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In a 2013 podcast interview, Paul Dini, creator of the DC Animated Universe, described how a stubborn refusal to move away from traditional marketing tactics spelled the end for the popular and beloved Justice League cartoon. Esssentially, because Dini had given the female characters of Justice League equal prominence and strong character development, the higher-ups who had planned their marketing around appealing to boys told the staff to cut it out. Girls should be on the sidelines, and never as good as the boys, because boys were supposed to buy the toys and merchandise, dagnabit. It’s a sad fact that proper marketing, trying to find the demographic that’ll give you the most bang for your buck, can often lead to things like happening, especially when so much money has been invested into a project and having things go not according to plan is seen as a nightmare scenario. Gendered marketing has been around for centuries, and it likely isn’t going anywhere soon.

I began thinking about this idea relative to anime, if only because anime and manga are known for gendered marketing. While anime does on a number of occasions portray strong female characters such as in the Precure franchsie, the primary audience is indeed young girls, even if a sizable male audience is willing to shell out some big bucks to get some DVDs and nice figures. However, there’s another side of anime marketing I’ve seen, one that seemingly both defies and reinforces gendered marketing, by placing idealized male characters for women and idealized female characters for men in the same space.

One such title I reviewed for an Anime Secret Santa a couple of years back: Acchi Kocchi: Place to Place. In it, I described the main couple as consisting of the small, moe girl and the tall, quiet bishounen, resulting in a combination of two popular yet often disparate archetypes in one relationship. Series such as Aquarion EVOL and Tytania have different artists on duty to design the male and female characters separately for maximum appeal/pandering. Perhaps nowhere is this more extreme than in the currently-airing Show By Rock, which takes the cute girl/handsome guy incongruity of Acchi Kocchi to a whole other level:

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(This isn’t even taking into account the fact that Show By Rock is already a rather eclectic mishmash of styles that also includes CG cute animal anthropomorphs playing in rock concerts.)

So you have these series with various creative forces involved—Okada Mari (Lupin III: The Women Called Mine Fujiko) wrote Aquarion Evol, while Tanaka Yoshiki (Legend of the Galactic Heroes) is the original author of Tytania, for example—which means that different philosophies and beliefs are involved on various levels of production. Marketing is still at work, the creators are overall looking for you to buy their anime, and if not that, then to buy their products. Focused marketing, gendered marketing is still happening. And yet, why are these anime willing to try and bridge the gap so at least within a single work there are elements that actively appeal to men and women, boys and girls, even if it’s for the sake of hitting some basic desire buttons on the audience? And if the argument is that the merchandise is designed to reflect those gender differences as well, then why were the people responsible able to produce goods in such a way that the executives behind Justice League could not?

Of course, one recent example of a franchise that has tried to appeal to both men and women within the same films has been the Marvel cinematic universe. Thor and Captain America both have looks and personalities that garner admiration from men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and marketing has capitalized on that. At the same time, there’s also been a bit of an uproar over the fact that what should have been a Black Widow toy became instead a Captain America one. If this were Japan, there would certainly be some figures of Black Widow, but there’s also a fair chance that those examples wouldn’t be targeting girls.

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Though a fair number of anime studios can be characterized to some extent by the types of shows they put out, the only current ones I can think of that have a house “look” on a character design level are P.A. Works (SHIROBAKO, Hanasaku Iroha) and Kyoto Animation (Suzumiya Haruhi, Tamako Market). I think this is especially noticeable with the latter studio, as the “Kyoani Face” is instantly recognizable, and is even sometimes imitated, such as with Sound of the Sky.

While watching the first episode of Kyoto Animation’s newest work, Sound! Euphonium, it occurred to me how versatile the Kyoani face is to a certain extent. It’s not so much that Sound! Euphonium alone that made me realize this, but rather that it was a slow culmination of watching their shows over the years. Namely, i find that their iconic face can be fitted, or perhaps was slowly adapted over the years, to match not only a variety of body types but also a range of character designs from cutesy caricature to more realistic proportions.

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The most obvious example of this would probably be the Free! character designs, shown above, but I think you can see it in their more historical tendency to make stories about cute high school girls. All of these characters are supposed to be roughly the same age, and yet while they share that signature look in terms of their faces, their bodies are all noticeably different. I’ve even made all of the characters the same “height” in order to emphasize this.

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From left to right: Ritsu from K-On!, Hazuki from Sound! Euphonium, and Gou from Free!

Of course, not every one of their shows uses the Kyoani face of course (Lucky Star being the notable exception), but I think it goes to show just how important that particular facial structure is to the identity of the studio. Otherwise why would they use it again and again? At the same time, I wonder if it also shows Kyoto Animation’s willingness to experiment, at least within their particular areas of specialty, in terms of both story and visuals.

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I’m not much of a fan of Haiyore! Nyaruko-san, the moe-fied Cthulhu mythos-themed comedy anime, but I find that the main character Nyaruko has a really appealing character design. While she doesn’t look that different from other cute anime girls, Nyaruko draws the eye and leaves a memorable impression to the extent that it makes me want to maybe, just maybe, give her show a second chance. In looking at her more closely, the element that visually differentiates her from other similar character designs, the lynchpin which transformers her into something more distinct and complete, is her checker-patterned dress.

My reasoning has relatively little to do with personal preference (at least as far as I can tell about myself), but is based on the amount of contrast that the checkered pattern provides on Nyaruko’s overall design. Nyaruko does wear other outfits in her series, namely her school uniform, and if you compare the two outfits the checkered dress simply stands out more. There’s the inherent contrast of dark and light that a checkered pattern already has, but there’s also the fact that the pattern stands out against the broad swathes of flat color that make up Nyaruko’s hair, skin, and the rest of her clothing.

You could get a similar effect with stripes, but a checker pattern is like a stripe pattern taken to the next level, and I think that the way the checker pattern is only a small part of her dress instead of the dominant pattern as you might imagine a striped dress to be keeps it from overpowering the rest of Nyaruko’s design. It’s also somewhat of an uncommon clothing pattern among anime characters, which makes it easier to associate the checker pattern with her character before others. What you’re left with then is a visual design which not only pops out but causes others (including other characters in Nyaruko-san) to recede.

Back when I was watching the Chihayafuru anime, I began to associate the show in my head with the American cartoon franchise Ben 10. Even though their respective subject matters are worlds apart, both featured fiery tomboys of elementary school age whose later appearances would involve a time skip to high school where their hair is longer and their personality a little more mature. But where the transition for Chihaya felt right for me in the sense that she seems like the same character only older (and thus different in some ways but similar in others), Gwen’s change inBen 10: Alien Forcewound up seeming like an entirely different character to me. Not only her personality but even her character design turned out to be significantly different.

Of course I know why this is the case: Chihaya was planned from the start to have this age jump, as the episodes involving her childhood are mainly flashbacks and setup for the story proper where Chihaya starts her own karuta club, while there was clearly no original intention to have a time-skip sequel to Ben 10. When Alien Force did come around, it streamlined some of the elements of the previous series and in the process wound up as something of a break from its predecessor. At the same time, however, the fact that Chihaya is in many ways a similar character to Gwen just made me more aware of how this sort of transition can be done well.

By the way, Chihayafuru season 2 was just announced today, but I swear that my posting this is merely coincidence. If I had that sort of power I’d use it for better things, like a Fujoshissu! anime.

With the recent release of Mortal Kombat 9, a lot of beloved figures in the Mortal Kombat franchise have been re-designed to look both modern and reminiscent of their very 90s character designs in an effort to bring the series back to its old school roots. Remembering that Sonya Blade’s design was absolutely awful in the previous game, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, sporting the most ridiculous shirt ever, I wondered how they would portray her in this iteration. While the new design is an improvement, it makes me realize that Sonya is actually just a terribly-designed character.

Here is Sonya throughout her 3-D fighting game history, away from the live actor portrayals that characterized Mortal Kombats 1 through 3. If you did not tell me that they were all supposed to be the same character, I simply would not be able to tell. Nothing is consistent about her, short of the fact that she’s blonde, has big tits, and shows an exposed midriff. Sonya Blade is a terrible design because she is a non-design.

While she could be criticized for having an over-sized, unrealistic chest and ridiculously skimpy outfits, that’s not really the point here, as the scantily clad and jiggling girls of Dead or Alive share those properties in spades and yet are still distinctive even when they’re wearing 1 cm-thick bikinis and taken out of a relative comparison with each other. Nor is the problem that her design is too generic, as the Virtua Fighter series is all about cookie-cutter characters, and yet whether it’s the blocky and outdated graphics of Virtua Fighter 1 or the more recent Virtua Fighter 5, Sarah Bryant, a fellow fighting blonde, is still recognizable. Chun-Li can appear in Street Fighter Alpha younger and sporting a different outfit and still look like Chun-Li, and she also successfully made the transition to 3-D with her very iconic look and style.

On a broader scale, video game characters rely on a certain degree of iconic visualization, and though this is more easily done with a mascot like Mario or Sonic, it’s still possible with a more realistic figure. Sub-Zero and Scorpion show this, despite the fact that they both started out literally as the same character design with different colors. it’s clear that Sonya simply never had anything beyond her rack and her belly button to distinguish her. Back in Mortal Kombat 1, when she was the only female character, this arguably could have been sufficient, but as more and more girls have appeared in the franchise over time, also with large breasts and bare midsections, it really makes it obvious that she wasn’t thought through thoroughly.

For a further comparison, take a look at this image Sophitia Alexandra from the Soul Calibur series which I conveniently obtained from elsewhere. Although her design has gone off the deep-end in recent games, it’s very clear that all of the above figures are supposed to be the same person, even when drawn by different artists. If I were to make an educated guess as to what makes Sophitia work but not Sonya, I’d say that it has to do with the fact that Sophitia was designed in the first place with certain key visual elements like her sword and shield, skirt, and gentle demeanor, and even when next to her somewhat similar sister Cassandra, you can still tell the two apart by how their designs convey their personalities. It can be as simple as that, so that when they’re given makeovers in later games, a person can take one look without being told specifically who it is and say, “Aha, that’s her! …She looks terrible!”

I’ve written a post concerning Final Fantasy: Advent Children as part of our “multi-vistas” category at the Vistas blog, where everyone on the blog takes a look at the same work and writes a response. Mine is about the character-centric visuals of Advent Children as well as some personal elements, while my colleagues have written about Advent Children as Fantasy vs. Science Fiction and the lack of discrete visibility in its action scenes and its possibilities.

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