Inconsistency in Iconographic Character Design and the Aging Audience Mind

It was winter, around New Year’s one year when the Naruto anime in Japan aired an episode that acted as a set up to the long-anticipated Sasuke vs Gaara fight in the Chuunin exams. During this episode the characters were all terribly off-model, and not just for a few frames as the internet so likes to point out, but throughout the entire show. Taking a gander at the ending credits, it was very clear that this was some animation studio’s E team working on it. It was New Year’s after all and the New Year is a big deal in both Japan and Korea.

As a college-age student, I was not the primary audience for Naruto, as much as all college-age fans of Naruto might like to believe. Now, thinking back to my own childhood and knowing some of the things I’ve learned about animation, I have to wonder if I would have been so keen to pick up on inconsistency in character design, and if it would have mattered to me at all.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to watch many episodes of the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, the one that began in the 80s and ran for close to a decade, and it was then that I realized that for the Shredder, nothing was ever actually consistent. There was the helmet, the claws, the cape, the overall outfit, but from one shot to the next the thickness and curvature of the helmet would change, the arm guards would just do whatever, and it looked like each scene was drawn by a different person. And they probably were! But I didn’t really notice, or at least not that I can recall. I remember sometimes the Shredder looking more awesome than other times, but that’s about it.

World Events licensed the Japanese robot anime King of Beasts Golion and Space Musketeer Bismarck, and transformed them into Voltron: Defender of the Universe and Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs respectively. Both shows were popular enough with kids that they ended up creating extra episodes from scratch. Without the guiding hand of the original Japanese companies though, the shows just did not end up looking the same.

If you look at a lot of cartoons animated in Japan in the 80s for American audiences, such as Bionic Six or Galaxy Rangers, many of the openings are much more visually impressive than the actual episodes. Of course, openings being superior in quality to the show they precede should not be unfamiliar territory to anime fans.

Decades before Voltron and Bionic Six, the anime 8-Man was brought to America as 8th Man. At Otakon 2008, Mike Toole in his panel “Dubs That Time Forgot” pointed out that in the custom American intro for 8th Man, the character design used for the titular character didn’t even resemble the original Japanese design beyond a basic level.

Now, I watched both Voltron and Saber Rider as a kid but as I was very young at the time I barely remember anything about them, aside from the fact that smaller robots combining into a single mighty robot was the best idea ever (see also: Transformers, Gobots). Did I catch any of these extra episodes? I really don’t know. As for 8th Man, I wasn’t even born yet. But somehow I don’t think most kids were angry that the show tried to trick them into believing two different designs were the same character.

Kids need only a few iconic things to identify the character. With Shredder, it’s a mean-looking metal helmet ninja guy (something you can also see in the more recent TV series). With Voltron, it’s some people in color-coded outfits and a robot with lion heads for limbs and a sword that blazes. With 8th Man it’s a giant 8 on his chest.

I’m not asking whether companies right or wrong to rely on these aspects and hoping kids wouldn’t notice the difference, or whether or not they insult children’s intelligence by doing so. And I am not defending inconsistency in animation or saying that it is totally okay to just forget what your own characters look like. At the end of the day, Yashigani doesn’t help anyone, and there are times when characters are so off-model that they break even the important iconic features of a character. What I am asking instead is, what is and should be prioritized when it comes to presenting a character to children? And then, how does this affect media for older people that grows out of these preconceptions?

American superhero comics were once the domain of children, and it’s there that you see the strength of symbols and in characters. An S on the chest, a blue outfit with red cape, and a confident stance, and you’ve got Superman. Individual artist differences don’t matter as much as getting the basics of Kal-El down. But then over the years superhero comics became more and more geared towards adult readers, as they are today. Since then, the practice of having different artists and writers on the same character has become a staple of the genre, but now with this older readership this practice is celebrated. It is touted as one of the unique features of comics, where for better or for worse an Alan Moore Swamp Thing-level revamp can be conceived and then taken away months later, but with the record that the same character has many different approaches both in terms of story and subtle visual changes.

And now we have anime which, like comics, started off in the realm of children and grew to encompass adults, adults who were once those very same children. And then when watching anime for at least a certain subset of adults (otaku) became more commonplace, anime started gearing towards them to a certain degree, and with every passing year we see more of this. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics talks about how he considers of the great strengths of manga to be its use of characters as iconography, which I’m extending towards anime as well. But how has icon usage in character design changed if at all in this journey towards adulthood?  One of the long-standing strengths of anime I feel is the way in which it provides material for adults to enjoy even within children’s shows. Is more consciously consistent (or intentionally inconsistent) character design a higher necessity when the target audience is older? Is an older audience what’s needed to truly appreciate a Shinbo-style unorthodox approach to a show? These questions don’t necessarily need answering, but I feel they may lead to finding out parts of the truth about how anime and its audience interact.

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