The Art of Character

God, how we all love Japanese characters. That big-eyed, sexually ambiguous, under aged, spiky haired gaggle of personas that inhabit Japanese video games, animation and comics that so many Westerners are trying to copy, rip-off or homage in everything from hilariously bad Dragonball Z fan-art to supposedly professionally funded large development projects. You know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever opened up a game magazine with a letters page you’ll have seen some kid’s approximation of Link drawn in pencil, or if you’ve ever trawled the internet in a bored minute you will have come across some unintentionally hilarious web comic that is desperately trying to exude “manga”. And if you’ve seen enough of these examples you’ll probably agree with me that they are shit. So shit, in fact, that I’m trying to release a truism into the collective consciousness which I’ll selfishly call Barnett’s Second Law:

“Westerners can’t do manga.”

What brought on this chin-stroking session on the tribulations of Western developers trying to create game characters that appeal to the Japanese market was my surprise at the recent release of My Sims for the Nintendo Wii, published by EA, the mega-corporation and convenient pantomime villain to blame all our industry’s woes on.
It was released in Japan as “Boku to Sim no Machi” (“Me and Sims’ Town” roughly) on September 27th. I had previously read in an interview published somewhere on-line that the team was mostly comprised of people that love Japanese games (whatever that means) and that this was a concerted effort to appeal to Japanese gamers. Looking at the title it’s easy to see this was their goal, and though it’s a very good effort, and I feel a dick for saying this as it’s a very nice game, they just missed the target. This is partly due to a fairly complicated control scheme, despite its outwardly user-friendly appearance, but the real test lies with the characters. My Sims’ characters are just a tad too Western, or rather, they are a Western copy of Japanese style characters and as such they have made a few mistakes.

That isn’t to say they failed, they just didn’t completely succeed. Some of the interaction animations, for example, are spot on, with sudden jumps to mad-eyed faces and general cutesy silliness. But in other areas they are too smooth; the walk cycle is a little too bouncy, the interaction sections a little too smooth, the emotion FX a little too detailed. Though the character creation part is generally excellent, the clothes on offer aren’t quite those that appeal to a Japanese audience, the hairstyles a little too normal and the facial parts too detailed.

As a general rule, which isn’t at all foolproof, and I’m sure keen-eyed readers will be happy to point out the exceptions of which I’m sure there are many, there are three basic types of character: the realistic, the manga and the abstract. It’s interesting to note that the more abstract you go, the less detailing there is, until the characters are almost 2D, graphically designed Dick Bruna-esque icons. The My Sims characters, square-headed as they are with their tapering bodies, lean so far to the abstract of the graph that they really shouldn’t be so detailed in the texture area. If they had accentuated some of the sharp edges and removed some of the detail and shading in the textures, almost like more detailed versions of the Katamari Damacy humanoids, the game would probably* appeal more to the Japanese market.

Loco Roco, Dokodemo Issyo, Crystal Chronicles, Naruto, Dead or Alive, Final Fantasy 12, Biohazard 4, Onimusha 3

On the other end of the scale we see “realistic” characters. I’ve put it in quotes as they aren’t really realistic. They are usually, contrary to popular belief, fairly realistically proportioned, if maybe a little leaner or stretched. Facial features are fairly angular and usually don’t include the “big eyes” we all associate with Japanese manga and anime. Good examples are the Final Fantasy characters, or the Ghost In The Shell guys. Hands and feet are proportioned, noses and brows sharp, with roundness reserved for the young, the girls and the old geezer who usually fulfills the Falstaffian comedy role.

Somewhere, in a fairly narrow band in the middle, we find what we comfortably refer to as “manga”. Eyes are bigger, but usually don’t cover three-quarters of the face. Proportions are exaggerated (especially in the females, ahem) and heads slightly larger.

Characterizations too differ vastly in Japan. Whereas the West seems to want to play hard-bitten underdog single-army war machines with ludicrously hard names, like Trent Bullet or Cutter Hardarse, in Japan you see more effete teenagers with deep running hinterlands, a band of friends and ludicrously faux Western names. One of the biggest mistakes Western developers can make in aiming a title at the West is to copy Asian culture; this almost always fails. Be it a misplaced Japanese lantern in My Sims’ forest, a temple which is more China Town restaurant than Kamakura or a protagonist with a Japanese-sounding name, the only response you’ll elicit from Japanese players is “huh?” Unless you hit the nail absolutely on the head, which as a non-Japanese is almost impossible to do, the Japanese player will only notice the discrepancies, the mistakes and the misplaced. John Romero’s ludicrous “Daikatana”, for example, misreads the kanji, which should read “daitou”, like a bad tattoo. Heavenly Sword’s Nariko certainly has a Japanese name, but this doesn’t sit well with her rather un-Japanese exterior. Avoid hommaging or referring to Japanese culture unless you are 100% sure of what the Hell you’re doing!

It seems that Western game characters appeal to a sense of wish fulfillment of the middle-aged geeks that play them. In Japan it seems to hark back more to the players’ youths, or the young players’ wish fulfillment. After your teenage years you enter a life of hard servitude in Japan’s corporate world, so the teens are a Golden Age for many people. The young schoolboy out to save the world from Evil speaks more to Japanese players than the navy veteran stranded on an alien world. And, superficial as this culture is, like any other really, youth also means beauty. Young kids, all toned and free of beer guts, look better in armour than a middle aged man. They also like the “cool” in Japan, but it is a very different “cool” than, say, America’s. In America males try o look hard and wide and walk with aggressive gaits, exuding danger and unfuckwithability. In Japan it’s the well-groomed Metrosexual with impeccably combed and gelled hair, wearing sharp suits and pointy leather shoes that get the attention. Final Fantasy 7’s Cloud Strife’s haircut is not just for the cosplayers; you’ll actually see young salesmen sculpting their hair in spiky swirls like that. Aggressive people don’t fit well with the general culture, and that may be a small element that is putting Japanese players off Western games.

It is undeniable that character and story are the most important part of most Japanese games and the effort put into them during development reflects this. Why do the Japanese players prefer over-the-shoulder or 3rd person perspectives in games? It’s so they can see, and therefore relate, to the characters. This, amongst other reasons, is why first-person shooters never really made a dent in Japan.

For Western developers aiming for realistic characters to appeal to the Japanese the safest bet is to base them on an actor or singer currently popular in Japan. This can be a little tricky as fame is cheap over here and today’s David Beckham is tomorrow’s Bob Sapp. During the two years development usually takes the celebrity you’ve based your character on could very well be a Z-list panel show filler. Some celebrities endure, though, which is why Onimusha 3’s Jean Reno character was a pretty safe bet, even to this day. Don’t try to second guess, get a Japanese person to advise you on this.

As you can see it’s not easy. Even writing and researching this post I have though of many exceptions to the above, and there are no hard and fast rules. But these are all things worth considering if you’re Hell bent on tailoring your game to Japanese audiences. The best advice is, probably, don’t try. A bad copy is always inferior to a failed original, and I think you’ll find the Japanese market more receptacle to a quirky new high concept than a Western made JRPG or similar dross. If your goal is to make a Japanese game I’m afraid there is little chance of doing any better than the Japanese themselves. To be absolutely safe, or as safe as you an get in this wonky industry of ours, either hire a Japanese firm to design the characters for you, or license an established Japanese IP.
And then cross your fingers and pray.

* Maybe, but really, who the fuck knows?


  1. I agree completely about Westerners sucking at imitating Japanese art.

    If that's your second law, was your first "nobody in Japan speaks English"?

  2. The problem with Japanese art (and a lot of other Oriental cultures) is that the individual voice is subsumed in the voice of the culture. That's why the work of one artist is like a clone of every others'. It is actually not something to be proud of - a culture that destroys the voices of its individuals. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, as the old Japanese saying goes.

  3. Have you ever watched Avatar the last airbender on nikelodeon? ITs awesome although it's not a game, i'd like to see your points on it.

  4. "nobody in Japan speaks English"

    I lived in Japan for three years (just left, actually), and I don't speak any Japanese. I didn't live in Tokyo either, I lived off in a rural farming community. EVERYONE speaks English a skosh. I vary rarely had any problems at all.

    That's why the work of one artist is like a clone of every others'.

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that's nonsense. They might look like clones to you, but to me, different artists do things differently. Peach-Pit looks different from CLAMP, looks different from Tezuka's stuff.

    Or perhaps you mean how (for example) many CLAMP artists tend to have (a bit) similar styles? I can kind of see that, then.

    However, I would say that art is definitely one area where being an individual is essential. I know aspiring mangaka who have not found their own unique voices yet. I feel this is the final thing holding these (otherwise exceptional) artists back.

  5. Yeah, to blame Japan's strict culture of obligation for the similarities between manga series is probably a bit unfair, and untrue. Osamu Tezuka, for example, is venerated as an individual. It's interesting to note that as the "father of the anime" he was, in his turn copying Walt Disney, of all things. So these days we see the West trying to copy the East trying to copy the West. Madness.
    No, Japan definitely has its own culture of individual celebrity, make no mistake about that!

    Anon #1, Avatar, no. I've never even heard of it, sorry.

    Jeff, as for Barnett's first law, I'm still torn between "Not all Japanese games are better than all Western games" or "The likelihood of a salaryman reading a broadsheet is exponentially proportional to how crowded the train is multiplied by his proximity to you inversed".

  6. Most western people have probably read too many western comics and cartoon (especially the modern ones) and the style contaminated them. So those who haven't read/seen those comics or cartoons are more likely to adapt a manga-compatible style.
    Signs for too much exposure are bold words for emphasis (most of the time ridiculous and unnecessary "I don't think you should go outside tonight. The weather forecast predicted rain."), diashow look, terrible airbrush-style coloring and lots of narration boxes.

    Avatar still has a long way to look like anime.
    The style is still easily to distinguish from the real stuff. The animation and writing gives away the rest.

    Osamu Tezuka's later works weren't influenced by developments in American animation as those in the 50s and 60s. So the common roots last only up to then

  7. Pretty nice article.

    livin' in Korea and I somehow felt the same about it. It's always better when well explained.

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  9. JC, do you have some books about this subject ?

    Do you already read the McCloud Scott book: "Understanding Comics" ?
    This book show something about drafts...


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