Ask John: Why is Current Character Design So Static?

Question:
I read an interesting blog stating how the most important aspect of design is to make each character unique in body proportions, facial structure, posture and to have a dynamic silhouette. It then noted how many anime series distinguish different characters solely by hair style, color, or eye color without much variations in their bocy proportions or facial structure. Why do anime and manga artists adhere to a one-design-fits-all mentality for their characters, regardless of age, many times, so much to the point that the only thing distinguishing a male or female character (such as in Kokoro Connect, Tari Tari, Sword Art Online any Miyazaki films, anything by Katsuhiro Otomo) is whether they have breasts? Many Japanese artists are incredibly talented, and artists such as Osamu Tezuka, Yukito Kishiro and Takeshi Koike tend to not fall into this trap of having a troop of character clones, but then why do so many others?


Answer:
Ironically while it’s certainly visual artists that create character designs, it’s consumers that ultimately affect character design styles. The importance of a recognizable silhouette has been widely known for generations. Most of the world’s most beloved and immediately recognizable cartoon characters can be instantly recognized just by their silhouette: Micky Mouse, Snoopy, Popeye, Superman, Batman, Astro Boy, Totoro, Lupin III, Tintin. Character designers are artists. While they may have a characteristic or signature style evident in all of their work, they naturally want to be creative and expressive. However, typical character designers and graphic artists are also professionals that realize the necessity of creating character designs that studios and, ultimately, consumers will pay for, or risk unemployment.

Character designer & animator Takeshi Koike contributed to highly distinctive, memorable character designs in esoteric anime including Dead Leaves, Trava, and Redline, but none of the anime that most prominently feature his design aesthetics have been big commercial hits. For roughly the first decade of the 2000s, character designer Hisashi Hirai’s work was very popular and prolific, despite being remarkably consistent, until viewers seemed to tire of his design aesthetic. In recent years anime including Tari Tari, Kokoro Connect, Sora no Woto, Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi, Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, C3, Amagami SS, and MM! have been particularly guilty of relying on very narrow variances in character design variety, yet these shows have been popular. Thankfully, within the same period we’ve also been treated to shows including AnoHana, Astarotte no Omocha, and Nichijou that have dramatic differences in character designs.

Ultimately, the type of character designs that frequently resurface, whether they’re sharp & angular like Hisashi Hirai’s designs for Ryvius, Fafner, Giniro no Olynsis, Gundam Seed, and Heroic Age; “mo├ęblob” characters typical of K-On, Lucky Star, Sora no Woto, Mitsudomoe, Hayate no Gotoku, Clannad, Yuruyuri; or “otome” style characters as in Hanasaku Iroha, Haganai, Kokoro Connect, Tari Tari, Mashiroiro Symphony, Arcana Famiglia, and Angel Beats, consumers get what we pay for. Particularly since the explosive popularity of Suzumiya Haruhi in 2006, viewers have gravitated toward “realistic” dramatic anime with less abstractly stylized character designs. Distributors and producers have responded to and propagated that viewer interest by employing character designers skilled in crafting that variety of character design.

The anime production industry evolves in gradual phases. Character design aesthetics of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s are now distinctly recognizable. Similarly, the typical characteristics of contemporary anime design will eventually evolve as the creative talent pool changes and viewer tastes wane and shift.Thankfully, amidst the plethora of current anime more concerned with appealing and marketable character designs than distinctive character design, we still get anime like One Piece, Madoka Magica, Steins;Gate, Hen Zemi, Jormungand, Medaka Box, and Phi-Brain that emphasize a great diversity in character design.

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