The next time that you play a Persona or Shin Megami Tensei game, there is someone that you need to send thanks to, Kazuma Kaneko. Without this legendary video game artist and developer, Atlus and its properties wouldn’t be what they are today.
I know that I am grateful to him for contributing to some of my favorite video games of all time. So, it is an absolute honor to be able to make this Kazuma Kaneko guide.
Kazuma Kaneko came from humble circumstances and essentially forced his way into the video game industry with basically no experience at all. In the process, he was able to nab a significant role at Atlus and influence the entirety of its games for the past three decades.
The work he’s done is phenomenal, and it continues even now with the latest entries in the Persona and SMT series. Find out all about this monumental developer in our Kazuma Kaneko guide.
Bottom Line Up Front
Kazuma Kaneko was born in 1964. The middle-aged developer has been working hard since 1990 for Atlus on many games in the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona franchises. Though he arrived with little art education or experience, he was able to successfully become one of the leading artists.
Many of the Personas and map designs that you’ve seen in both of these series come from Kazuma Kaneko. He continues to lead the mainline games even today, forever influencing the future of JRPGs and even contributing to non-Atlus works in his free time. His most recent work was designing demons for Shin Megami Tensei V.
Kazuma Kaneko Overview
When it comes to video games, part of the fun is learning more about how the titles are created. They are not just designed by an AI and then shipped to you to enjoy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of developers who work on the most prominent video games that release every year.
Suppose you have even the most remote interest in the names and faces behind the games you play. In that case, I always suggest learning more about the developers. This especially rings true if, like me, you have a passion for getting involved in video game development yourself someday.
As you may already know from reading our site before, the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series are two of my favorite video game franchises of all time. It’s why I’m here and writing this guide in the first place. As such, I adore the developers behind two of my favorite series of all time.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, Persona 3, and Persona 5 Royal are all in my top 10 favorite games of all time. And the craziest part is that Kazuma Kaneko played a significant role in two of those three. He was a massive part of both SMT IV: Apocalypse and Persona 5, shaping the direction that they went in.
Furthermore, while he wasn’t part of Persona 3 directly, his prior art and designs were used in those games, too. There is no getting away from the mark that Kazuma Kaneko has permanently left at Atlus and continues to do so even now as a full-time developer.
For the most part, his work at Atlus is centered on art and designs. He is one of the primary designers of characters and the classic demons and Personas that make the turn-based games what they are. In addition, though, he has filled other roles over time, such as map designer, scenario writer, boss creator, and more.
History and Inspiration
As an inspiration to myself and likely many other fans of his work, Kazuma Kaneko’s origins may surprise you. He was born on September 20, 1964, in the Shimokitazawa district of Tokyo, Japan. This location is at the heart of the city and, from my time living in Tokyo, seems to be an underrated place that locals love to visit.
It is located just west of Shibuya in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo. Many compare it to nearby Harajuku and others for holding on to the older feel of Japan with its family-owned businesses and neat little shops. In fact, those family-run businesses play a direct role in the life of Kaneko.
Funnily enough, he was quite literally born and raised in his family’s sushi restaurant in the neighborhood. Like, when I say he was born there, he was literally born in the restaurant his family owned. It had the classic two-floor design where the store was on the bottom, and his family lived on top of it.
The name Kazuma Kaneko, with Kaneko being the family name, has a couple of different meanings to it. Keep in mind that I am not fluent in Japanese but am an active learner, so here is what I gather from the meaning of his name.
The Kaneko family name uses the kanji for money or gold and child. So, his family has a rich name, meaning child of money. Though this is a little ironic since he had rather humble beginnings, his family had a modest start as sushi makers.
Kazuma, on the other hand, is his given name as a baby and uses the kanji for the number one and the Japanese word for horse. Overall, I think the idea is possible that his family wished for him to grow up healthy, strong, and possibly number one.
In the end, he was an only child. He spent a lot of time studying the bizarre legends and myths in the world, such as strange monsters that were rumored to exist like Big Foot or the Chupacabra. He enjoyed looking into these matters and would even read tons of books about them.
These included books about lore from different cultures and even some religious books like those based on Christianity, Hinduism, and other beliefs. His love for religion, the spiritual side of the world, the occult, and the supernatural all inspired what he would later do in his life.
You can probably already guess where this is going since we know the spoilers for what he would do. Some of his favorite works include the classic Devilman manga and anime, Kamen Rider, Saturday Night Fever, and even the Book of Revelations from the Bible.
From a young age, he mixed this love for the supernatural with his passion for drawing. It was apparent to those around him that he was immensely talented even at a young age and that he could do something special with this ability.
It led him to pursue art in his young adulthood and become an animator. He didn’t do much work at this starting point in his career, only contributing a little bit for anime like Saint Seiya. It wasn’t until he was 24 years old that his career changed forever.
Game Developer Key Moments
In 1987, a little NES game called Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei came out. Based on the supernatural set of books, the turn-based JRPG was the starting point for everything. This even included the career of Kazuma Kaneko, who was inspired when he played this game.
It emboldened him to join Atlus and work there, precisely what he did. He joined Atlus in 1988 and began work as a character designer for King of Kings. Think of it like a turn-based strategy game where humans, fairies, dragons, elves, and more battle it out in a fantasy world.
The characters that Kaneko created here would go on to be the basis for some of the demon and Persona designs that he made throughout his time at Atlus. The NES game, King of Kings, never received a follow-up title as Kaneko would go on to work on the main Megami Tensei series and beyond.
Throughout Kaneko’s time as a video game developer for the last 30+ years, he has contributed to some of the greatest and most famous Japanese video game series of all time. You have him to thank if you’re a turn-based or JRPG fan like myself.
And the craziest part is that even if you aren’t a fan of turn-based games, it’s possible that he influenced some of your favorite Japanese action series, too. Though he has worked full-time at Atlus for the entirety of his career in games with steadfast loyalty, he also did some freelance work for other developers in his free time.
Devil May Cry Series and More
One of the primary freelance jobs that Kaneko took was working for a couple of other companies in between his Atlus titles. The first of these was Super Robot Wars Alpha, where he created many of the mech designs for the tactical RPG. It isn’t the most famous series, but I’ve heard of it even if I haven’t played it myself.
Only a few years later, Kaneko played a significant role in one of Konami’s experimental titles, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. The renowned sequel to the mech-inspired game let the artist flex his robot skills once more, designing some of the characters in that cult classic Konami game.
He didn’t stop there, either, as Kaneko went on to contribute one of the most essential parts of the entire Devil May Cry series. Joining Capcom for a brief moment, he was able to design the Devil Trigger forms for both Dante and Vergil in Devil May Cry 3.
Do you love the transformations of these two classic action icons? You have him to thank for that. That wasn’t his only time working on the Devil May Cry series, either. He would return for Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition to design the packaging.
Finally, in 2005, he again contributed one last time to the Super Robot Wars series with To the End of the Galaxy as a mecha designer. Outside of these few freelance contributions, Kazuma Kaneko was steadfast in his commitment to Atlus, publisher Sega, and their titles.
Shin Megami Tensei Series
If I had to rate Kaneko’s contributions at Atlus as an artist and developer, it has to go to his work on the Shin Megami Tensei series. While I think I love the Persona series a little bit more, Kaneko spent a whole lot more time on the core SMT franchise than he did on the Persona spin-off series.
He did so much for this series that it would deserve a whole other guide just dedicated to that. Instead, I will focus on the critical points that you should know about. He was there from the first SMT game on the SNES, building the foundation for everything that would come next.
He was one of the main character and demon designers there, creating the sprites for iconic demons that the series is known for. He continued this central artist role for SMT II and If, the latter of which was the inspiration for the Persona series.
He even played a significant role in Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, one of the premier spin-off SMT titles. This first-person, dungeon-crawling, turn-based adventure is quite different from some of the Atlus games you might be used to. I remember playing, reviewing, and being fascinated by the unique gameplay of this JRPG with the 3DS remake.
After that game, he took a good break from the SMT series until SMT: Nine, where he took on a demon designer role again. However, his main role in the early 2000s was in the switch to full 3D with SMT III: Nocturne. This is where Kaneko began to take on a leadership role as the creative and art director for this game.
He was a principal designer for Nocturne, creating the 3D designs for demons that had been primarily 2D before this. Those designs would stick around for a very long time, many of which are still being used today in the most recent Atlus JRPGs.
He was also the art director for the Digital Devil Saga duology, both of which are underrated Atlus titles. I just finished the first one at the time of writing this and am knee-deep in the sequel. He contributed to other spin-offs but didn’t take too big of a lead role until Strange Journey in 2009.
He had just about every main title on that game, doing a lot for it. The same would go for SMT IV on the 3DS, where he even came up with the concept and scenario for the story. He did that again for its direct sequel, Apocalypse, which is my favorite game in the SMT series.
Most recently, he worked on SMT V for Nintendo Switch. I will admit that this was my least favorite entry in the SMT series that I’ve played, and perhaps that was due to Kaneko only being a demon designer again on this one. He didn’t contribute beyond designing demons, which were arguably the best part of the game.
Work on the Persona Series Explained
Of course, while Kaneko worked mainly on SMT games, he also played a massive role in the Persona series. After all, he was one of the main Persona designers for the original Persona on PS1. He continued that with both Persona 2 games but then took a long break from there.
He wouldn’t contribute to Persona 3 or 4, only returning to be the art director for the first game’s remake on PSP. That said, in between SMT IV: Apocalypse and V, he suddenly made a massive shift and came back to work on the Persona series with 5 for the PS3 and PS4.
In the process, he contributed considerably to the most recent mainline entry in the series. He didn’t just design some of the Personas, but he had a supervising role when it came to the entire demon creation team. This leadership role perhaps played some in the changes and improvements that Persona 5 experienced.
Why Did He Come Back for Persona 5?
Some may be wondering why Kazuma Kaneko would come back to Persona 5 when he hadn’t worked on a mainline game (excluding the remake) since Persona 2: Eternal Punishment in 2000. That was more than 15 years that he had gone without contributing to games like Persona 3 and 4 and their expanded versions.
While we don’t know exactly why he came back to Persona 5, there are a couple of reasons that I can think of. I don’t think that it had anything to do with him not being busy, honestly. He was coming off of SMT IV and right in the middle of Apocalypse so working on Persona 5, too, possibly made this the busiest time in his long career.
Because of this, I think it is possible that he was needed to help work on Persona 5. The JRPG was announced in 2013 for release in 2014, and it had several delays time and time again before finally being released in 2016. It is very likely that there were some severe issues that needed a veteran like Kaneko to assist with.
Also, this is somewhat speculation on my part. Still, I think it is possible that Atlus wanted him on the game, too. After all, we know that Persona 5 brought the series to its SMT roots in a way with the return of negotiations, gun skills, and the like.
Though Kaneko was focused on designing demons only, this could be an example of a specific theme that Atlus was going for with the game. It is worth noting that he didn’t come back for Persona 5 Royal, so I think it is extremely likely that his assistance was needed, at the very least.
What is intriguing is that Kaneko is also attributed credit for designing some of the demons for Persona 5 The Animation. This would be pretty amazing, too, since it would mean that he was able to return to his anime roots for the first time in many decades, and quite recently to boot.
At the end of the day, Kazuma Kaneko has done so much for the SMT and Persona series in a way that is unmatched. There are few developers with the history and expertise of Kaneko, especially when it comes to designing the characters and demons across the series.
We have him to thank for so much of what the SMT and Persona franchises are known for today. Without him, it is unlikely that iconic characters like Jack Frost, the popular transformation forms for Dante and Vergil, and so on would be possible.
In fact, speaking of SMT and Dante, there is a strong chance that Kazuma Kaneko’s work on Devil May Cry 3 right around the same time as Nocturne is part of the reason why Dante appeared in the expanded version of the game.
These are just some examples of the legacy that Kazuma Kaneko leaves behind as a figurehead for the beloved Atlus JRPGs. As he gets older, there will come a point when he will and should retire and enjoy the fruits of his long labors.
When that day comes, the foundation he laid for so long will continue with the designs, style, and aesthetic that the SMT and Persona games aim for. In the meantime, it looks like he is far from done with being a principal developer and leader on Atlus’ flagship titles.
Is He Working on Persona 6 Right Now?
The question remains: what is Kazuma Kaneko working so hard on right now? Considering how busy he has been in his career, his portfolio looks a bit light right now compared to the past. Since working on Persona 5, which came out in 2016, he has done almost nothing at all.
His main contribution was designing some of the demons for SMT V. Given that he didn’t have a main role in that game, it tells me that he only designed some of the many demons in that game. This also tells me that this wasn’t his main job for the last several years since Persona 5.
Especially with the release of SMT V, that definitely means we no longer know what he is working on at all. Of course, I am hinting at the fact of Persona 6, but before that, there is something else that Kaneko is likely hard at work on.
As you likely already know, Soul Hackers 2 is close to its release at the time of writing this and has probably already been released by the time you read this guide to Kazuma Kaneko’s life.
It isn’t known if Kaneko is working on that game since he isn’t listed as one of the main artists at this time. I would actually be surprised if he isn’t involved since he played such a crucial role in the original Soul Hackers many years ago.
But, given that he isn’t named prior to release, this tells me that his role is likely a minimal role if he is involved in the game, which I expect to be the case. As such, this still tells me that Kaneko is hard at work and has been working quite a while on something else entirely.
The likelihood of this being Persona 6 is, honestly, relatively strong, in my opinion. I have spoken at length before on our site about how I think Persona 6 is imminent and much sooner than you might expect. I imagine this is what Kaneko has been working on for some time.
His time with Persona 5 was unlikely to be coincidental or a one-time thing, so I fully expect him to be involved with the next mainline Persona game. After all, this sub-series has long overtaken SMT as the premier Atlus JRPG lineup.
Suppose Kaneko wishes to continue contributing to the future of Atlus. In that case, there is no better place to do so than the follow-up to the beloved and mainstream success, Persona 5. As for when we should find out more about this, I previously expected an announcement quite soon and still do, with a likely intended release in 2023, if it actually hits that date in the end.
Question: What does Kazuma Kaneko do now?
Answer: That is the ultimate question to which I’d like to know the answer. Kazuma Kaneko still works hard at Atlus, providing the best JRPGs around. We don’t know what game he is working on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be Persona 6.
Question: Does Kazuma Kaneko still work at Atlus?
Answer: Yes, he is still currently employed full-time at Atlus at the time of writing this.
Question: Where is Atlus based?
Answer: The beloved Japanese developer, Atlus, has its headquarters based in Setagaya-ku, one of the 23 special wards of Tokyo, Japan. Fun fact: this is also the ward where Kazuma Kaneko was born and raised.
Kazuma Kaneko is someone that every Shin Megami Tensei and Persona fan should know about. Without him, many of the iconic Personas and demons wouldn’t exist in the franchise. He is a quiet, immensely talented face behind some of the greatest JRPGs ever made.
Though he may not be in the limelight like other video game developers, there is no denying his legacy and success as an artist and creator. We have him to thank for the future of Atlus JRPGs, including possibly Persona 6. I still think this game will be announced soon, so you can find out why that is here.
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