Brothers in arms
Akio Ofuji, the marketing producer for Final Fantasy XV, has been with the Final Fantasy franchise since Final Fantasy IX and with Square Enix since 1997's Einhander, back when the company was still Square. Fans will immediately recognize him as the baseball-capped, smiling-eyed man always sitting next to direct Hajime Tabata during the Active Time Report video segments. Ofuji has been with Tabata from the beginning, accompanying him across the globe to one event after another, demoing Final Fantasy XV, hosting panels, and keeping a watchful eye over his traveling team.
Most fans may think immediately of Tabata when they think of the figureheads of XV. But what many may not know is that Ofuji has had an undeniable powerful impact on the developer of the Final Fantasy XV universe. Tabata helms the game, and director Takeshi Nozue leads the charge on Kingsglaive. Ofuji, in addition to his duties governing the brand, is responsible for the development--and very existence--of the Brotherhood anime series.
“The initial concept actually came about when Tabata-san and I were on a business trip to London,” Ofuji tells me. Ofuji has taken the time out of his PAX schedule--fresh off the stage from the Final Fantasy XV panel--to chat with me in a corner of the Sheraton. On the other side of a fabric panel, members of the press are playing the game, the first sizeable chunk anyone has gotten their hands on since the announcement of Versus XIII a decade ago. There have been two free demos and a score of footage--but the excitement surrounding the public showing of the game’s opening hours is palpable around the game’s crew. Ofuji seems tired and refreshed all at once, and he speaks with the openness of someone passionate about his work.
“We were thinking about ways where… How would people get into [Final Fantasy XV’s] characters?” Ofuji says. “How would people get to like these characters? We wanted to figure out ways to enable that, and almost simultaneously Tabata-san and I were like, ‘Oh maybe, anime is the right medium for it!’ We were clicking immediately. We decided to move forward with it.”
Funnily enough, widespread disdain of one character in particular inspired Ofuji’s approach.
“Right after Episode Duscae was released [April 2015], we did this survey for people who had played the demo. One of the questions was: Who is your favorite character or least favorite character? In that ranking, Prompto was unfortunately ranked lowest. I read documents pertaining to the game. I knew what a great character Prompto was from the get go. I really didn't like the results of that survey, and I really wanted to do something to change it, the image or impression Prompto has on others.”
Square Enix had worked with anime studio A-1 Pictures (Sword Art Online, Erased, the Persona 4 anime) before; for the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete Blu-ray release, the companies worked together on a short anime video called “On the Way to a Smile.” Since then, they had spoken at length about collaborating once more, but a solid opportunity never arose. When Ofuji got the greenlight to pursue the Final Fantasy XV anime, there was no question in hiring A-1.
By then, development on the Kingsglaive CGI film was far underway. When asked if there was ever any concern that fans would think a game, a film, and then an anime would be too much to take in for story content, Ofuji says that desire to expand the story drove the decision in the first place. Ofuji wanted fans to watch the anime to better understand the relationships between Noctis, Gladiolus, Prompto, and Ignis, the four main heroes of XV. But in order to get the anime to the widest audience possible, Ofuji knew one thing: all the episodes had to be free.
“With Brotherhood, we had from the get go wanted to distribute those episodes for free, and believed that it would become a gateway for people to watch Kingsglaive, as well as for people to get interested in the main game,” Ofuji explains. “It's a very low barrier to entry, so to speak. If it's free, why not watch it”
Before considering release plans, however, Ofuji had to run the project by Square Enix proper. Initially, there was pushback from higher management due to concerns about production costs.
“To a certain degree, there was caution about where the production cost was going to come from and what we were going to do about this,” Ofuji says. “There was a question of: what are we going to do, because if this is going to be a free project, a free anime that's going to be released to the world, are we going to cover this all under our promotional budget? Or are we going to actually sell it in disk form and make sure we earn revenue or a profit out of this?”
In the end, Ofuji’s persistence and passion paid off. The company went with a hybrid model: half the anime production costs would be covered by XV’s promotional budget, and the rest would be covered by physical disc sales later down the line. Ofuji knows that it’s a running joke among fans to refer to the game’s four heroes as a “boy band” or the game as “bro roadtrip simulator”--in Japan, he notes, they call them a “host club”--and he wants to prove otherwise.
“When you really look at the background of this title, it's been in, essentially, production for ten years. We had that whole change of directors along the way. A lot of consumers were surely concerned about the title.
“The characters have such very innate characteristics,” he goes on. “They have great personalities. They're great human characters. We really wanted people to appreciate them for their internal beauty, so to speak, and not just focus so much on their physique or physical appearances. I was very set on making this happen, regardless of what anyone said, because I felt very strongly about the project.”
Ofuji’s labor of love didn’t stop there. Pulling from the stack of character fact sheets XV’s writers had on hand, he wrote the main scenario for the anime himself, then handed it off to a team of experienced anime scriptwriters. Before finally heading off to production, XV’s main scenario writer checked it against the game and gave the final sign-off.
But it was from those character fact sheets that Ofuji plucked the character traits that don’t necessarily come through in Final Fantasy XV. There he found things you’d never guess at, such as Ignis’ love of baking and Prompto’s childhood obesity, and crafted entire episodes of the anime around them. Prompto’s episode, “Dogged Runner,” is particularly powerful: it tells the story of a young Prompto who learns that he must take better care of himself if he’s going to be become a good friend for Noctis. The plot revolves around assisting lost dogs and losing weight, and between the work of Ofuji and A-1, the episode packs a lot of heavy emotion into 10 minutes.
“You know when an adult looks at a child…sometimes they change out of simple reasons, or they're moved to do something for simple reasons,” Ofuji says of the inspiration behind Prompto’s episode. “There are so many factors that affect our lives. It's very complex. We select from each of these factors. Pared down, children can be affected in very simple ways.
“I really wanted to showcase that side of children and also the power of will, the powerful will and strong glow that Prompto has to continue what he sets out to do. In hindsight, there was also an aspect where maybe there was a part where I wanted to depict this change in a child, where he's not very social, he's not very good at communicating with people, but then this opportunity comes up. That allowed [Prompto] to change himself and become more of a social person. That development is also an aspect that I wanted to communicate--Prompto’s not just a jolly old guy who's cheerful all the time. He had tried hard to become that person, and he is trying hard to be that person as well.”
The more we talk, the more Ofuji’s reason for pursuing such an ambitious project becomes clear to me: “It's this desire to want people to have affection for this character by understanding the background and why he is how he is right now, and what actually happened in his past to become who he is.”
“It's not a sports anime. It's not a battle-related anime or anything,” Ofuji says. “It's really, really just nothing. It's just about [the characters’] ordinary, everyday life. If we didn't have the XV main characters, it really wouldn't be anything, but then that's the beauty of it. If we would normally depict these types of scenes, it would maybe be a quick five-minute scene or whatever--but then we're really focusing, and we're really crafting it, and we're really taking care and drawing the finite details in these particular scenes. That's also the great aspect of it, which we would love for people to check out and enjoy.”