There are few video game creatives as tireless in their pursuit of perfection as Kazunori Yamauchi. The head of the Polyphony Digital studio, and creator of Gran Turismo, is a motoring obsessive whose project for the last 25 years has been to build an interactive temple to cars and motorsport. He lives and breathes this quest. Between 2009 and 2016, he raced GT cars in 24-hour races, then gave the development team notes on exactly how it should look when the sun comes up over the Nordschleife Nürburgring.
There’s something of a mythology around Yamauchi (or, as many GT fans call him, Kaz), and I went into the Gran Turismo movie expecting him to make an appearance as himself, perhaps stepping out of one of his beloved Nissan GT-R cars in racing overalls. To my total delight, the very first shot of the film was of Kaz — fully suited up, of course — kneeling on a racing circuit’s asphalt, carefully studying the camber of a turn. But here’s the twist: It isn’t Yamauchi. It’s an actor portraying him.
Yamauchi doesn’t play a huge role in the film, which tells (with a good degree of creative license) the true story of Jann Mardenborough, a Gran Turismo player who graduated from the GT Academy program to a career as a professional racing driver. Aside from the nakedly promotional opening montage that establishes the brilliance and perfectionism of Polyphony and the Gran Turismo games, Yamauchi (the character) mostly appears in the background of press launches and other notable moments in Mardenborough’s career, looking on approvingly (as far as you can tell from his stoic countenance). He only has one line, and he’s mostly called on to provide reaction shots in which he doesn’t react very much. But he hangs around quite a bit, and perhaps this role was considered beyond the acting talents (or the availability) of the famously laconic Kaz. Either way, fictional Yamauchi is played by Takehiro Hira — probably most recognizable as the Japanese lead of the excellent BBC/Netflix crime drama Giri/Haji — who gives him an appropriate gravitas.
In the end, though, I wasn’t disappointed — Yamauchi does make a cameo in the film. Just not in the way I expected him to.
[Ed. note: Very mild spoilers for Gran Turismo follow.]
Midway through the film, Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) makes a trip to Japan to promote his contract with Nissan and takes his girlfriend, Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), with him. The pair go on a date in Tokyo and visit a posh sushi restaurant. Mardenborough takes a bite of the sushi and his face lights up. “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” he says. Cut, for just a second, to the sushi chef, who smiles appreciatively and gives the slightest nod.
I recognized him straight away, but asked Sony PR to confirm for good measure. I was right: The sushi chef is Kaz.
I expected something more car-themed, but in fact, director Neill Blomkamp and his team created the perfect cameo moment for Kaz here. To understand why, you need to understand a little about the man.
Yamauchi is a true auteur, one of the most famous in gaming, after the likes of Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto. He leads his own studio and is granted near-total creative freedom by Sony to pursue his personal vision. But he doesn’t make playful explorations of childlike wonder like Miyamoto, or cinematic epics laden with philosophizing like Kojima; he makes scrupulously realistic driving simulators that are often — understandably, if not entirely fairly — thought of as dry. If his personal characteristics are understood, they are “perfectionist,” “technocrat,” and “likes cars.”
But, as illustrated in interviews and in the hagiographic but revealing 2014 vanity doc Kaz: Pushing the Virtual Divide, Yamauchi is really a dreamer, a true romantic. As a child, he drew endlessly on the walls of his house, which his parents indulgently re-papered for him. When he joined Sony’s gaming program in the 1990s, before PlayStation was even a thing, Gran Turismo already existed in his head. It’s the only game he ever wanted to make, and he clearly finds something soulful in exploring, through his re-creations of the history of motorsport and the auto industry, humanity’s striving for something more.
By picturing him as a sushi chef, Gran Turismo casts Kaz correctly as not just a famous video game maker and car fancier, but as a craftsman and aesthete: someone who, with great skill, precision, and artfulness, puts a little of himself into everything he makes, and lives for you to appreciate it.
Gran Turismo opens in U.S. theaters on Aug. 25.