Editorial 4: Kojima’s Heaven’s Gate

Hideo Kojima is one of the most prolific figures in the videogame industry. He used the platform of the Metal Gear Solid (MGS) series to tell a complex narrative with themes that had yet to be explored. He revolutionized the way we perceive cinematic storytelling today. On the cusp of his opus MGS5, however, Konami, the company responsible for publishing his work, saw fit to excise Kojima from memory, disbanding his production studio and erasing his name from future products. How did this come about? Why did Konami abandon its saving grace before the release of its biggest game to date?

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The situation with Kojima and Konami is similar to director Michael Cimino and the studio United Artists (UA). Deer Hunter was Cimino’s biggest achievement, taking seven Academy awards for its story of three friends going to Vietnam. UA was known for letting its directors have complete creative control of their projects during the auteur era of Hollywood. Seeing the success wrought by Cimino, the studio gave him permission to make whatever film he wanted, and that film was Heaven’s Gate (HG).

HG is inspired by the Johnson County War, a series of skirmishes between mercenaries and European immigrants in 1890s Wyoming. The movie was essentially a western on an epic scale. With a cast of hundreds of extras, a town built from the ground up, and Cimino’s extreme attention to detail, hopes were high HG would be another quality title from UA’s favored artist. What followed was a drama of obsession and financial turmoil.

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Problems first arose over the casting of French actress Isabelle Huppert in the role of Ella Watson. UA was concerned about her ability to speak English, but Cimino pushed hard and got his way. Being in pre-production, UA began to wonder how the director’s demands would affect the movie going forward.

Authenticity was Cimino’s goal and ensured every detail was precise and exactly to his liking. This translated into actors and extras going through rigorous training to put them in the mindset of the old west. While it is not uncommon for such preparation before shooting, it was during the process Cimino’s obsession negatively affected budget and scheduling.

Many scenes were shot in multiple takes, some significant and others seconds long. In one scene where Kris Kristofferson cracks a whip, a two second-long shot, was done about 50 times. To get the perfect outdoor shot, he and the crew would wait from dawn till the afternoon before the clouds were in the right position. Different emotional versions of scenes were shot to save for editing. However, the overuse of film stock compounded, adding up debt and putting the release window behind schedule.

What was supposed to cost 12.5 million for a winter of 1979 release cost 44 million and was not put out in theaters until a whole year after the projected date. Cimino spent months editing the one million feet of film into a five-hour feature before another editing session. At three and a half hours HG was put out in theaters to the vitriol of critics, calling it overly long and boring. Feeling threatened Cimino pulled the film for one last edit and brought the runtime to two and a half hours. But the damage was already done.

HG earned a meager three and a half million at the box office. The cascading effect of its failure tarnished the reputation of UA and ended the auteur era in Hollywood. Directors with vision were too much of a risk and limits were placed on future projects outside of independent circles. Accountants and committees became the final word on how movies are made. Contemporary Hollywood has become so bureaucratic and business oriented creativity has been expunged and deemed problematic. Theaters are flooded with remakes and sequels because studios are too afraid to try anything different while turning film into product. The Amazing SpiderMan movies, Fantastic 4, and Transformers are built on the backs of not artists, but cretins who do not possess a creative bone in their collective body. All they see is money and not the rampant decay of their industry. And it was all because of one man’s vision.

I have not seen HG, but it cannot be worse than the trash of today.

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Before I start comparing Kojima and Cimino, I find it important to describe what MGS is all about:

The first game came out in 1987 under the title Metal Gear. It was the first stealth action videogame of its kind and won Kojima recognition in his home country of Japan. After a sequel and a couple other projects, the series we know today saw its first iteration in 1998. It was basically a remake of the original in a 3-D realm and an opportunity for Kojima to indulge in what he could not in 2-D.

Kojima is very much a fan of movies and takes inspiration from a wide variety of titles. The characters Snake and Big Boss are based on Snake Plissken from Escape from New York, a cyclopean stealth specialist. Snake also takes after John Rambo from First Blood (the only one you should see and the fourth) with his signature bandana and his commanding officer, Colonel Campbell, is a direct imitation of Colonel Troutman. Much of the dialog in MGS3 is packed with references to westerns and classic Godzilla. The Mad Max series influenced 5 as Snake is more of a silent protagonist experiencing the world around him.

Kojima’s interests are readily translated into how he handles cinematics. He appears to see things in film and anime and emulates them in the games’ cut-scenes. There is evidence of an extreme attention to detail in the way scenes are set up and shot. Camera angles are reserved in their movements and placement for clear visuals. Characters and set pieces are arranged in a fashion that best fit the shot in the manner of a tableau in some cases. The action is inspired by Asian action movies, using a lot of slow motion and acrobatic stunt work with the boss characters. The cinematics also strive for a dramatic presentation to convey emotion. If the ending scene of MGS4 does not move you to tears, you are not human. With each iteration Kojima’s style has changed. MGS1 and 2 were visually standard, 3 reminiscent of old spy movies, 4 modern in regards to a documentary style, and 5 wants to be a long-shot similar to Children of Men or Birdman as made evident in the prologue Ground Zeroes.

While the cut scenes are an opportunity for Kojima to indulge himself, they are an important part of storytelling and the expression of various themes. PTSD, war, and killing in general were subjects not often explored in games until MGS. In 1, Snake knew all he was doing is killing and never thought of himself as a hero. In 2, the character Raiden was afraid of being a father because the trauma from being a child soldier could pass on to his son. 3 was about how legacy means nothing in an ever changing world. 4 dealt with the idea of war becoming systematic with the rise of private military corporations and advanced technology. The spinoff Peace Walker criticized nuclear deterrence as a means to prolong conflict and a build up arsenals. And 5 might as well be called PTSD: The Game.

Perhaps he would enjoy making an actual film, but unlike the self-proclaimed auteur David Cage, a French developer who fancies himself a movie director for videogames, Kojima knows a game is not a movie. The cinematics and extensive codec calls are only half the experience. With an arcade style ranking system, players can choose how they want to play between killing everyone in a given level with abandon, or calm and collect as they evade capture. One could finish a game without killing anyone except the bosses before receiving a score. The gameplay is as important as the cinematics and stands on its own.

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Kojima and Cimino possess a common eye for detail and the focus of a perfectionist. Both have visions they want to realize and push hard to make it happen. Everything about their projects must be consistent with that vision, whether it is the position of clouds or the movements of a character, reaffirming their shared obsession. Like HG, Kojima goes for authenticity in his games’ military aesthetic, using a variety of accurate jargon and techniques under the advisement of military expert Motosado Mori. To get the best shots possible, Cimino would take his crew hours away from civilization to places he thought would look best. This was nothing new as Deer Hunter was shot in several locations across the US.

The two are also absent egotism, motivated by their obsession and vision. There was a calm determination on the set of HG as Cimino worked to the breaking point in his pursuit of perfection, disregarding the word of producers and mounting cost. Apart from the fact the Japanese are culturally a humble people, Kojima just does not think too highly of himself. He acknowledges the games’ impact and takes into consideration what they have done for fans as he works hard to make each game a polished memorable experience. His extensive mention in the credits is purely coincidental and his appearances in the games are simple cameos in the same vein as Hitchcock.

Where Kojima and Cimino differ is what their respective studios did at the zenith of their projects.

UA knew from the outset HG would become a problem as production went on. By taking his time and going to such great lengths, Cimino was costing the studio millions, so much so it was the most expensive movie in 1980. Despite the drama and financial turmoil, UA wanted something out of the situation. To not release a film after such a struggle would have been suicide. There was plenty of evidence at the time to suggest movies with troubled productions could come out on top like Star Wars and Apocalypse Now. Of course, HG was a disaster regardless, but unlike Konami, UA let Cimino finish filming and editing before he was fired and treated him with as much respect as they could muster on the eve of collapse.

To be clear, based on the information available, Kojima left Konami on his own. There has been no mention of him being forced to leave and that he will continue working on 5 until its release. But the fallout of his departure raised questions with a singular answer: Konami is does not respect its creators or their creations.

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TRIGGER WARNING

After Kojima left, word began to circulate his name was struck from the box cover of 5. While this was still an allegation with so little information present, the latest trailer (notice the drop in quality compared to a trailer cut by Kojima himself) showed the Kojima Productions studio seal absent and the studio itself dissolved. Even by American business standards this is excessive, denying recognition to the artists on their own art. It is no surprise, however, that Konami’s CEO Kagemaza Kozuki hates Kojima and has been trying to push the company away from videogames in recent years. In their native country, Konami is best known for mobile games, gambling machines, and a variety of other investments. Kozuki has gone on record that mobile games are cheaper to produce and more profitable. Being a company that builds gambling machines, I find it odd Konami could not see the risk in folding their hand after investing 80 million dollars (10 billion yen) in its most important game since 4.

UA did not quit after dumping millions on Cimino. They did not see the potential downfall of their company and abandon ship because they wanted something out of the debacle. What is worse about the Konami situation is it was never in danger of failing. Not only was Kojima their last reason for existing in the industry, he was on the verge of rejuvenating Konami’s last great franchise, Silent Hill (SH), in collaboration with director Guillermo del Toro. Furthermore, MGS used to be a PlayStation exclusive whose numbers steadily dwindled between 1 and 4. With the advent of release on not only current but last generation consoles, 5 is also coming out on PC through Steam. It will reach audiences that would have never played a single game in the series years before. The possibility of recouping cost has never been more favorable, but Konami was too caught up in its delusion before forcing Kojima out. And by default the new SH was canceled.

This is not the first time Konami has mishandled talent and their games. It started with Team Silent, the creators behind the original four SH games. I am not a fan of survival horror, but I appreciate SH as a fantastic example of psychological horror. All of that changed when Konami thought it was a good idea to disband the team and put them to work on mobile games. The SH series was then passed off to western developers with abysmal results. Konami has made a mockery of its flagship titles with no regard for quality, more so than ever with the release of an SH themed slot machine.

A recent Nikkei report revealed the company does not treat the rest of its employs especially well. Workers are monitored in their offices and on social media and the time they take for lunch is heavily scrutinized. When certain employees out grow their usefulness, the company reassigns them to different jobs regardless of what they were doing before. Konami also regularly changes its internal structure and discourages communication between teams. These are all allegations, of course, contrary to eyewitness reports, but based on past and recent activities, it makes sense for Konami to behave in such a manner.

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Hideo Kojima and Michael Cimino are artists that succumbed to a system absent creativity. In an environment that runs on money, creators often fall ill to outside interference and cooperate tampering that stifle innovation. Regardless of internal conflict, United Artists respected the work of Cimino and let him realize his vision. Konami, however, is absent humility and has no appreciation for art. In conclusion, fuck Konami, fuck everyone who support their practices, and I hope it collapses harder than UA before the end of the decade.

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