Throughout the course of Legend of the Five Rings in-game story, there had been many great men. There were men like Moto Chagatai and Daidoji Uji who achieved the rank of Fortune. Akodo Toturi, who was able to kill a god and become emperor. The “Great Bear” Hida Kisada, who made a return from the afterlife. While those men were all extraordinary in their own ways no other man stood and declared himself as great as 20 others, stare down the rest of the empire and declare he would no longer serve under another, and would one day ascend to the heavens and take a place among the other great clan kami. That man was the one and only Yoritomo.
Yoritomo’s story would begin in the real world year of 1997 when he would be printed in the card game’s expansion Crimson & Jade. He would be featured on numerous personality, action, and event cards since then. He would also show up on covers of books and even as a tabletop miniature. The person tasked with first giving this character a look was Jason Behnke.
What was the direction you were given for his first piece in Crimson & Jade?
Crimson and Jade was, I think, my second or third set for L5R. Scorpion Clan Coup is in there somewhere. Apparently they still wanted me around after what I gave them on Forbidden Knowledge. Matt Wilson, the AD at the time, called me back to bring me in for Crimson and Jade.
I distinctly remember how that conversation went… in fact I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. You have to realize this was riding on the heels of one of my first jobs as an illustrator, so I was just happy feeling validated as an artist. It was pre-internet, pre-digital, pre-automation of anything. Phones, fax, postal. And I was painting in oils. It was the dark ages, but life was simpler, people were friendlier, and the world was much larger.
So on this call, he explains how there are two cards that are “heavy hitters” for the fans. One was an image featuring a person committing seppuku. I had to ask him what the hell that meant… remember, no Google back then. So he spent about fifteen minutes explaining the history, cultural significance, and gory details of seppuku. Matt Wilson was an excellent art director, don’t let anyone tell you differently. He articulated well, he was honest and straightforward with his expectations, he gave clear guidance on assignments, and there was no bullshit. I still miss working with him.
I think I followed up his dissertation with, “Woah, ok.” To which he then explained the conundrum facing us regarding the need to create art that is appropriate to minors for stores to carry L5R, so no blood, no gore, no exploitative anatomical imagery. He was relying heavily on me to figure out a way to create this gruesome illustration while being reverent to Japanese culture and sensitive to the age requirements AEG had to abide at the time (in later years these age concerns would go away, but for all the way up to Time of the Void it was something we had to deal with).
Oh, and she’s the Lion Clan Champion. So this image would also receive high exposure and make Lion players hit the roof. He vividly described a scene that now reminds me of anything from 28 Days Later in predicting the community’s reaction to Death of Tsuko. However, I was extremely honored to receive this challenge, as apparently he thought I was the one who could somehow create this picture tastefully within all of these surrounding expectations. I spent more time on that picture than anything else. I’m still not sure if I pulled it off successfully, but I liked what I was going for.
I realize you asked about Yoritomo, which is the second of these “heavy hitters”, but honestly it was Death of Tsuko that was the most significant illustration I was given in that set, and one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever worked on. I remember getting off the phone thinking I wasn’t qualified to be handed this assignment, and visualized myself heading right into the teeth of disaster by failing Death of Tsuko in every possible way. I mean, this is a serious tragedy. The story is so sad, and so ingrained in ancient Japanese tradition. Our American minds can’t process the notions surrounding seppuku and the medieval Japanese strictures of honor.
It finally came to me to depict her as a broken doll, and only by her bent, lifeless posture is the act of seppuku implied. Toturi’s in the background holding his head, but he did not need to use his sword. She died honorably.
I loved the idea, and I can still see it in my mind, but I’m never quite sure if I pulled it off back then. When I showed the painting at conventions, people asked “what’s going on?” and it broke my heart. However, L5R players knew exactly what was going on, and they were always full of encouragement. I think overall the L5R community liked and accepted Death of Tsuko, for which I am eternally thankful.
I was a young artist at the time, still trying to figure things out. Twenty years later I look back and see it for what it is, and if given the opportunity, I would love to revisit Death of Tsuko with what I know now. I feel that way about a lot of my early work, but nothing compares to Death of Tsuko.
Anyway, the other thing Matt explained was how they’re creating a new clan: Mantis, and there’s this badass named Yoritomo that leads them, and he wanted me to do it. I had a friend over at the time and I confided with him on this assignment. He looked at me from across the table and raised his hands in exactly the same position you see in the original Yoritomo painting. I think I recall saying, “Holy shit that’s brilliant… hold that pose.” and I did a rough sketch that would become the basis of Yoritomo’s infamous pose.
I knew at the time that I was painting a new clan champion, and that was a pretty high honor, and Yoritomo came easy to me. I painted him very quickly, leaving everything else around him blank so he had a strong silhouette.
I did not know how significant this painting would be… for both the game as well as my career. Yoritomo was, and still is, the illustration I am most known for. I’m proud of that, because it just shows you that you can never possibly forecast what’s around the corner with every opportunity. With each chance you’re given, each possibility for success, each relationship, each new job, each life choice, NEVER just go through the motions. Never just phone it in (see how long I’m spending on this question?) Treat each moment like it’s your last, because every single one of these moments could be a life changer. And if you invest in such a moment with all of yourself and people around you scoff at you or they tell you after the fact “I told you so” when things don’t go the way you wanted, seriously… fuck’em. Everyone’s an expert after the fact.
Funny thing is, I look at that old Yoritomo painting and… I just cringe. It has the silhouette going for it, sure, and that alone became a brand unto itself. But… come on let’s face it, it’s such a crappy painting. I realize most of Yoritomo’s fame comes from his stats and his effect on the game and the lore, and in turn my fame has leeched on that in-game success and its effect on the L5R community. Mantis became a huge component for AEG’s L5R because of Yoritomo and the story written around him. He was the “Badass of Rokugan”, he was “his 20 strongest men”. He was indomitable, incorrigible, a mercenary with 40-inch biceps who lead with fear, domination, infectious confidence and unrestrained swagger.
I’m happy that my name is associated with Yoritomo, and that I was honored to first conceive of Yoritomo’s aesthetic properties only because I was the first person to illustrate him. But I’m also humbled by it all, as I know that his popularity, and by extension my own within the L5R community, is only fractionally associated with the artwork itself.
When I came back to L5R after my hiatus, and when Adrian came on as the new AD, I openly told him that all of my work henceforth would be an apology for all of those early years when AEG kept using me despite how lame my work was at the time. Much of my career was built on L5R while I strove to become a better artist through each assignment… “learning on the job” so to speak. I know a lot of artists can relate to this. In recent years, I’ve read many artists quip about AEG that they’re a company to build your portfolio on, a diving board, a starting block for future success beyond. And sure, that’s kinda true, in that they’re willing to give people a chance.
But I have a different philosophy about this: If a company hired you when you were green and new and young, and if they contributed in some way to your career, your success, and who you are now as a person, then they deserve a special place on your list. Instead of “moving on” to “better clients” or “higher paying jobs”, these early clients should receive the gold standard. Make time for them regardless of what the pay is. If you’re a better artist now, capable of achieving those “better clients”, then it should be easier and faster for you to satisfy the kind of work those early clients want to give you. Never forget them, never leave them behind. It’s not about the money, it’s about integrity.
I have yet to be asked to work on anything for AEG beyond L5R with a couple extremely rare exceptions (R9E? LBS?), but if I get a call tomorrow, they know I’d make time for them. Like I said, it’s just a philosophy I have… it may sound stupid or counter-productive, but I just strongly believe that in business wherever you are, you never forget the ones that help you, especially in the beginning.
And for me, this is what Yoritomo represents. Fortitude. Discipline. Passion. Resilience. Confidence. Self-realization. Fire. A guy that I hastily painted who became an icon for the product that paid my bills for years while I struggled to make myself a better artist than I was while working 2-3 other jobs.
In the end, he represents no regrets.
Did you feel at the time of making the first piece that Yoritomo would go on to have the in-game effect that he did?
Absolutely no idea whatsoever, but I think Matt knew, and the writers probably knew. But he could only go so far in articulating the potential of Yoritomo with someone who didn’t understand the rules of the game to begin with. I realized he would be important because a whole new faction was being created for the game. But the writing around the Mantis Clan, their struggle to rise among the other major clans as peers, Yoritomo gathering the minor clans under his will, the conflicts that would arise as well as the sacrifices… and just the flat-out numbers on Yoritomo’s card… yeah I had no idea. For years people would come up to me and describe how just by simply laying his card down on the table would change the entire nature of the game. Opponents would throw their hands up in disgust, having to completely adjust their tactics by the presence of Yoritomo. The stories I’ve heard are pretty awesome and overwhelming. He was a real game-changer. My ideas of who he was, while painting him, were insignificant compared to the reality that would unfold later.
You mention you became know for Yoritomo but it isn’t without merit. You did do a number of pieces that feature him, including his next few experienced versions and event cards. Was there any changes you wanted to make with the art or character from piece to piece?
If I recall correctly, there was a change in art directors between Yoritomo and Yoritomo 2, and there were some creative complications and differences in vision between the new art director and the previous AD especially with the depictions of Yoritomo after his initial illustration.
So Yoritomo 2 started out as something different than what got printed. My initial vision for the second depiction of Yoritomo would be to pull the viewer back and show his whole figure in some dynamic fashion. So I painted him on a mountain with a sunset behind him, lifting one of his “kama” high into the air. During this time we agreed that this new illustration should not just be Yoritomo 1 with slight modifications. We both wanted something very different from his first outing. So my initial painting was just that.
The first painting didn’t fly, and the ad said, “Ok, give me Yoritomo 1, but put him in the middle of a battlefield.” We ran out of time, and had to compromise. I had three days to paint it, otherwise the assignment would be given to someone else. So that’s how Yoritomo 2 came to be… I painted him overnight and let the paint dry over the following two days.
Regarding some of the other depictions of Yoritomo that I created, they’re all hazy these days, honestly. But I’m not proud of any of them. For such a beloved character, it pains me to look at them knowing that they represent this hero that fans adore so much. I’m most fond of the very first Yoritomo illustration because of its strong silhouette, which wasn’t even my idea to begin with. But I hate seeing anything else I did for him except for what I was allowed to do in recent years under Adrian.
In fact, Heaven’s Blessing… that was euphoric. Words… I just can’t find the words. I still look at that painting these days and remember how awesome it felt to finally paint Yoritomo appropriately, with actual anatomy and larger-than-life presence, rising from this cresting ocean wave in this looming storm, about to claim the ship before him. I poured my soul into that painting… in fact I devoted a separate sketch to his helmet alone, actually working it out and making sure it made sense, adding all of the ornamentation and basically giving Yoritomo the treatment he’s deserved for so many years.
The same is true with my final Yoritomo painting, the one with him on the ship leading his naval fleet through the storm. I painted that in 2014 for Siege: Clan War which was released in 2015… here’s the art brief literally copied and pasted here from Adrian:
Again… I attacked this much like I attacked pretty much everything else while working with Adrian. His enthusiasm gave me actual, physical energy. It made me happy to work on L5R again.
So we’re you happy with how Yoritomo came out for the cards like Ascension of the Mantis or March of the Alliance?
You just exposed me to another piece that’s buried in the garage, making that two Yoritomo pieces that I am utterly ashamed of. March of the Alliance… it’s… it’s just hard to look at it. I’m sorry.
Ascension of the Mantis was a painting I was happy with when I painted it, and to this day I can acknowledge that it has some good things going on in it. It’s not an eyesore, and it doesn’t hurt my brain to look at. But there are also some glaring mistakes, and the whole thing is rather crude in my opinion.
Bear in mind, it’s true that artists are their own worst critics. And I look at all of these pieces as… simply what they are, and what they were, painted from who I was at the time. I look at them less as “artwork” and more as components within my own lifeline… dots along the equation. They’re my legacy for whatever that might be worth when it’s time for me to pass on. There are very few paintings I created back then for anyone including myself which I can still be pleased with. Very few. But they do exist… trust me.
Did you keep up with the game at all once departing doing work for it?
When I took a break from illustration, it was a time in my life when everything was falling apart, and I was exhausted. I had to step back and reevaluate. Try to understand, back then things were different then they are now. I learned from my experience that basically you have three paths to success as an illustrator: live at home rent-free and hone your craft while your family supports you no matter how many years it takes, marry someone who can support you, or get an agent. Otherwise, I don’t know, maybe you have a trust fund tucked away somewhere, or an inheritance… something that you can live on while you pour yourself into your portfolio. But in my situation, coming from no money and never having any money, and way over my head in debt from art college (that I’m still paying on to this day), for most of my career I’ve been holding down two to three jobs while also slowly pushing the illustration work forward. I look back now and regret not getting an agent in the beginning. I wanted to do it all myself… promotion, marketing, everything. That was a mistake. There’s a lot of debate among artists regarding the importance of agents, and I used to be the one who scoffed them off, citing nightmare stories about how they take advantage of young artists, charge insane rates and leverage unfair restrictions and business practices over artists. And it’s all true… but not overall. There are good agents out there. And when you’re a young artist looking to make a name for yourself, you’re not caring about the money, and you’re willing to compromise a little if it means more exposure, more clients, and more work that will lead to more work in the future.
In short, if you’re a new or young or aspiring artist looking to get into illustration, get an agent. Period. Just do it. Survive for a couple years and just take it on the chin if you’re getting exposed to opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be there without the agent. Just grind it out until you feel like you have the luxury of choice among your clients and agents, and whether you want to strike out on your own.
I realize today it’s a lot easier for an artist to promote themselves thanks to the internet and all of the technology at our fingertips to reproduce our work and get it out there for dirt cheap. But that’s a double-edge sword. Yes, it’s easier for you, but that also means it’s easier for everyone else. I thought the field was saturated 20 years ago… now I look back and laugh. If you think you can just post images on DeviantArt or Facebook and have an art director just stumble into you, stop kidding yourself. If you’re serious about your work, if you want to make a living doing this, you need the right paying clients, and those clients are the same clients that other more experienced artists are already using. Multiply that by a thousand and that’s how many other amateur artists are in your boat knocking on the same doors. Thankfully there are companies like AEG who are willing to give young artists a chance, but the compromise is usually the compensation.
Get an agent. Have someone represent you. Do it early so you can focus on your work and let someone else pound the pavement. You’ll appreciate this choice later in your career.
Anyway, I had to completely refocus my efforts and change directions, so I pretty much removed myself from illustration. I didn’t keep up with L5R… if I recall, I think that was around the time when WoTC had L5R. I had just done a couple things for Seventh Sea when John Zinser was handling the art direction personally, and more work was coming in… from him and from WoTC. In fact, now that I recall, it was extremely busy. Work was pouring in from everywhere. But I had just accepted a position as a graphic designer at a financial services company, meaning I had to adjust my life to a 9-5 schedule. I thought I could carry everything, but I burnt out. I had to put on the breaks full-on and turn it all down. It was heart-breaking, I felt like I was committing career suicide. But I had to do it in order to survive the new day job which gave me things like a steady paycheck I could live on, health insurance, and a 401k. It was either focus on that, or fail at everything and wind up homeless.
I kept painting, but only in my spare time… more for therapy than anything else.
Did you know of the versions of Yoritomo done by Ben Peck and Joseph Phillips when they came out? Do you feel like they continued that initial direction and vision?
I think they did a fine job carrying him forward. L5R has always been an organic, living product evolving year over year, and AEG has always enjoyed mixing up styles by giving different artists the same character. I realize I’m considered the “Yoritomo guy” but honestly I never felt like I had ownership over him. In fact I recall looking forward to seeing how other artists would depict him. I think it’s great to mix it up and show the same character translated through different styles and techniques. Art is a relative thing, different styles appeal to different people. No wrong answers there.
In addition to this awesome interview, Jason is also making available for the first time his first five paintings from Forbidden Knowledge. All the paintings are in great condition, only the varnish on top of the Ancestral Sword of the Hantei has become creased due to transport. You can see them here and on his artist page. For questions and purchasing inquiries please contact Jason directly.