Whenever a conversation arises about what makes a cool character design, there seems to be two competing schools of thought with regards to what qualifies–a competition which fascinates me, because I can kind of see it from both angles.
On the one hand, the majority of anime designs tend to come from a pretty well-defined aesthetic sensibility, and many of the medium’s detractors are highly critical of the samey-ness that appears so rampant among them. However, to aficionados of that design style, every little subtle nuance and difference between two shows following a similar philosophy can make them feel wildly different, and can build or break your ability to fall in love with them.
Look at the Monogatari series, whose designs no doubt communicate many of the common trends in modern anime–and yet are celebrated to an insane degree more than anything else on the market. That’s because fans of this style can recognize all the subtleties which set them apart from the other stuff in the mainstream, as well as which elements of each character’s look gives them a unique charm and feel–a fascination, if you will.
I would of course argue that the Monogatari series is rife with fantastic designs, because I find the overall aesthetic sense of the artist, Akio Watanabe, to be so palatable. I feel similarly about the styles of other designers whose aesthetics are consistent, yet overall standout, such as the work of Yoshihiko Umakoshi on shows like Casshern Sins and Heartcatch Precure.
But the competing school of thought is that the individual designs should be more tailored to the personalities of the characters, and to display more variety and realism, so as to better reflect the fact that, in reality, people don’t all look like PVC models. I can certainly appreciate this mindset, and I think that works such as those of Satoshi Kon benefit greatly from the realism and variety in their designs, as they allow for a bigger range of individuality, emotional representation, and nuance. Having said that, however, I would never even think of buying a model of one of them.
So how can these different schools of thought be reconciled? Is it possible to make designs which are at once true to life, full of variety and character, and nuanced, while also being appealing, memorable, and cool enough to make you buy a statue of them? On the last installment, I talked about how I think Gurren Lagann pulls this off well–but even that show still has an otherworldly anime style to it, with its unnatural hair colors and exaggerated features. Today we’ll take a look at a show that managed to lean all the way on the side of realism without losing an ounce of awesomeness in its aesthetic–the 1998 animated masterpiece, Cowboy Bebop.
But before I even go in on Bebop itself, which has received no shortage of praise for its designs over the past two decades, let me start by introducing the artist who brought it to beauty, by the name of Toshihiro Kawamoto. Kawamoto’s designs generally feel true to life with realistic body types and facial features; but his people come from an alternate, much sexier dimension, wherein everyone looks very sharp and mysterious and cool, and every woman is a femme fatale, and every man is a badass with a tortured soul. There’s an unmistakable touch of anime in the way that he draws their eyes, and in the generally thick and rough outlines that make up the lineart, but everything always comes to a sharp point, giving his characters a trademark sleekness.
What most viewers might find tangibly outstanding about his characters is that they look adult. In his drawings for the early-90s Gundam OVAs Stardust Memories and 08th MS Team, he shows us a team of pilots who look like the handsome movie stars of an 80s popcorn film; but ones with enough realism in both appearance and quality script writing that their emotions feel earned in a way that anime so rarely does. In Golden Boy he proved that no one else in the history of ever could draw more erotically beautiful women. Golden Boy is a sex comedy that’s sexier than reality–because the designs are just real enough that they harken to an era when women in movies were impossibly good-looking and hardly prudes about it. Your mileage may vary on whether or not you think that’s a good thing, but the craftsmanship on display in drawing erotic scenes of godly quality cannot be denied.
And this brings us to Cowboy Bebop–a show wherein the leading lady is not merely sexualized, but is a sexual character, and is believable because she looks and acts and feels like a real person, with a clear agency in the way she’s chosen to present herself. Yes, from a marketing perspective, Faye is sexy because sex sells–but Cowboy Bebop is a show about sexy people living a sexy, romanticized lifestyle–even if a big part of the show is also about undercutting that sexiness and presenting the raw, beating heart at the center of it all that draws us to such romanticism in the first place. I’m not saying that all of this text is present merely in her character design, but I’m saying that we couldn’t get to this place of real, raw, human pathos if Faye was a moe girl–unless the writing really bent over backwards to convey it, instead of how this show can ooze its message in every single second of its screen time just by force of its perfect presentation.
A lot of what Bebop is, is in how the characters look like real adults, and how Jet isn’t conventionally handsome, and Ed looks but doesn’t animate quite like a human usually would, and every single side character is totally distinct from the last. Faye may have a perfect body, but there’s not a single other woman in the series who looks exactly like her; no two characters could that be said about in the entire series. Vicious is such a strong aesthetic villain that you probably forgot he only shows up like three times in the whole show and has less than ten speaking lines.
Like in Gurren Lagann, there is a throughline of color theory among the main cast–the yellows of Spike’s shirt, most of Faye’s dress, and the little buttons on Jet’s vest; the blues of Spike’s suit, Jet’s vest and jeans, and Ed’s spats; and the red of Ed’s hair, Faye’s… jacket? And Jet’s undershirt. They all look great on camera together, without it being too obvious that they’ve all been coded as a group with primary colors once again. And if you’re an aspiring designer thinking, “wait a minute, that’s literally the same color scheme and cohesion as Gurren Lagann! Holy shit, is that the secret to good designs?!” the answer is yes. If you want to know why cohesion of colors is important, look at any shot in Show By Rock wherein all four girls are in one frame together, and feel your eyes rip themselves apart trying to process all of that visual information.
Bebop’s characters pass the silhouette test so easily that when looking for pictures of the crew online, you’ll probably find several wallpapers where they’re already like that–notwithstanding how often they appear in monochrome across the show or in the OP. The characters in Bebop wear outfits that really make no sense as anything that a real person would wear when you stop to think about it, but in the context of who they are, it feels totally natural. That first time you see Spike with his feet kicked up on a table, or Faye going apeshit with an SMG and sunglasses on, these characters just click and you know exactly what they’re all about.
And the funny part is that the writing in this series is so strong that it didn’t even necessarily need the designs to be able to tell half the story by themselves–but it still was smart enough to give so much breathing room to the aesthetic, with its lived-in backgrounds and lived-through characters. Even without the script to back them up, those things could carry a show halfway there–as would be proven after Kawamoto helped to co-found Studio Bones, and then designed for Wolf’s Rain.
I know that some viewers may relate to or find more worth in the story and dialog of Wolf’s Rain than I did, but if there’s a reason I could sit through all twenty-six episodes of this show, it’s because the series is aesthetically unbelievable. Kawamoto trades in his sexy, buxom femme fatales for something of an Asian boy band squad, but with little more than an ounce of cheesiness in how he goes about it, and a deft understanding of why boy bands are attractive in the first place. Where you can look at many shoujo anime with squads of hot guys in them and immediately make a rough estimate of what year they came out, you’d only know that Wolf’s Rain’s characters had to have come from 2003 because you know that the show aired that year. If I have any complaint about Wolf’s Rain, it would be that drawing and scoring a show as lavishly as the team had done with Cowboy Bebop set my expectations to a level that was bound for disappointment when the writing was anything less than perfect.
Nowadays, even if you’re one of the ten people who watched Ghost Slayers Ayashi, it’s been an awfully long time since you’ve seen any original designs from Toshihiro Kawamoto, and if you’re me, then you might have even hated the way that he adapted the designs for the TV version of Gosick. However, even modern, mainstream anime viewers who maybe don’t know most of the shows I’ve talked about are probably familiar with his recent work adapting the designs from manga series Noragami and Kekkai Sensen to animation.
The importance of a character designer, even to a manga adaptation, really cannot be understated, as it’s their job to essentially turn characters who are designed to look cool posing on a page into characters who can move effectively and do cool stuff in animation. (You can check out this recent video by the Canipa Effect for more on that subject.) But even neverminding that, it’s pretty obvious that the manga version of Kekkai Sensen bares a much stronger resemblance to the same author’s Trigun manga than either adaptation does to one-another. You could even be forgiven for not realizing that they came from the same guy if you’ve never read either manga, even if you did watch both anime adaptations.
Noragami may see Kawamoto adapting more to the rounded, teenaged look of modern anime, but he does not do so flippantly. His designs are attention-grabbing and sleekly cool in a way that deserves mention between breaths of Bleach and Death Note more so than between your typical high school rom-coms; but even that show hardly holds a candle to Kekkai Sensen which, when I first saw it, had me thinking, “hey, this looks kinda like Guilty Gear.” And nothing is cooler looking than Guilty Gear. It’s a natural law of the universe.
Toshihiro Kawamoto is, for my money, one of the greatest character designers working in the industry to this day, and integral to so much of my visual memory of animation. Even as a key animator working on Bones shows which he didn’t design for, he’s been responsible for such iconic moments as this cut from the first Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood OP. On a larger scale, he also co-founded what is still one of the best animation studios in the industry, whose dedication to producing the most aesthetically interesting and experimental shows in the medium is worthy of the highest commemoration.
If you wanna spread the gospel about how cool this guy is, then be sure to share this video with anyone whom you think would be interested. Check out my other channels for more of my impassioned babbling, and support me on patreon if you want to help keep me doing it. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.