Japan was famously reticent to embrace the western world until about a hundred years ago, and to be honest if they could’ve seen what we were going to do to their character design they’d probably have resisted a little bit longer. Put up bigger barricades, turn off the lights, and convince western noseybonks that no one’s in, because otherwise we’re popping round and taking all your stuff.
These days, just saying something is Japanese or Looks Japanese is enough to make it suddenly interesting. As if ‘Japanese’ meant the same as ‘flecked in unicorn heads’ or ‘a mirror to your very soul’, it’s now a lazy adjective to make you think something is new and exciting. Fact is, there’s plenty of terrible Japanese art same as there is plenty of terrible EveryOtherCountry art, it’s just we’re still in the honeymoon period with Japan so it can fart, burp, and not flush properly, and we won’t mind.
If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll know much of this is actually well deserved. It’s a beautiful place and a wonderful culture, alien and new, yet friendly and familiar at the same time. You’d have to be a stone cold-hearted bastard not to love it. What annoys me is the constant fascination with a thing, anything, JUST because ‘It’s Japanese’, it’s at the expense of discerning opinion, and a little too trendy as a statement to be taken seriously.
Worse though, is what we in the west (are we still calling ourselves that?) have learned from Japan, and flung through our uniquely moribund shit-filters. Much of the Japanese pop aesthetic, from products to services, is about anthropomorphising things, putting a face on it, making it smile and having our bitter insides bubble with the cute. When we realised Japan TM could be a whole new way of doing things, we latched onto the idea with gusto, wrenching their cute faces off and stapling them to our own drab existence. In the last 10 years in particular, our artists and designers have put a smiley face on everything, written some Kanji underneath it, and told us to piss off and enjoy it.
While making the world a happier place isn’t necessssarily a bad thing, the licence it has given lazy bullshit artists is. It is now exceptionally easy to create a character on your software of choice, cutting and pasting big eyes and gormless mouths onto ice creams, apples, roadkill, whatever the hell you want. No need to explore the character, learn its shape, get a feel for who it is. Now you can use more than two line thicknesses, call it kawaii and tile it across your merchandise of choice. A steady stream of idiotic, dead-eyed bastards, dancing and smiling and puking all over your material goods.
If character designers really wanted to learn from Japan, they could learn how to create CHARM, not zeitgeist. Look at some of the most iconic Japanese characters to emerge over the years - Pikachu, AstroBoy, Domokun, Totoro, all very different but all lovingly crafted, learnt and grown by hand. You can see who they are, what they think, where they come from, and often this is by looking in their eyes. Irrelevant of what style of eyes a character has, from blinking dots to huge expressive bulging eyeballs, you can see a character’s soul in their eyes just as you can a human’s.
What we have here, instead of charm, is photoshop. Since something being Japanese is still automatically grade-A cool, there’s no shortage of cynical component-building by committee. A factory line of characters with interchangeable eyes, MAW-mouths and those BASTARD two finger salutes. Everyone from big design companies to individual illustrators are flattening our already grim world under lifeless, soulless and inane disposable NEW FRIENDS, telling us they’re awesome BECAUSE THEY’RE JAPANEEEZZZ.
While it’s fine as an artist to be influenced by another country, it’s rather imperative you make what you’re doing your own, otherwise what’s the point in doing it? In the UK (since I live here) we have an absolute wealth of talented character designers, all crafting their own creations. From Aardman to Burgerman, from Jonathan Edwards
to Nick Edwards
, and SO many artists besides, we’re rich in style, talent and charm. I’d urge anyone to check out the Pictoplasma site
(since the conference’s on at the moment) as an example of the variety available to a character designer.
I love cute. As you may well see from my own work, I adore and embrace cute loveable characters and do my very best to create them (I’ve had the ‘japanesey’ label thrown at me a lot, and I don’t mind so much since there’s obviously an influence there). So this is in no way a diatribe at the form or the style. Indeed there are a host of illustrators working in very cute styles (both hand-drawn and vector), obviously heavily influenced by Japanese art, who are producing some fantastic creations. My issue is with the whitewash of terrible cute characters for the sake of it, put together on a laptop by dissecting parts of each other, and shipped under the promotional tag of ‘Japanese’. It’s lazy, it’s ugly, and it’s insulting. Characters need life in them, personalities, motives, not just the same indentikit faces. They need to be sculpted and nurtured, built by hand, not by keyboard shortcut.
If designers and illustrators could stop being so damn lazy, maybe we could stop calling our art ‘Japanesey’, and start calling it ‘ours’.