OGIUE MANIAX

Anime & Manga Blog | 50% Anime Analysis, 50% Ogi

SSSS.GRIDMAN and Character Design (In)consistency

Takarada Rikka and Shinjou Akane are the two female leads of SSSS.Gridman who are grabbing the attention of fans due to their extreme attractiveness. The characters were clearly designed with the other in mind, as their proportions are more or less inverse from each other. Rikka is more bottom-heavy, with bigger thighs and a slim torso. Akane’s design emphasizes her upper body by having a large chest and skinny legs. They’re made for thirsty fans to draw lines in the sand, based on which features they’re truly drawn to.

The decision to create these contrasting designs might be a bit of a double-edged sword for the staff, however. What I’ve noticed is that the anime itself, as well as its merchandise, has trouble keeping track of the visual distinctions between Rikka and Akane. In any given image, Rikka might be portrayed as extra busty, or Akane might be drawn as voluptuous from top to bottom. If this were fanart, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise—it’s not uncommon to see fanartists give characters whatever proportions they want. But these are the show’s own artists and animators flubbing.

Anime, because it involves so many hands and a whole lot of outsourcing, is prone to inconsistencies, so this is not a criticism of the skills of any of the staff. What I am saying, then, is that Rikka’s and Akane’s designs are especially troublesome for animators and artists because they’re not how anime typically creates contrasting female characters. Usually, busty girls are thicker all over, and less chesty girls are more svelte all around. If not that, then designs will feature the same basic body type overall, even as the characters change in specific areas.

Because anime TV production is notoriously crunch-heavy, I could see a lot of artists and animators having to default to their natural instincts when drawing characters. If they’re not accustomed to drawing characters with such clearly defined proportions like Rikka and Akane, then it would be all too easy to draw what “seems right.” And because Rikka and Akane are not wildly different from each other (unless we’re talking fanart), they also can’t exaggerate to the point of caricature either. It’s a tough middle ground to strike.

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Ukiyo-e and the Concept of Anime Sameface

One of the common criticisms of character designs in anime and manga is that characters often have the same face with variations in hair, clothing, and accessories to set them apart. This is viewed sometimes as lazy, or a sign of a lack of skill or talent, in other words a crutch in lieu of true character proficiency. However, in a number of instances it can be argued that “samefaces” aren’t the same at all, that subtle variations such as the angle of the eyes can suggest enormous differences between two characters.

While sameface certainly isn’t absent outside of Japanese pop culture, I’ve begun to wonder if Japan’s own art history has contributed to not only its presence but also its acceptance. I’ve taken a cursory look at ukiyo-e recently, and one thing that strikes me is that portrayals of both men and women, especially attractive individuals, tend to use very similar kinds of faces, with greater attention paid to—you guessed it—hair, clothing, and accessories.

I’m well aware that there’s a tendency to try and force a connection between ukiyo-e and manga, and I don’t intend to go that route. Stylistically, the two are very different, even if ukiyo-e is a kind of predecessor in terms of being a popular, mass-produced art that emphasized reveling in momentary pleasures. Hokusai manga doesn’t really have anything to do with manga, and the panel progression of manga isn’t really present in ukiyo-e. Also, there is actually quite enormous variation in the depictions of people in both ukiyo-e and manga when you look at the broader picture. That being said, in terms of character design and the priorities present in ukiyo-e I suspect that there’s some lineage at work that seeps into manga on some level.

Utamaro_(1793)_Three_Beauties_of_the_Present_Time.jpegUtamaro (1793): Three Beauties of the Present Time

What stands out to me about portrayals of women in ukiyo-e is the amount of attention paid to the hair. While the faces remain absolutely unrealistic (much like manga and anime but in the opposite direction in terms of proportions and what is aesthetically appealing), women’s hair in ukiyo-e prints are frequently rendered with such loving detail to the point of being in some ways hyper-realistic. Similarly, kimono are given bold colors and patterns, and so at first glance what distinguishes two women is everything but their faces.

There are a couple of other things that crop up when reading about ukiyo-e that wouldn’t sound out of place if the discussion were anime or manga. First, while many women in ukiyo-e were portrayed similarly, what was considered the image of the “ideal woman” changed as the years passed by. Second, small variations in facial features and expressions could mean all the difference between a “stereotypical” design and a “realistic” one.

How does this relate to an idea such as kyara moe, where characters’ stories are told almost entirely in how they look and through collectively accepted meanings behind visual elements? When looking at a series like Love Live!, it can seem to an outsider like the girls are just the same template, but those unique features relative to each other make a world of difference.

Of course, all of this is a very preliminary impression. Feel free to prove me ignorant in the comments!

 

 

Pokemon Sun & Moon: Why Ash Ketchum’s Design Was Updated…Again

In 2010, the Pokemon anime decided to spice things up a bit by modifying its character designs. More than a simple change of wardrobe, the denizens of the Pokemon TV world had changes to their faces and hair, and the result was an Ash with green eyes. With the release of Pokemon Sun & Moon, the characters have transformed once more, and this time it’s even more drastic than before. While it’s not like Ash is seven feet tall with a goatee now, it looks noticeably different compared to his adventures in the Kalos region. With such a major change, the inevitable question is “why?”

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Fortunately, I just so happen to have answered this question the last time around, and it turns out that the answer applies just as well, if not better.

At the time when green-eyed Ash was revealed, I wrote a post explaining how this was a clear attempt at making the characters in the Pokemon anime match more closely with the character designs of the games. The main artist for Pokemon has always been Ken Sugimori, and while the designs of the anime characters were based on his work back in the mid to late 90s, he’s continued to refine his art style over the years. If you look at Ash and other characters in Sun & Moon, they veer even closer to Sugimori’s current aesthetic. Characters appear rounder and softer, and the way their eyes are drawn have that distinct Sugimori look. This is probably most evident in the new Alola region characters, such as Lillie.

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Anime Character Design

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Game Character Design

That explains a good chunk of why Ash’s adventures in Not-Hawaii look so far-removed from past generations of the anime, but another significant one is that a simpler art style means being easier to animate. That’s not to say that the old Pokemon anime styles were especially complex, but being softer and more simplified in this way means the animators can put more effort into making things move well instead of making sure each character has all of their necessary details.

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How Important is Consistency of Character Design Across Genders?

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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The Versatility of the Kyoani Face

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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Why Nyaruko’s Design Stands Out

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.

With Age Comes Grace and Also Less Punching

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.

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