Interview with Matt Alt: Localizing Nioh and the World of Yokai

Interview with Matt Alt: Localizing Nioh and the World of Yokai

I first came across the name Matt Alt some four years ago after receiving his book Yokai Attack as a birthday present. While it’s hard to consider in this post Yokai Watch world, outside of academia there wasn’t much in the way of yokai information on the market at the time and Matt’s beautifully illustrated book was one of the first to offer an easily digestible compendium of yokai information in the West. Given his yokai pedigree it was only natural that his localization company AltJapan would be contracted to work on a game like Nioh, yet it was still a surprise to see his name pop up. Unbeknownst to me AltJapan have been in the video game localization business for almost twenty years; working on such titles as The Wonderful 101, Strider, Lollipop Chainsaw, and arguably Team Ninja’s most famous property with Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3.

Splitting duties between his own yokai focused release and game localization, early 2017 has been an eventful time for AltJapan having released his own book Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien and seeing Team Ninja’s Nioh release just a week apart. Knowing how perfectly Team Ninja’s Nioh fit AltJapan’s own sensibilities I had to reach out to Matt to find out more about the localization process, but more specifically, what he has to say to gamers introduced to yokai for the first time through the world of Nioh.

How did you get in to translation?

MATT: I was always interested in Japanese pop culture, from monsters to robots to games, but when I was growing up in the Eighties it wasn’t like today, with tons of subtitled and streaming videos and manga and what have you on sale. There was very little in the way of translated material out and a lot of it was pretty rough. We only had a handful of TV shows, most of which were heavily edited, and games at that time were mainly translated by non-native speakers so you had all sorts of “all your base are belong to us” wackiness. I always thought I could do better, and when I had the opportunity to study Japanese first in high school and then in college, I jumped at the chance. But that said, I didn’t set out to become a translator per se. I always wanted to make my own things.

Were there memorable instances of untranslatable concepts? Elements of Japanese myth, religion, culture, that just wouldn’t work in the few English lines you had to convey them?

MATT: This isn’t even limited to Nioh, but the fundamental concepts of “yokai” and “oni,” shape-shifting monsters and demons from folklore, don’t have any direct counterpart in the West. “Monster” is too vague, “demon” is too loaded with religious baggage that the Japanese concepts don’t share. A professional translator has to know not only how to translate, but when NOT to translate something, and leave it Japanese even in the English translation. That was the case with these words. It’s why we leave “yokai” as “yokai” in every translation involving them that we do.

What are the most important things about Japanese history, culture, myth that Western audiences should know before taking on Nioh?

MATT: First of all, to know that the protagonist, William Adams, was a real historical figure. He’s of course been stylized for the game, but he was a real-life sailor and navigator who wound up in Japan during what is known as the Era of Warring States, when Nioh is set. The Era of Warring States — basically the late 1500s — is a critical period in Japanese history when powerful warlords fought for control of Japan. That’s why it is the era when most samurai movies are set, like Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” for instance. The most powerful warlords, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu remain hugely influential figures even today in Japan. They are as central to the Japanese identity as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are to Americans. You don’t need to know Japanese history to appreciate Nioh, but it can enhance the experience.

What is your favourite reinterpretation of a specific yokai in Nioh?

MATT: I love their portrayal of the Hitotsume Kozo, which in folklore is this little one-eyed cyclops kid who plays tricks on people. In Nioh, he transforms into this giant muscular monster! Very cool looking and unexpected, yet still in line with the basic folklore. A big part of the fun of yokai culture is seeing different people’s interpretations of the basic designs. It is really great to see traditional yokai culture making its way into internationally popular and successful games like this.

Nioh Cyclops Boss

Shortly before the game’s release you released Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien. What made you want to tackle Sekien’s work specifically? 

MATT: Sekien’s encyclopedias are the foundation for the way yokai are viewed in Japan today. Until he started writing and illustrating these guidebooks in 1776, nobody had even thought to group and categorize them together before; they were mainly oral legends and folktales without set visuals. But his clear art and writing really came to define them, and basically every portrayal of a yokai you see even in modern times. But even though they’re the ultimate source of yokai knowledge in a lot of ways, they’d never been translated into English (or any other language) before, simply because the language is so old. It’s written in a difficult to read cursive script, and it also references a lot of ancient literature and then-recent happenings that aren’t very well known to average readers today, even Japanese ones. We simply wanted to see this great piece of literature available in English, but we were also attracted to the challenge. My company, AltJapan, has been localizing video games for close to twenty years now, and we wanted to focus all of that know-how on something that hadn’t ever been done before.

Would you ever consider a similar project for other artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, etc?

MATT: Absolutely. There’s a huge amount of illustrated Japanese literature that has never been available in translation. In particular, 19th century books called “kibyoshi” that are sort of like proto-graphic novels. If Japandemonium Illustrated does well, hopefully it will open the gates to more!

Finally, what yokai media would you recommend for those introduced to them for the first time with Nioh?

MATT: For people just getting interested in yokai, I’d recommend “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide” and its sequel, “Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide.” Hiroko and I wrote them as basic introductions to the most famous ones, with lots of illustrations so they’re easy to read.

To get a sense of Japanese mysticism and polytheism and nature worship, I highly recommend the Studio Ghibli film “The Princess Mononoke,” which deals with samurai clashing with the nature spirits that live in the forests and mountains as Japan begins to modernize. On that note, “My Neighbor Totoro” is pretty yokai-like as well, though Miyazaki makes a point of never using that word in his films.

But once you start looking for them, you quickly realize just how many yokai comics, books, games, and films there in Japan. It’s just that foreigners didn’t notice, because the references were changed or just simply hard to understand. With so much yokai material finally coming out in English and other languages, it’s like a golden age for foreign yokai fans.

Even older games such as Goemon on Super Nintendo are packed full of yokai such as kasa obake, but like you say, we just didn’t actually see them called yokai.

Yeah, like Super Mario 3 and the “tanookie suit” or the two-tailed Tails in Sonic. Another thing worth checking out are the “Kitaro” manga by Mizuki Shigeru. He’s basically the George Lucas of yokai in Japan; he made them popular in the Sixties, and even today most people associate yokai with his name. His work has just started coming out in English and is available at Amazon and comic book stores.


If you’re interested in finding out more about Matt Alt or AltJapan, check out their homepage at http://www.altjapan.com or the Yokai Attack group on facebook. You can also order Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien over on Amazon.

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Craig Hatch
Craig Hatch 39 posts

Horror Japan is Craig Hatch, a Brit currently living in Tokyo, Japan. Horror Japan is a project that aims to review and collate media from all aspects of Japanese horror culture.

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