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The road to “Alefgard” Interview with Dragon Quest Creator Yuji Horii (Part 1)

Waseda University has produced many creators of Japanese culture. One of these is Yuji Horii, a pioneer in video game design and creator of the beloved RPG (role-playing game) series Dragon Quest, a long-running franchise celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Horii is a former member of Waseda’s 60-year-old circle Manga Kenkyu-kai (Man-ken) and his experiences at Man-ken and the people he met there have greatly impacted his life. Today, we are joined by current Man-ken members and members of Waseda’s video game development circle Waseda Computer Entertainment (WCE) who will interview this legendary creator. Part 1 focuses on Horii’s life before Dragon Quest, devoting particular attention to his life as a university student and his memories at Man-ken.

*Alefgard is the name of the setting of the original Dragon Quest game

(Caption) From left: Mizuho Uchino (third-year student at School of Humanities in charge of Man-ken general affairs) and Wataru Mukoyama (third-year student at School of Commerce and director of Man-ken)

1. Meeting lifelong friends and creating culture together at Man-ken

Yuji Horii

Both of you are in Man-ken? So that means you’re my kohai!

Mukoyama

Yes. I am very nervous about meeting a legendary senpai such as yourself!

(Caption) From left: Daichi Ishida (second-year student at School of Advanced Science and Engineering and WCE vice director) and Keita Ishihara (third-year student at School of Fundamental Science and Engineering and WCE director)

 

Keita Ishihara

We are from Waseda’s game development circle.

 

Horii

I see, a video game circle. How many members are in each of your circles?

 

Ishihara

WCE has just under 40 members.

 

Horii

Quite a few members I see. What about Man-ken?

 

Mukoyama

As of now, Man-ken has around 80 members.

 

Horii

Wow, that’s a lot. When I was a student I think there were around 30 to 40 members.

 

Mukoyama

As one of your Man-ken kohai, I would like to hear about your time as a student. As one of our main activities, we publish a biannual magazine called Waseda-man that we distribute at Comic Market and the Waseda Festival. We also draw street portraits at the Waseda Festival to help cover costs.

 

 

Horii

I also did street portraits.

 

Uchino

It’s a tradition!

 

Horii

That’s right. We always did that at the Waseda Festivals. I think we charged around ¥50 for one portrait. How much do they go for now?

 

Mukoyama

¥200.

 

Horii

They’ve raised in price I see [laughing]. Back then we made a total of ¥20,000 to ¥30,000 so I think we drew quite a bit. There might be someone out there who still has one of my portraits. Man-ken’s fundraising methods haven’t changed and funds raised are still used to publish Waseda-man. However, in my day there was no Comic Market. The late Yoshihiro Yonezawa, the mind behind Comic Market, was a friend of mine and a writer for Gekkan Out, a monthly publication that was famous for its anime parodies.

 

Uchino

You knew the person that started Comic Market?!

 

Horii

Yes I did [laughing].

 

2.From “apprenticeship” to Waseda student: Moving to Tokyo in high school in order to become a manga artist

 

Horii

I had wanted to become a manga artist since high school, which is why I joined Manga-kyu. In the summer break of my third year in high school, I took my manga to Tokyo where I stayed with my older brother. One day I barged into the office of Kiyoshi Nagai, a manga artist famous for works like Mazinger Z, and said, “Please make me your assistant!”

 

Everyone

Really?!

 

Horii

I had assumed Nagai would reply, “All right! You’re hired!” but instead I was politely turned down. I thought, “All right, now what am I going to do?” Working a job while drawing manga seemed tough so I decided to first enter university and join Man-ken. There, I figured, I would be able to draw to my heart’s content. That’s how I ended up at Waseda.

 

Ishihara

Even though you intended to be a manga artist, you ended up becoming a game creator. Which of these do you think was the better fit?

 

Horii

I’m glad I went with games. I think it’s a better fit.

 

Ishihara

What aspects of games fit you?

 

Horii

Probably the interactivity of games. I’ve always enjoyed messing with people, and rather than the one-way interaction of manga, the process of making a game and imagining the interaction between a game and players is fun. This impacts how I write scripts for games. My mind generally leans in the direction of science and technology. Although I entered the (former) School of Humanities and Social Sciences with intentions of becoming a manga artist, I had been always been good at mathematics. When searching for a program that would allow me to experience the humanities through mathematics, which I was good at, Waseda stood out. This was a pretty good source of motivation for me to pass the entrance examination [laughing]. It was also for this reason that I wasn’t turned off by computers. During the student protests and the entrance lockout “everyone did whatever they wanted.”

 

Uchino

What was Waseda’s atmosphere like at that time?

 

Horii

I entered in 1972 when the student protest movements were still active. That year there was an incident that forced the University to lock its doors for one year.*This incident refers to the murder of student Daisaburo Kawaguchi.

 

Ishihara

Did that spark some sort of motivation?

 

Horii

Yes. I didn’t have to study or go to school. It was unthinkable really. I spent most of my time playing mahjong [laughing]. The landlord of the Takadanobaba lodge that I was living in got so angry over the noise my friends and I made that they eventually kicked me out. The people I played with were all from Man-ken. Now that I think about it, that lockout might have turned me into a bad person [laughing].

 

Everyone

[erupts in laughter]

 

 

Mukoyama

What was Man-ken like at that time?

 

Horii

Hmm, we did discuss manga sometimes, but we definitely spent more time drinking and playing mahjong. Manga artist Yasuyuki Kunitomo, whose notable works include the manga 100 oku no otoko, was a fellow classmate, and one of my senpais was Kenshi Hirokane, the creator of the manga Kacho Kosaku Shima. Still, Man-ken was laid-back. It was basically “Waseda Festival, Waseda vs. Keio Game, late-night nabe!” That’s all we did. I don’t have many memories of vigorously drawing manga because we just did whatever we wanted. We created a movie that was shown at the Waseda Festival, formed a “student manga federation” with manga circles from other universities such as Hosei and Rikkyo, and basically just fooled around.

 

Uchino

What kind of manga did you draw at Man-ken?

 

Horii

I was a fan of the alternative and avant-garde manga that appeared in the monthly manga magazine Garo. Garo was filled with what seemed like non-commercial material, and after reading works such as Tsuge Yoshiharu’s Neji-shiki and Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Energy, I drew some of my own that followed in the same vein. By the way, what’s popular at Man-ken right now? Attack on Titan?

 

Uchino

Yes, Attack on Titan is popular. So is Weekly Shonen Jump.

 

Horii

One Piece for example? Or, are there people like me who avoid major releases and drift towards minor works?

 

Mukoyama

Overall, it’s hard to pin down a particular genre that everyone likes. There are a lot of people that drift towards more minor works.

 

3.Penning a Man-ken book in school and becoming a freelance writer

 

Horii

When I was in Man-ken many of my senpai ended up going into the publishing industry. Perhaps it’s this way now as well. I received a lot of work from them to write articles, more so than manga, and therefore gradually began focusing my efforts in that direction.

 

Uchino

I see.

 

Horii

My senpai that was drawing and writing for Sankei Sports asked me for help. From there I began writing more and more. It was easier to write than to draw but sometimes I inserted illustrations into my writings.

 

Mukoyama

So first you were a professional freelance writer.

 

 

Horii

That’s right. I also produced a book of playful ideas under “Man-ken” titled Itazura ma (Bestsellers / Wani no mame hon Publishing). This book sold considerably well and from there I began receiving even more writing work. I also did some broadcast writing work for Katsura Bunshi VI’s television program Itazura kamera da! Daiseiko. However, in my fourth year at university, I had a motorbike accident that ruptured several internal organs and forced me to take six months off from school. I was unable to partake in job hunting activities and spent a total of six years as a university student while I contributed to Gekkan Out. However, at that time I was doing considerably well as a writer and thought I could get by without getting a nine-to-five. Therefore, I continued being a freelance writer. Now that I think of it, there were many people from Man-ken that didn’t go the nine-to-five route. In terms of illustrators there was Mitsuru Ebina and Seisuke Ogawa.

 

Ishihara

You had an incredible student life.

 

Horii

I wouldn’t go that far. People tell me it was “incredible,” but for me I was just drifting along [laughing]. Still, because of this I had many different types of experiences and had lots of fun.

 

Ishihara

Do you draw manga at all now?

 

Horii

I will draw pictures of “Slime” when I give signatures. But other than that, not really [laughing].

 

Uchino

In our circle’s room there is an issue of Waseda-man from your time as a student. There may be a manga of yours in there.

 

Horii

That would be embarrassing. All I drew were self-indulgent Garo-esque manga. Please don’t go looking for them. They are part of a dark past [laughing].

 

 

Profile

Yuji Horii

Yuji Horii was born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1954 and graduated from Waseda University’s former School of Humanities and Social Sciences in 1978. Horii became an active game designer while working as a freelance writer. He created unique and successful titles at a time when the video game medium was dominated by action games. He then went on to establish the Dragon Quest RPG series, a bedrock for Japanese RPGs that significantly impacted the entire industry.

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