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Spotlight: Yoshitaka Amano

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Spotlight: Yoshitaka Amano

Freedom From Restraint

Arjan Terpstra

10 Jul 2019 ⋅ 6 min read

"I've seen a lot of artists trapped in their style, and I still fear that trap." If there's one quote that defines the work of Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, it's this. The fabled FINAL FANTASY designer is a natural force in modern pictorial art, a true master of the craft - or rather crafts, seeing how Yoshitaka Amano's powerful work cannot be boiled down to one particular style, form, or medium.

To call him a 'video game artist' would do Amano no justice: his work has the same poignancy in art galleries as it has in manga books, and works as well in illustration and games as in costume design. As an all-round artist he challenges our expectations of what constitutes a 'video game artist', and inspires his fellow artists to explore and transgress any boundaries they may encounter - to fear the many traps of life, too.
Vampire Hunter D, Yoshitaka Amano

"Throughout his lifetime of making art Yoshitaka Amano has consciously and unconsciously crossed borders that might have restrained other artists", says the catalogue to a New York exhibition, 'Think Like Amano' (1997). "He has moved fluidly from medium to medium, format to format, style to style; he voraciously has embraced and adapted ideas and imagery from other cultures." This fluidity goes hand in hand with a full-blown artistic autonomy, that fabled socio-economic status most artists crave, but few actually achieve.

First employed as an artist at age 15, he quit his steady job (as animator at Tatsunoko Productions, Tokyo) at 30 to pursue a freelance career, and has been at it ever since. In hindsight, it proved to be a fruitful move, freeing Amano from what he perceived as the dangers of the 'trap' of being a 'salaryman' - the Japanese worker bee, that lives to advance the company, and not the individual workers. After the move, he gained notoriety as an artist, making inroads into various art forms, notably film and theatre, where he worked as a costume and scenic designer.

Most of his working days Amano was involved in manga and anime. His work at Tatsunoko Productions included design credits on 'mecha'-manga like 'Gatchaman' and 'Tekkaman', but as a freelancer he got involved in fantasy-inspired work like 'Vampire Hunter D' - notorious in the West for being one of the first anime to ever release outside of Japan. A common denominator of Yoshitaka Amano's 'fantasy' art, was a penchant for smooth flowing lines and an ambidextrous use of brushes and pens, not to mention a selective use of watercolors and acrylics. The resulting translucent style found many admirers, and lead Amano to a commission that would have a lasting impact on his name as an artist and illustrator: in 1987 video game company Square (now: Square Enix) commissioned him to work on a new video game series named FINAL FANTASY.
Final Fantasy III, Amano (TWIUP)

From the very first title in what would be a long series of FINAL FANTASY games, Amano brought an artistic touch to video game artwork that, back in the 1980's, wasn't there before. Early video games typically utilized pixel art as a means of visual expression, meaning artists had to work with harsh technical limitations: a limited number of colors, numbers of square blocks for a character 'sprite', and more. In the early years of video games in the 1970's, in-game art was made by programmers who knew how to move crude blocky objects across a screen. Only for marketing art, 'box art' for packaging, or the art on the sides of arcade machines, artists were commissioned, leading to an interesting dualism: while marketing art - unrestrained by technical issues - would be lush and impressive, in-game art for a long time was artistically insignificant.

This changed in the 1980's, when game computers' graphics technology quickly leaped from 8bit to 16bit and 32bit, and beyond. This closed the gap between marketing and in-game art, with 'game artists' suddenly in charge of producing both. Enter Yoshitaka Amano, who not only brought an aesthetic to video games that was refined, majestic and new, but who also bridged the gap between marketing art and in-game art by simply ignoring the divide.
Final Fantasy VII, Amano (Kotaku)

Approaching the new commission like any other art assignment, Amano dug deep into his imagination, exploring established artistic techniques like woodcut printing (the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition), etching and black ink washing (sumi-e) to find the monsters and character designs needed for the game. Over time, he sketched an incredible pantheon of heroes and monsters, each exploding from paper with a presence that was rare in video game concept art. Loose brushwork danced around strong pencil strokes, watercolor swipes colored etched stripes, charcoal smears or acrylic splatters, bringing to life an imaginative visual language that would define the art of FINAL FANTASY for years and years to come.
Final Fantasy X, Amano (Kotaku)

The impact of Amano's FINAL FANTASY art cannot be underestimated. His imagery was so lively, bold, and imaginative, that the in-game art spurred the imagination of the players to fill the gaps in the design, and become truly enamoured with the FINAL FANTASY characters, world, and lore. From the first game, the title drew admiration from fans, who to this day are amongst the largest and most loyal fan groups connected to any title, old or new. But it also impacted Square/Square Enix: to this day, the artists working on FINAL FANTASY games use Amano's body of work as a reference to build on, re-imaging monsters like Leviathan or Marlboro for current-generation computers and players.

Amano would in time move on from FINAL FANTASY and pursue other artistic interests. Today, his work is very popular: books with his art sell in the millions, and art prints and posters of Yoshitaka Amano's art are in great demand. Galleries sell his screen prints and litho's, or offer solo exhibitions of his work. Individual artwork features in exhibits about Japanese contemporary art, and there is plenty of Amano to be found in movies, anime, theatre productions, and high fashion. All of this courtesy of a fear of a 'trap', an artist heeding the call of the Muse, freeing his art from any sort of restraint.
Heroes R-2, Amano (Mizuma-sg)

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Polygon interviewed Yoshitaka Amano about how he created the silkscreen art that would inspire the look of Final Fantasy VII (Source: Polygon)