games for a moment if I may, and ask you about the market for animes in North America. Living in Japan, we will hear about the popularity of a Japanese anime in North America from time to time, but what is the truth of the matter?

Erik Ko: The current North American market is populated with the generation who grew up watching animes like “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” and “Robotech”* in the 1970s. They in turn usually introduce their children to the world of Japanese anime as well.

*Robotech – An edited anime mecha series released in North America in 1985 that combined animation from “The Super Dimension Fortress Macross”, “Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross”, and “Genesis Climber MOSPEADA”. The actual content was heavily modified to better suit the North American market.

4Gamer: That is an interesting thought. Do you have a personal favorite when it comes to animes?

Erik Ko: I think I gave it away earlier, but the majority of UDON’s product line is a reflection of my personal tastes, whether it’s “R.O.D” or “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”. If you are looking for more recent titles, I would say the “Evangelion” movies. I loved 1.0 and 2.0, so of course I went to see 3.0 when I was in Japan on business… but I just didn’t get it. The movie left me with a giant question mark floating over my head. (lol)

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4Gamer: I think it’s safe to say that every Evangelion fan knows exactly what you mean. (lol)

Erik Ko: There’s a part of me that hopes the next movie will provide the answer to that question mark… but the other part of me is pretty sure Anno has no intention of providing us with any answer. If I were to pick an all-time favorite, however, it would have to be the first generation “Gundam” series. After all, my internet handle is “MUDNUG”!

4Gamer: Oh, I see… “Gundum” spelled backwards! So you know the older episodes well?

Erik Ko: I grew up in Hong Kong watching “Mazinger Z”, “Getter Robo”, and “Gaiking: Legend of Daiku-Maryu”, as well as some sentai shows. With regards to shojo shows, I like “Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel”. Anime evolved with every generation, giving way to various genres. From sports anime like “SLAM DUNK” to animes centered on cars like “Initial D”, the sheer breadth of Japanese anime fascinated me. More recently, animes like “Dragonball Z” have become mainstream on TV, bringing the world of Japanese anime to a much wider audience.

4Gamer: So it’s safe to say Japanese animes have become much more popular now than it once was. We actually visited a Best Buy* the other day, and were surprised to see a relatively large “Japanese Anime DVD” section set up in the store like it was the most natural thing in the world. Despite its significant growth, Japanese anime still can’t be considered a global market the way Hollywood movies are. In fact, I think it’s safe to say animes are challenged with more failures in foreign markets than successes. Why do you think this is?

*Best Buy – A large chain of electronics stores based in North America.

Erik Ko: From a North American perspective, I’d say properties like “Avengers”, “Iron Man”, and “Wolverine” of Marvel Comics have evolved visually by incorporating more of the Japanese art style. I believe this trend can be interpreted as a growing understanding of the power inherent in the Japanese style, which will most likely propel Japanese animes forward into the western market like a healthy tailwind.

4Gamer: So you believe a foundation is being laid in the western market that would make it easier for Japanese animes to succeed in the future? Hmm… That is very interesting.

Erik Ko: If I were to guess at the main problem Japanese animes face in the western market, it would be the themes. Animes that emphasize ecchi* and hentai* elements too much will never become mainstream in America due to challenges like cultural acceptance and age restrictions. If we could somehow overcome that obstacle, I believe reliable international success would be made a reality.

*Ecchi/Hentai – Refers to Japanese animes, games, etc. that were designed and marketed for adults. These words are also sometimes used as slang terms to refer to anime style art in general. In this particular case, they are being used to indicate materials that would fall into the more direct/strong spectrum of the “moe” category.

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During the panel, the art book for Satoshi Urushihara’s “Growlanser” series was announced. Erik lamented, “I am a huge fan of Satoshi Urushihara’s work, so I have all of his art books. Unfortunately, everything other than Growlanser would be treated as hentai in the western market, so we are unable to publish translated versions of art books for those titles.”

4Gamer: That is a harsh truth for the Japanese industry to face. (lol) When you take titles like “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, “R.O.D”, and THe Melancholy of Harushi Suzumiya” into consideration, you have to admit they involve various levels of what could be considered hentai elements. But if you were to completely cut all of those elements out, would they still be as good? If you were to take the three main girls from “R.O.D -The TV-” and replace them with more robust and powerful female characters like the kind you might find in Marvel comics, how would you feel about that?

Erik Ko: Hmm… I already know “R.O.D” in its current form, and as a fan I would probably hate to see it altered in that way. However, if it was already like that when I was first introduced to it, I think I would be able to accept and appreciate it in that format. After all, the true charm of anime isn’t just in the characters; it’s the depth of the story itself.

4Gamer: I understand what you mean. Thank you for fielding such a difficult question. To round out this interview, please offer a personal message to all of the Capcom and UDON fans in Japan.

Erik Ko: Last year, we had a booth at the event in Japan called “Kaigai Manga Festa”, and were both delighted and surprised to have so many Japanese fans come out to see us. As I mentioned earlier, UDON was founded by artists who admired Japanese manga and anime, so it meant a lot to us to know that our work had been accepted by the people of Japan. We’ve recently registered an account with Pixiv as an outlet for news and information alongside our Facebook and Twitter pages. It is our sincere hope that these mediums will allow us to build a more direct conduit of communication with our fans in Japan, as we would certainly like to incorporate their feedback into our future products.

4Gamer: Thank you very much for your time!

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