We sat down for an interview with Toshitaka Matsuda, who contributed illustrations for Opus VI of the Final Fantasy Trading Card Game. What memories does he have of the titles he’s worked on? And what does he pay attention to most as an illustrator? All these questions and more are answered in our interview.
―Can you introduce yourself for readers who may not be familiar with your work?
Matsuda: I’m Matsuda, from Square Enix. The first project I was involved with at the company was Final Fantasy IX (FFIX), and since then I’ve worked on Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XIII, and more.
―That’s quite the resume. What kind of work did you do on those titles?
Matsuda: I primarily worked as art director or lead artist, providing setting and concept art, designing backgrounds, monsters, and more. A few examples that readers may remember are the stained glass design featuring the different princesses at the beginning of Kingdom Hearts, and the design of Brahne in FFIX.
―Wow, Brahne! A familiar face to fans of FFTCG, I’m sure.
Matsuda: I was assigned to FFIX right after I joined the company, and then for two months I was stuck at the studio in Hawaii. I was invited down there after I joined, and I was looking forward to it since I’d never been overseas before, but I never imagined I’d be cooped up there for two months straight. (laughs)
―Quite the hectic schedule to give a new employee. I never knew there was a production center in Hawaii back then, either.
Matsuda: Yeah, Square was making a movie at the time, which is why they had production facilities in Hawaii. After FFIX, my work was focused on the Final Fantasy series, and—besides the titles I mentioned earlier—I also worked as art director on Final Fantasy XII Revenant Wings. Recently, I also worked on the Mobius Final Fantasy team as art director.
―So you’ve been involved with all kinds of Final Fantasy games, not just the mainline numbered ones. You drew characters from Final Fantasy II (FFII) for Opus VI. Do you have any connections or memories associated with the game?
Matsuda: I played FFII at release, so I have a lot of memories of it. This goes for modern FF titles as well, but every entry in the series has a completely different style and setting, so I was shocked at the time by just how different FFII was from the original Final Fantasy. Out of all the characters in the game, I’m particularly fond of Minwu. I really like him and the connection he has with Ultima, the ultimate spell that he’s after.
I mentioned before that I’m on the Mobius team, and I love Minwu so much that when it came time to make a card with the new Ultimate rarity, I pushed really hard for Minwu to be the first one. Because Ultimate means Ultima, right? (laughs)
―Hard to argue with that. (laughs) When you started doing art for FFTCG, was Minwu your first, then?
Matsuda: I started on a series of illustrations, with the first one I created being Leon. Up until that point, I’d mostly been working off of 3D models as a base, basically character design sheets, but this time I didn’t have one, so they told me to make something that really reflected my tastes, and I got to do whatever I wanted.
―Was there anything in particular that you struggled with?
Matsuda: I had to go through a lot of trial and error with Maria. Her facial expression… where to emphasize for memorability… inserting a red highlight… There was no guideline to follow, so I tried a lot of different things. Up until this point, I’d mostly been working from the position of art director, creating images to serve as products, but this time I was working as an illustrator accepting a request, so I really had fun painting it. I think that fun came through in the final work, with the director of another project saying they really liked the illustrations I did and asking to use them in their own game. The experience definitely has had a positive influence on me, as I’ve also done a lot of backgrounds for maps in Mobius, in which I was able to illustrate all new kinds of designs due to the same kind of dedication to the world of the game.
―Lately, we’ve been seeing an increase in characters from past games making appearances in new titles, something that had previously been limited to summons like Ifrit. Is there anything you try to keep in mind when drawing old characters in new contexts?
Matsuda: The characters from the Final Fantasy series are precious to people. As such, I make sure to research not just the visual side of the characters, but what it is that defines them—their backbone, in a sense. I think this shows respect to both the original artist and those who created the games in the first place.
―The FFII illustrations you delivered have an incredible, painterly atmosphere to them. Can you talk a little about some of your influences as an illustrator?
Matsuda: I love artists like Rembrandt, Bouguereau, Vermeer, and Klimt. So much so, in fact, that when I was drawing Leon and showed the first pass to Matsuyama-san (a senior director at Square Enix and the person in charge of FFTCG), he commented, “Is this Rembrandt?” (laughs) It featured bright light shining on a subject in darkness, so I took that comment to heart, and was able to re-evaluate my work and ask myself what it is that I produce when following my own preferences. Ultimately, I ended up vividly portraying characters in front of a white background. This isn’t fundamentally different from what I had done initially—a “white subject depicted within blackness” or “a vivid subject within whiteness”—but I believe I was able to move one step past where I started and express even more of myself in the finished product.
―What kind of illustrations did you create prior to going pro?
Matsuda: I’ve loved drawing ever since I was little, and I’d doodle like crazy in the white margins on the back pages of the newspaper’s advertising section. The ones printed on smooth paper were tough to write on with pencil, so nothing made me happier than finding a cheap one printed on rough paper. In high school, I was committed to practicing how to draw very serious— or, should I say realistic— artwork. I got into the Tokyo University of the Arts. I realized I’d gone from my doodling days as a child to following the path of a realist artist, bringing me closer to the modern art world, but at the same time I felt certain amount of hesitation and confusion confronting the vast and endless world ahead of me.
―Were you a big fan of games back then?
Matsuda: It’s not a Square Enix title, but I was very into the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series at the time, during the period spanning entries II through V. Besides FFII, Final Fantasy VI and VII both deeply impressed me. I played through them countless times, and I remember thinking “this Square company’s really something.” I was also blown away by Yoshitaka Amano’s artwork of Terra riding Magitek armor.
―That illustration still impresses to this day.
Matsuda: The spell effect for Ultima in FFVI left a lasting impression too.
―The expanding dome of energy that vanishes at the end with a flash, right?
Matsuda: It gave me shivers. That effect draws the line between the other existing magic—fire, ice, lighting, etc.—to really drive home that it’s the ultimate spell. And when I saw FFVII, I remember thinking that Square was challenging the world with the sheer expressiveness of their games. “Now this is modern fine art,” I thought. I was a university student at the time, but when I saw they were hiring I applied immediately. They got in touch with me while I was still in school, and I remember having a pretty hard time deciding whether to stay in school or not. Despite all the worrying about work and school, I managed to make it to graduation day after all.
―And then you got dragged to Hawaii as soon as you joined Square.
Matsuda: Right. Square was quite the wild company at the time. (LOL)
―What stands out from your time just after you joined the company?
Matsuda: Shortly after I joined, I went to pay a visit to Yoshitaka Amano’s office. When I got there, I was surprised to see a Rembrandt self-portrait hanging behind him. This was a work from an artist I consider formative to my own career, and it was hanging in the workplace of a creator I respected, so it really struck me.
―Did you feel a sense of things being connected?
Matsuda: I did. Having that shared appreciation of Rembrandt with an artist I respect, like Amano, really made me happy.
―To wrap things up, do you have anything to say to players of FFTCG as one of its artists?
Matsuda: I imagine all of you playing FFTCG are doing so because you like it as a card game, or because you like the Final Fantasy series, or both. To be able to deliver my work to such passionate fans is a true honor, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. As a fan of Final Fantasy myself, I hope to create more art and illustrations for like-minded fans in the future. Thank you for your support.
―Thank you for your time.