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  • Character Design in Anime

    Jun 12 2014, 19h59

    As we all learned it from John Kricfalusi, the most important aspect of character design and character animation is „Appeal“, one of the original 12 basic principles of animation. Appeal is subjective but when you actually read something up about appeal and understand how it works, then you aquire an eye for it rather quickly.

    Kricfalusi ranks the principle of appeal second only to Solid Drawing (drawing of objects in three-dimensional space). When taking a close look at popular culture, it is notable that most iconic characters also have enormous appeal. To Kricfalusi, great appeal lies in a clearly structured shape and when looking at the icons of animation (Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Astro Boy, up to Homer Simpson or SpongeBob) it becomes obvious that all followed that principle to varying degree. Their bodies can easily be broken down to clear and easy shapes like circles or squares.

    That being said, usually more detailed faces are less appealing, and big eyes and heads are more appealing; this is the rule of thumb established by Disney and Warner cartoons.

    Sounds familiar? Well, that's the case in most anime character design, influenced by Disney cartoons via Osamu Tezuka, the god of comics.



    Look at Tezuka's Astro Boy. He has a REALLY clear shape, with a great solid figure. A truly iconic character, iconic mark of Tezuka, of Anime, even of Japan. For contrast, see this abomination from the American CGI adaption. The disney-fied eyes are too small for his large head, the well-composed forms of the Tezuka original are streamlined to a creature with a bulbous head without any sense for proportion.


    Totoro

    Tezuka's follower and overcomer Hayao Miyazaki is another outstanding example, and appeal is probably his biggest strength, aside from the intellectual depth of his films. Totoro is a character with enormous appeal, he not only became an icon of his Studio Ghibli, but an icon of anime. Look at those clearly defined shapes, like a pear, the shape is what makes him so appealing! Miyazaki probably gave us the best designs with his-non human characters.
    The no-face with his dull surprise is appealing as well, once again because of the clear shape and facial structure, both creepy and appealing, resulting in the signature off-beat Miyazaki cuteness.


    Yobaba

    His human characters are great too, with great shapes, he just perfectly understood character design. Look at Chihiro, who is cute without need for the moe-archetype that crowds anime these days, but the cake takes Yobaba's design. Clear structure, clear forms, clear shape. Highly appealing, despite the "uglyness". Miyazaki really has a talent for this.


    Lady Oscar

    Another iconic character, Lady Oscar from Rose of Versailles, had a great design too that perfectly illustrates her character. It isn't only the strict shape of the face and the slightly looser hairstyle (still in a shape), it's also her uniform and her slender body. This is a good example of the Shōjo-school of anime character design which later was hugely influencial on the moe archetype.


    Princess Knight

    On the other end, and one of the worst cases is probably how Tezuka Productions remade Princess Knight decades after the death of Tezuka-sensei. The original had a great, if not iconic appeal, but the remake is grotesque in the worst sense, overladen and generally tasteless- What the hell is up with those (non-)shapes?

    The highly fashionable abomination these days, almost directly derived from the Shōjo tradition is the kawaii/moe archetype.

    Moe is not a character design, moe is an ideology. Moe is closely related to appeal but not the same, it's the affection for a character. Whenever you like or when you're supposed to like a character, it's a moe character. Coming from this concept, but combined with an outrageous misinterpretation of the appeal principle, the moe character design was born.


    some characters from K-ON


    Haruhi Suzumiya

    Look at this blandness and lack of real character and idiosyncrasy. There is almost no appeal, save Haruhi Suzumiya, who at least has some shape and became somewhat iconic. I don't expect this status to be maintained over the years, simply because it's too closely modeled after a fashion trend, and not after timeless principles. The next case even seems like a parody of it, maybe it even is, given the nature of Lucky Star. Good job, indeed. No form, no shape, like a bag of sand. Kyoto Animation is really bad at doing character design, if you go by John Kricfalusi's "shape appeal theory". Nichijou's characters had better structure in the hairstyle, but the faces are unfortunately just another set of shapeless sandbags.


    Madoka

    Studio Shaft, another studio that mastered moe anime, is much better in that regard. This is the rather appealing Madoka, her face has a really good and clear structure, but the character designer Ume Aoki has almost no concept or shape for hair design and falls into the trap of other designers. Her companion Homura has a quite bad design, the clear shape of the face is disturbed once again by the unappealing hair and the odd glasses that simply do not fit in the design. It seems random and badly composed.

    The cat Kyubey was quite decent again with a design appealingly creepy with a good shape, but what the hell are these things supposed to be that come out of his ears?

    Ume Aoki in general is one of the better moe designers. Here are her characters from Hidamari Sketch who have the same design issue as Madoka: they all have appealing facial shape, but the structure of the hair is completely lost. The real problem with Shaft lies somewhere else, because their star director Akiyuki Shinbō has a quite bad sense of Staging (the arrangement of a scene, another important animation principle). Most appeal gets lost in the process, and not because of bad animators - Shaft has great animators - but particularly because Shinbō buries it under layers of CGI and questionable design decisions, and a general lack of punchy scenes, in a sense of punchy staging.


    Osaka

    Ironically, the anime which more or less started this whole moe thing, Azumanga Daioh, was much better in this regard, possibly because it combined the decades-old established shōjo-design with the wackiness of shōnen. Look at Osaka, immediatly appealing and interesting, mainly because the design has a clear shape and Azuma knows much better how to use that shape, unlike whatever hacks design those shapeless things that crowd moe anime these days. Azuma also knows how to create a highly memorable, nicely shaped non-human creature.
    I often ask myself why I find Azumanga Daioh so much more appealing than any other moe show, it's maybe not the eccentric cast and the unique humor, I think the main reason is Azuma's appealing character design.


    Rei Ayanami

    Another great example of moe would be the mother of all moe in the modern sense, Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion, designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Just as Osaka's, her design had a clear shape: the iconic hair are three triangles and a perfect circle, conterpointed with the space around her nose and her large appealingly shaped chin, that would look horrible if it wouldn't round off the composition of her face.
    Asuka and Shinji, or the Evangelions and the Angels, were not quite as good as Rei, but still had a clearer shape than most other designs, and NGE bore at least a dozen of iconic characters.
    Sadamoto's work for FLCL wasn't exactly bad but really overdone and too complex in comparison. It has no clear shapes, but the slender body figures (and Kazuya Tsurumaki's amazing off-model-laden direction) compensated the lack of well-structured faces. In the end it's always the animator who brings life to the model, but since most anime directors (Miyazaki or Tsurumaki are notable exceptions) strictly forbid the off-model, it rarely is saved from becoming bland (in a sense that it has no idiosyncratic character).


    Ryoku

    Mako

    And then there are modern shōnen abominations like the design of the protagonist of Kill la Kill. Who thought this was a good idea? Her companion Mako was much better: clear, simple, immediatly appealing. This example within the same series impressively shows that simplicity is far more appealing than "realistic" or complex drawings.


    Yoko Littner

    The same guys who made Kill la Kill also made the neigh-iconic series Toppa Tengen Gurren Lagann. I suppose Yoko is male gaze personified, but it worked because only her chest and her red bikini top had clear shape: two circles and two triangles. It's almost bizarre how well this strategy worked, because her face has an utterly bland design. It should say everything about the fans of this series.

    If you ask anime fans which character they find more appealing, when given a choice between Osaka and Yoko, most people will instinctively choose Yoko for her bust. It's the anime equivalent of the loudness war, really. I predict that Osaka will be remembered in another 10 years (her character is from 2002 with unbroken appeal and popularity), while Yoko's fame is fading with every day and will eventually disappear, and when looking back we will think "How could we just fall for this? Just because of tits? Are we really that simple-minded?"


    Guts

    More "masculine" anime, such as Berserk or Fist of the North Star are different. Their tactic is the tactic of the sublime, if you so want: Overwhelming the viewer with iconic awesomeness.
    Berserk for the most part never even tried to make appealing character designs, and in fact Kentarō Miura's designs are much more interesting for their skillful penmanship. There is little appeal (in the sense of the animation principle) in it, but it's not like he didn't know how to design an appealing character, take a look at Puck's wacky face. His remarkable talent for staging saves a lot, and the anime adaption uses a similar modus moderandi: great direction with realistic character design. That compensates the lack of clarity.

    Another masculine design concept had Fist of the North Star: An atrocity, but it's so atrocious that it's appealing. Mountains over mountains of musles, only six facial types at best, but all with nice clear shapes, only the amount of detail decreases the appeal. Ken became an iconic character nontheless, maybe due to the campy violence of the series; the sublime violence.


    Son Goku

    Dragonball, which codified the modern shōnen anime iconography, was astonishingly good at this, with a slighly more cartoony design than most of its contemporaries, take Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, which was made by Tezuka disciples. The design was rather mediocre, except for some main characters. The iconic Char Aznable surely was among the better ones in this category, but the characters in Gundam were more interesting for their actual character than for their design, and they became iconic because they were amazingly written characters in a show that was both fashionable and innovative.


    Eikichi Onizuka

    A memorable example of how a merely "good" character design is transformed into an iconic character by interesting animation is Eikichi Onizuka from Great Teacher Onizuka. The model is neat, with some sharp shapes, but the director's hilarious off-model strategy (inspired by the manga) makes him far more memorable, for example this expression.


    Page from Devilman

    Another disciple of Tezuka was Gō Nagai and his Devilman, the father of all edgy and violent shōnen. Gō Nagai's design in general is really wacky, with exaggerated facial structures, but they are appealing that way, because they were still clear and structured. This kind of appeal is almost completely forgotten in anime since the 80s. Once again, look at the shapes, you could draw them in your mind, or take a pen and paper and draw the circles or squares or triangles. This style is mostly disregarded these days because it's too "cartoony", and western anime fans have a quite strong opinion of their favorite medium, so traces of cartoons are disregarded because of an ideology.


    Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt

    This ideology is subverted when correctly advertised as a harmless piece of entertainment and not a serious anime. Some of these works, such as Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt seem like a blend with western cartoons, trying to be a successor to FLCL. The trained cartoon eye recognizes this as superficial, the shapes are almost random, badly composed and the anime iconography is still closely followed. In fact Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is far more reminiscent to the works of Kyoto Animation and 70s Anime than to, let's say, Invader Zim or Powerpuff Girls - both series that are referenced by the work.

    We have to talk about the anime artists who more or less ignore the iconography alltogether because they realized how ideological the the anime design concepts have become. The greatest anime artist in this regard of course is Masaaki Yuasa.

    As an animator he is neigh-flawless (except some slips into awkward rotoscopy and CGI) and it's no surprise that his works in which he also handled the art direction or even the key animation are really damn appealing. In this video you can actually see how bland character designs become immediatly appealing under the guidance of his off-model virtuosity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TDu8kiz7Jo I can't count the numbers i have watched this video, because it's the essence of Masaaki Yuasa.


    Protagonist from Cat Soup

    Or look at this feline creature from Cat Soup, which is weird and creepy but also incredibly appealing and cute - a still frame doesn't pay justice to his virtuoso animations in that short.
    Same strategy is used all over his work, see this wacky baby.
    He seems to have a knack for clear shapes and usually disregards shading, unlike most anime to give the scenery more bite and clarity: from Kemonozume: Notice how the design is appealing and attractive but the realistic size of the eyes drags it down a little. Even Yuasa sometimes loses his eye for appeal.
    Ping Pong mostly averts this effect, with eyes that were a tad less realistic but despite the generic impression of the character design, it is appealing. In two other works, he abandoned the distinctive small-eye concept: Kaiba and Kick-Heart.


    Kaiba and his gf

    Possibly among his less successful character design in his works - great in itself, still among the most appealing in anime because the standard is low - was Kaiba, which had lots of dull surprise in the design, but in the character-driven moments it usually was brilliant and clear. Look at those shapes! Clearly influenced by Tezuka. Solid drawing found a short and mostly unnoticed anime revival in Kaiba.


    The wrestler from Kick-Heart

    His overall strategy possibly climaxes in his cartoony short Kick Heart: A clear design, no distracting realism or details, has both character and structural simplicity. This is a good example of great character design. In general the character designs in his works are inconsistent, due to varying designers.


    "Watashi" and Akashi

    Anyway, the crown takes the Tatami Galaxy, which has a phenomenal character design. Look at these beautiful protagonists, only hinting at standard anime iconography. The clear shapes and stark contrasts, monochromatic faces are the secret incredience and soul of the character design by Yusuke Nakamura (who never did any other character design for an anime, which makes his natural talent even more remarkable).

    It becomes particularly obvious when some hack translates it into standard iconography. Most shape and appeal is almost immediatly lost, replaced by always the same anime face without character, the shading steals away clarity, and it has unneccesairily detailed hair, which found a perfect balance between shape and detail in the original design.

    So you like anime? Remain critical of the design, and look twice before you say a character has a good design. You need to ask yourself first what you even find appealing. If you're satisfied with the moe archetype, that's fine, but you should always try to sharpen your senses so your appreciation of good character design becomes more intense. Maybe you agree with Kricfalusi and his definition of appeal, and maybe this essay helped you a little bit in your appreciation of that kind of appeal.
  • The Otaku and Why We Should Continue to Treat Them Like Lepers

    Abr 22 2014, 12h14

    If there is one threat to popular culture than it's the fundamentalist, close-minded extremist, the instinct-led fan, the true and upright fanatic.

    And the most extreme example of the mindless fan is the fan of Japanese animation. A fan of anime. The so-called Otaku.

    Being an Otaku means being ignorant. The Otaku only has one singular interest in culture, and that's anime. He is close-minded against anything else. He has no knowledge of the history of art, no knowledge of interesting music, no knowledge of other pieces of animation, no knowledge of film culture.

    He doesn't even has knowledge of his own "speciality". Otakus are often painfully oblivious to the history of Japanese animation and barely know the benchmark data. You will have a hard time finding just one Otaku who is familar with the art of Osamu Tezuka, and it's virtually impossible to find one with basic knowledge of gekiga, and even the biggest fans of contemporary magical girl know nothing about the genre's history - that's why they think lurid works like Puella Magi Madoka Magica were a deconstruction or improvement to the genre. They hold ridiculous self-parodies like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and lurid militarist propaganda like Attack on Titan in higher regard than established classics like Mobile Suit Gundam.

    The only things the modern otaku cares for are moe, lurid plots and sacchine visuals.

    They despise masterpieces such as Neon Genesis Evangelion or Revolutionary Girl Utena due to the fact they aren't covered in sacchine animations and CGI. They despise them because they don't deliver a simple message and completely reinterpret and deconstruct their respective genres. If they like Neon Genesis Evangelion, than usually for the wrong reasons, such as the mecha fights and the intentional moesploitation and completely miss the point of the original series, which was nothing less than the next level for arthouse anime.

    It's no surprise that the so-called Rebuilds are more acclaimed, as they are more streamlined, have a "better" animation, are comparably easy to understand and almost leave out the arthouse-appeal of the original series.

    Otakus hate innovation. If a tremendously talented animator and director like Masaaki Yuasa pushes the limitations of the medium with basically every new work, they call him pretentious, but the Otaku fall for well-marketed and fashioneered works like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which serves as a flagship series of international otakudom. They think that the show would have innovative visuals while it merely presents a state of the art that would any animation connaisseur immediatly recognize as outdated since the late mid-2000s. It is no surprise that a work with a plot as easy to follow and characters as flat as Madoka's comes with blandly entertaining visuals. If one spends at least one proper thought about the matter at hand, they would realize that Yuasa's work are allegories on life with impressive subtext, while shows like Madoka have nothing to say at all. Quite the opposite is the case: while shōjo always had been one of the most progressive genres, Madoka trades in complex sociologies, psychologies and gender studies for flat characters and bland entertainment with lurid twists.

    There are a few events in the recent history of anime that caused the explosion of the Otaku. The root of the modern otaku-fetish ironically is the work that tried to deconstruct the otaku: Neon Genesis Evangelion. Two factors only accelerated the process: the exploitation of moe and shōjo anime for shōnen-oriented demographics, heralded by Madoka-director Akiyuki Shinbo during the early 2000s - and the exploitation of anime itself by the Japanese government, that intentionally used it to give Japan a "cool" image in the world. Otakus are blinded by this image campaign, and ignore the alarming state of the Japanese society that was corrupted by its conservative governments.

    Modern commercial anime is the pop cultural equivalent of sports in fascists regimes, socialist realism in communist states and abused religion in fundementalist societies. The uncriticial and uneducated otaku, who only cares for apolitical moe, is a shame of modern pop culture. Don't be an otaku, be a connaisseur of the art of animation.

    [this is of course a polemic essay and it's completely ok if you're an otaku]
  • What is a Gonzo Review?

    Abr 21 2014, 17h48

    Gonzo journalism is a school of American New Journalism and was invented by iconic hippie deconstructor Hunter S. Thompson. It was born from the spirit of the Beat Generation and basically means that the journalist rejects objectivity and writes from his very personal point of view, sometimes taking direct place within the events they report, a trait Gonzo journalism hold in high regard. Of course this is completely against the standards of "good" journalism and usually Gonzo journalism is considered to be literature than journalism. The essential difference is summarized quickly: while journalism wants to inform, narration want to make something "experiencable".

    The bible of Gonzo Journalism is Thompson's 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that retells his mad drugged trip through Las Vegas where he attempted to write an article on the Mint 400 motorcycle race but instead experiences a week long psychosis. You should definitly read it if you aspire to become a Gonzo reviewer. Gonzo journalism currently undergoes a renaissance, for example with the youth-oriented VICE magazine, that is heavily influenced by Thompson's primacy of subjectivity.

    So what is a Gonzo review then?

    Reviewing a piece of culture in the Gonzo style means to reject objectivity in culture criticism. This practically means that you do not describe how a work is created, structured or shaped, this means that you describe how it feels to perceive it. Screw the facts. Screw the accuracy. Screw objectivity. Take the shift away from the subject at hand to the true subject of anything: you.

    A practical example. We review the song "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" by Sylvester James.

    A conventional review: "The 1978 disco hit by Sylvester James makes use of octave basslines, dominant synth-lines influenced by Giorgio Moroder and Sylvester's distinctive Donna Summer-esque falsetto vocals. It was highly influential on the emerging style of Hi-NRG."

    The exact same piece of music, reviewed in the Gonzo style: "Sweet Jesus, I feel like reborn, this music is so POWERFUL, you cannot believe it, I wish the song would not only never end but replace my heartbeat. I cannot believe people actually hate disco, I mean, how fucking STUPID do you have to be to neglect the majestic beauty of this song? I could cry, it's so marvellous, my room is shacking. IT'S INSANE it's one of the GREATEST songs ever made. I could kill a cow from the brilliance and throw it in my neighbors garage. -"

    Of course there are some intrinsic dangers to that method.

    As you might have realized, the conventional method is far more useful in an intellectual debate. You know where the piece of culture stems from, what's its message and what's it context. In a Gonzo style, you basically have no ground for your evaluation of culture except your very own perception. No surprise, that the subjective method is held in low regard.

    The Gonzo method, however, is far more useful if you want to make a piece of music or art "experiencable" and eventually if you want to review it properly.

    For music, this technique is particularly useful. Music is an art that was created to communicate emotions - the Gonzo method therefore is the perfect tool for recreating the experience you got from it. The perception of music is extremely subjective - only the Gonzo method can do this justice.

    Famous Gonzo reviewers come from the surrounding of the Rolling Stone magazine where also Thompson hailed from, but the most popular of that style would be the Village Voice author Robert Christgau. Christgau's "capsule review" style is a perfect complement for the Gonzo method: short, intense bursts of insanity to describe a piece of art.

    Stop talking about the art, start talking about how you feel. Stop pretending that you have no emotions, start sharing them to the world, so we can rejoice together.