From the ageless Hello Kitty to the crazy-eyed pigs in Angry Birds, from the fat cat Doraemon to the wild-haired Merida in Brave _ cartoon characters seem to have outgrown their virtual reality to take on a life of their own. Their ubiquity is remarkable _ in your phone, on your credit card, inside your bag, splashed across your computer screen. Even in our "grown-up" minds, colourful cartoon characters resist ageing, or even death.
Seikou Kato, left, and Shinichiro Kitai of Devilrobots.
The art of designing cartoon characters and making them global icons was pioneered by the Americans, and has perhaps been perfected by the Japanese.
To Thais, Japanese cartoon characters are a crucial part of our pop-cultural upbringing. And if there are any secrets to turning lifeless drawings into characters the world will recognise, two experts from Japan recently shared them with Thai designers.
Shinichiro Kitai and Seikou Kato of the outfit Devilrobots recently gave a talk at Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre. Devilrobots started in Tokyo in 1997, and the five-man design team is internationally renowned for its graphics, characters, web design, toys and clothing.
The outfit's most famous creation is To-fu Oyako, a whimsical tofu man often seen in an astronaut suit (although his wardrobe is vast and varied).
"Everything around me is my inspiration," Kitai explained. "It could come from the architecture, television, and even from the food we eat every day."
In explaining the origin of To-fu Oyako, he says simplicity is key to audience appeal. As mundane as it sounds, Kitai's appetite for tofu is what made this square-headed character comes to life.
"The character's anxious-looking facial expression was inspired by the mushy and fragile nature of the tofu, as if it constantly worries that its head is going to collapse." The hardest part is to make sure that a character grabs people's attention _ and not just for a brief spark, but rather for the long term. To create something out of nothing is a challenge, but to make it stick in people's consciousness is much more difficult.
"Developing your character is crucial in the competitive world of designing, and our team constantly improves our designs," Kato said. Devilrobots, he added, utilises different ways to keep their characters fresh and interesting.
Alterations are always made to the character's appearance, from small changes like eyes and nose to clothing, like the new strawberry suit or robot suit in the case of To-fu Oyako. Even classic and well-known characters are often re-designed with new styles _ for example, Kamen Rider and the Power Puff Girls have been tweaked into more modern and cuter versions.
Devilrobots' characters also collaborate with others such as Hello Kitty, emphasising the notion that this is an alternative universe populated by make-belief identities. Products that are made with To-fu Oyako patterns range from USB card readers to slot machines.
There's more to these characters than mere drawings, however. Backgrounds are created to add interesting history so the audience can feel more personally connected to it. Moreover, characters can be used to promote charity campaigns, like when Japan suffered from the earthquake and tsunami last year. These are the ways characters are developed in order to become more approachable and attractive as the tastes and the expectations of the public change.
Many would say Japanese characters have a distinctive appearance and unmistakable cuteness. But Kitai doesn't entirely share that view.
"There are many un-cute ones too," he laughed. "I think in general our culture can be interesting to viewers. We integrate influences from traditional Japanese myths and legends about monsters or festivals [into our design]."
Traditional culture is one of the most popular elements their characters embody and evidently it can be one of the most effective to hook the audience.
For To-fu Oyako, some of his adventures are created based on traditional samurai stories, while his design is fused with traditional Japanese paintings and costume.
Thai designers still have a long way to go, but Kitai and Kato are full of encouragement for their professional peers in Bangkok.
"We have seen Thai characters several times from magazines, and from what we saw, we can say that they are all works of high standard," Kato said.
"Thai influence is not well known in Japan. However, I wish to make international people more aware of Thai talents and perhaps make Thai characters more recognisable."
So if a grumpy tofu man can make it big, the opportunity is boundless for Thai designers. If tradition and everyday objects are the sources of modern popularity, who knows, maybe the next popular character to star on credit cards and iPhone cases could be a durian fruit with sad-looking eyes who has trouble with body odour. It sounds tempting.
About the author
Writer: Palin Ansusinha