Game director Swery (Deadly Premonition, Spy Fiction, D4, The Last Blade) was born into Buddhism. His parents were both Buddhist monks, and as a child, he dreamed of becoming a monk like Ikkyū San. As he got older, he forgot that dream, and studied film, writing, and theatre production and lighting, even as he got a standard monk license in highschool. As a son of monks, this wasn't a very difficult thing to do.
In this third year of college, a friend in his film group asked him to join the game industry with him, since games were becoming more cinematic. They chose to apply to SNK, because it was close to their houses. Swery got in – the friend did not. That was 1996.
Now, 20 years after that, after battling a host of health problems and difficult situations across the last year, Swery has become a licensed Buddhist master of one of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. In this interview, we find out how that happened, and what it means for the influential game creator.
Did Sharapova become a monk as well!?
Can you give a little background on your connection with Buddhism?
Swery: 43 years ago, I was born at a Buddhist temple in Osaka, Japan. I didn't have any questions about Buddhism when I was a child. I didn't really understand religion and faith.
Then, I grew up. I got a normal monk license when I was 17 years old. Looking back now, I didn't understand it enough even after studying Buddhism and other stuff.
And so, time proceeded to 1996.... I became a video game creator. Then, I started to believe that my dreams came true. Yes, I forgot about my faith before I even realized it.
Now, it's already been 26 years since I got a monk license. I had to hurriedly change my mind and remind myself about my religion. I know I was not a good guy.
How has your family reacted to you becoming a monk?
Swery: They (my parents) only said "Welcome back." It was enough for me.
What does it mean to become a Buddhist monk in your order? Are there things you can't do? Are there new things you can do? I guess it doesn't affect drinking?
Swery: Your life will be changed automatically if you learn about religion. Same for me too. But my Buddhism sect doesn't add to the restrictions on your life. I gained a doctrine, and my mind has been enriched a little. So I am still "SWERY."
What was the process of becoming a monk like? what did you have to do?
Swery: First you need to train to become a normal monk. After that, you need to be eligible to try the advanced training. You can get the qualification in universities and professional schools. In my case, I got it in a three year communication education course. After all that you can try to get a Buddhist monk master license like me.
If you actually do the training, you need to go to a secret temple to live together with other fellows. It is very tough and hard training for 10 days. Can you endure straight sitting for over 10 hours every single day??
Me? I did it.
Incidentally, my sect is called "Buddhist Churches of America" in America.
What made you decide to complete the process of becoming a monk after 26 years?
Swery: I had enough time to think about my mind and my life and humans and philosophy... and more, because I was taking time off since November of last year.
I met many friends, I talked with family, I was running through nature for a few months, I went to Europe, DrinKING, read many books, also wrote a book, and after that I decided to study Buddhism again.
You've mentioned to me that you may do missionary work. What will that be like? Do you convert people to your faith, or simply help them?
Swery: I don't understand my doctrine enough to be a missionary yet. So I will continue to study more about Buddhism. And I will listen to every word from disciples/believers of my sect. Maybe I can only do that. And I believe it's the best way.
Have Buddhist themes been present in your games in the past? Any examples? What about in the future?
Swery: I have brought in a view of the world where people can feel the presence of important things, which is not just limited to Buddhism. I think that is natural. Religion has been necessary for humans to live since a long time ago. Same as art or music. So I will continue to bring themes in as naturally as possible. I do not want to press it by force.
Does it feel strange now to see monks in video games? They are always fighting, or healing, or doing magic. You worked on Last Blade, which has Lee Rekka, a Shaolin Buddhist Monk. How did you think about this character when working on this series? And what do you think about warrior monks in general?
Swery: Haha, good question. But I don't feel so bad. They are almost fantasy stuff at this point. So I understand that they are not same as me.
By the way, Lee Rekka from The Last Blade is one of my favorite characters I created. He came from China to Bakumatsu Era Japan. He has the spirit of discovery and believes in justice. It is simple but strong. I am thinking that the source of his power came from his faith.
And of course I love monk characters. However I sometimes hate characters who are made out to be misunderstanding religion. For example... XXXXXXX (I can't say the name, because of adult reasons).
Does monkhood change your attraction to writing complicated, sometimes perverse characters?
Swery: I don't think so. Religion/Faith never snatches your personality away, even if you trust it. Look at me, I haven't changed. Just grew up a little. I will continue to write weird things as long as I want to do so.
What do you think is the best way to represent religion in video games?
Swery: Video games are totally entertainment. Even if one of them doesn't give fun times to you. One aspect of religion is similar to that, but religion is not just only entertainment. It has a lot of aspects about human life.
Also, what is "religion" for you? Can you answer this clearly? It is a complicated question for me. So I must try to set it up as naturally as possible, if I want to do that. I can only say that much.
If I asked you to come up with a game scenario starring a priest, right now, what would your pitch be?
Swery: OK, I will answer honestly.
“A long time ago,in a galaxy far, far away...”
Just kiddin' haha.
If I understand correctly, your faith believes every person can attain Buddahood in death. Is this right? Does this cause you to reflect on negative things you may have done in your past, or do you free yourself from them?
Swery: Of course, yes. Buddha wants to save you from all suffering, even if you were a villain. What you see as good (Positive) and evil (Negative) is all decided by human beings in our selfish thoughts. It is "ethics," but it is not "the truth."
For example, you will not be able to continue your life without killing animals and plants. That's what it means to be a human being. But Buddha promised us that he will release us from every suffering after we die. That's why I was determined to believe in the teachings of Buddha. I am sorry, my English is not good enough to tell you everything.
Do you know of others who have released games as Buddhist monks? Will you be the first?
Swery: I don't know. But I am definitely the first video game developer with a Buddhist monk license and a Guinness world record. (Editor's Note: Deadly Premonition, directed by Swery, holds the Guinness World Record for "the most controversial survival horror game.")
What would you say to people who have a difficult time accepting religion? I admit I have a hard time with it sometimes myself.
Swery: What can we do with faith if it isn't even able to save us? I don't have any answer for that yet. However, don't push yourself too hard to believe in religion. I was the same as you in my young days.
Someday you might need it naturally. It will help you whenever you need faith. I really hope so. Life is beautiful.
This was a weird interview, but thanks for doing it!
Swery: Thank you for your time. And thank you for reading this weird article. I appreciate the messages from everyone. Also, in order to make more crazy games, I've been polishing my ideas every day.
Please continue to support me, I love you all!!
Well, Sharapova is trying her best.