I'm two stories underground, surrounded by screaming drunks, and inhaling enough smoke to lose at least a decade of my life. I'm here with Keiichiro Toyama, best known for creating the Silent Hill series, but also the creator of the Siren and Gravity Rush series, and most recently the founder of Bokeh Game Studio, who is making the upcoming Slitterhead.
A cramped, old, smoky mall bar in the depths of a Yokohama train station might not seem immediately game-friendly, but it's starting to work in my mind. Blended with pounds of nicotine, the bar's air is communal and light. It's also different from the more modern designed streets just above our heads. In an hour or two, we'll walk a few blocks and hit the nightlife and drinking scene. Tucked away within the immensely larger Tokyo that surrounds them, these areas have their own distinct sense of space, much like the worlds in Toyama's games. He has lived in Yokohama for decades, he told me. Something like Gravity Rush with its unforgettable, retrograde, drunk and somewhat shady world makes a lot more sense to me now.
I'm in Japan to learn about it;How your place of residence affects your income. This time through the lens of a single developer: bokeh. For three days, I spent time with Toyama, conceptual artist Miki Takahashi, and acclaimed composer Akira Yamaoka in very different parts of Tokyo, learning about the ever-changing face of the city, what they love and miss, and how their decades-long life here has impacted his Works as far as Slitterhead.
First stop: an old black market and popular nighttime drinking spot.
Photo courtesy of Keiichiro Toyama
RUN ON THE STREETS WITH KEIICHIRO TOYAMA
Toyama casually strolls the streets of Noge, Yokohama, photographing whatever he finds interesting while Bokeh's PR and business development manager and translator, William Yohei Hart, and I try to keep up. Toyama had a few drinks. It helps him socialize, he says. And now he really seems to be in his element.
An hour earlier, we'd been chatting in the smoky, booze-filled hallways of Sakuragicho Pio City, an underground mall next to Sakuragicho Station. He feels transported to another era, mostly because he is. The yellowed walls and slippery tile floors feel familiar, if a little dingy. It's like stepping back into the 1990s, as if time has stood still under the modern streets overhead.
Toyama takes me to Pio Town to visit an izakaya, or all-you-can-eat bar. We crowd around our table while the older men smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Toyama calls for highballs. From here comes a mix of beef, lamb and cooked vegetables that you can share with everyone. The restaurant is noisy but friendly. Customers are drunk laughing and staff are running around frantically yelling at the chefs in the background as they run out of orders. It's quite simply a perfect place to get drunk with friends and fill your stomach with all the alcohol and fat your body can handle.
"I love to drink," says Toyama. “I just love the landscape. I'm not a big lover of alcohol; I don't care about the taste. It's more about the atmosphere of these places.”
Toyama moved to Yokohama, the country's second-largest city by population and part of the Greater Tokyo Area, after the release of Silent Hill in 1999. Even after all this time, he finds Noge exciting. This directly influenced his work on the Gravity Rush series and the upcoming Slitterhead.
Legstrack your storyto Japan after World War II when people fled to the area to flee the nearby American occupied territories. It became a bustling black market that once had more than 400 stalls along the main street in the area. Noge was also a popular destination for jazz artists, and there are still manyJazz-Barsin the area today. Over time, Noge has developed into a popular nightlife area, attracting people from all walks of life looking to eat and drink as much as possible before heading home for the night.
Toyama finds the open atmosphere inspiring. Japan is an incredibly safe country, especially compared to, say, the United States. But in those parts where the atmosphere is more relaxed, he likes that anything can happen.
"Even if it's a drunk just rolling on the floor, I'm a little excited about it," says Toyama.
In Gravity Rush and Slitterhead, he says you can see an area like Noge's influence. People walk through the game's cities, talking openly, hanging out and having a good time. Similar to this izakaya where, similar to beer and food, conversation flows endlessly from one topic to another.
However, Toyama is undoubtedly a shy person. Sometimes he has trouble speaking to people and I can tell he doesn't like eye contact very much and directs all his answers to Hart instead of me. Alcohol helps. As we leave, Toyama is drinking two tall glasses of highball. He says he needs a few drinks, especially with a journalist, to open up and speak freely.
“In an ideal world, I wouldn't have to do media or interviews. In this world, I'm totally free," he admits. “But now, as a CEO of a company, I need to be more outgoing and socialize around the world. That part needs a few drinks.”
I think Toyama is more of an observer of the atmosphere around him than an active participant. It makes sense considering how he makes his games.
“When I think of a game, which is what I do first, I think more about the setting than the characters or the story; I think you can see all these places that inspired me in Gravity Rush," he adds. "Because when you think of a town or village and an ordinary person in that town or town, you imagine a backstory of what life is like for an ordinary person in that place. That's why it's helpful to think about characters for who they were born into that environment. It helps me a lot better to think of a story than to think of a story first."
Photo courtesy of Keiichiro Toyama
To capture these scenes, Toyama takes his camera everywhere, snapping pictures of everything he finds fascinating, from beautiful panoramic city views to our dining table. On the one hand, this is obviously his favorite hobby and a way to quickly gather reference material for his work. On the other hand, as he puts it, it's like your own personal time machine. When you look back at the photos you took years ago, you are immersed in that exact moment as if you were stepping back in time. No matter what changes or disappears in the city, you always have the right pictures. Again, all your games have a strong sense of place. It's easier to remember specific districts or zones of their worlds than the characters that inhabit them.
Part of it is that he misses what Japan used to be like. That was mainly why he brought me to Noge; remember what the city was like 25 years ago. "I love things that disappear," says Toyama. He's a nostalgic person; it is connected to the past.
He concedes that Japan's ever-changing face is partly due to the country's high earthquake rate, more than any other country in the world. Older buildings do not meet modern regulations and are being demolished to protect citizens. A somewhat ironic fate of killing the past to save the future. Nevertheless, the 50-year-old Toyama loves Noge because it reminds him of a bygone era: Japan's economic miracle.