Digimon Continues to be Loved Thanks to its Creator’s Commitment — With Digimon Character Designer Kenji Watanabe

A translation of this Asahi &M article from March 3, 2020, featuring statements from perennial Digimon franchise character designer Kenji Watanabe about Digimon Adventure LAST EVOLUTION Kizuna.

Please note that a very large amount of the below content, by certain definitions, qualifies as LAST EVOLUTION Kizuna spoilers. These are all official public press release material, and much of this has been already revealed in promotion, but those who are hoping to go in “entirely clean” are advised caution before reading.


What do long-beloved characters have in common?

The anime Digimon Adventure began its initial airing in 1999. Originally intended as an anime for the portable raising game “Digital Monster”, released as a boys’ version of the Tamagotchi, it has come to be loved for more than twenty years. In February 2020, in order to mark its 20th anniversary, the movie Digimon Adventure LAST EVOLUTION Kizuna (abbreviated below as Kizuna) was released. The reason this series has been so dearly loved for such a long time is thanks to the story it tells and its characters and, of course, the charm points of the monsters.1

Character designer Kenji Watanabe-san has been designing Digimon characters for over twenty years now. Kizuna2 features a slew of new Digimon appearing one after another, and Digimon that you wouldn’t even expect show up, too. Watanabe-san himself also played a major role in the movie’s production.

Although he has been involved in the Digimon franchise for many years, this is the first time Watanabe-san has gotten to participate in the actual production all the way from the preliminary script meetings. Looking back on the production process, he told us, laughing, “I feel like I’ve been properly recognized for the first time in twenty years.”

A work that “returns to the series roots”, bringing together the original staff and the staff from the Digimon generation3

Kizuna was created by bringing the staff who have “supported” the Digimon series thus far and bringing them together with the staff who “watched” the Digimon series as children.

“It really has been a long time since I last worked with them — the producer for the original series, (Hiromi) Seki-san, the scriptwriter (Akatsuki) Yamatoya-san, and the character designer (Katsuyoshi) Nakatsuru-san. I’ve been working on this franchise here and there for quite a long time, but I feel like I’m finally getting to work with these people again (laughs). Also, there’s the director, (Tomohisa) Taguchi-san, who’s from the generation that was watching Digimon as it aired. This is a work meant as a ‘return to its roots’, with both the staff who have supported the series and the staff who was watching it back then.”

This work has been promoted as “the last tale of Taichi Yagami (the protagonist)”. It is thus a very special work among the Digimon anime series. Watanabe-san, who also participated in the meetings for this movie’s script, said that he also was the one to propose “a certain scene” that was not in the original plan.

“We, from the toy development end, proposed a new evolution for Agumon and Gabumon to appear in the final climax of the story. The original plan was to end the final battle with Omegamon, but we requested to not have it end with Omegamon, and were brought onto the project as a result.”

Agumon’s new evolution — © Akiyoshi Hongou / Toei Animation
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Gabumon’s new evolution — © Akiyoshi Hongou / Toei Animation

“The theme of this movie centers around ‘bonds [kizuna] between oneself and your Digimon’. The Omegamon that had appeared up until now was born from the bond between Taichi and Yamato. This time, we wanted to depict what would be born from the bond between each set of partners (Taichi and Agumon, Yamato and Gabumon). In addition, another theme of the story was ‘Taichi and Yamato becoming adults’. We were thinking about what might happen and how Agumon and Gabumon would grow in repsonse to Taichi and Yamato becoming adults, and designed them with this in mind.”

Watanabe-san designs his Digimon based on the message contained in the story. He speaks about being happy about his opinions being taken into account, and that, for this movie, his name was included in the OP credits for the first time.

“In truth, I’ve been designing Digimon for over twenty years, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to have my name in the OP. I mean, I’m happy to design for them whether or not my name is on it (laughs), but I really am happy. I’ve been working on Digimon for twenty years, but this is the first time I’ve really gotten to feel like I’ve been truly recognized.”

Drawing characters in ways that the story needs them to be

There are other new Digimon appearing in Kizuna as well. Among them, Morphomon has the motif of a “butterfly”. Morphomon was in fact a proposal from the director himself. Watanabe-san seems to have felt “oh, this one’s a real challenging character to do!”

“‘Butter-Fly’ is the name of Digimon’s most famous theme song, and because of that, the butterfly is an important aspect of this movie. I wondered if we could really make it work, but after I followed the theme and let myself loose with drawing, I was happy to hear the director saying it was ‘cute!’ and liking it a lot (laughs).”

Watanabe-san’s Digimon character designs are characterized by “letting loose while drawing, but also following the theme”. For instance, “Eosmon”, which is also making its debut in this movie, was conceived as an artificial Digimon constructed with AI. Thus, he told us that he designed it with a geometric image in mind. In addition, Eosmon’s final form also makes an appearance, which was also an idea from Watanabe-san himself. His suggestions would be brought into the story based on how much they worked with it and fulfilled its needs.

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Eosmon — © Akiyoshi Hongou / Toei Animation

“I wanted the final form of Eosmon to be a character that gave off the feeling of ‘salvation’. It’s a Digimon that Taichi and his friends end up fighting, but it’s not ‘an enemy that they have a duty to fight’. When we were thinking of how to express that, we thought about ‘divinity’, and maybe expressing it as a ‘butterfly goddess’, and I had some very serious discussions with the director about it (laughs).”

“Character design involves making only a single illustration. Creating the backstory behind a setting isn’t my job, but it’s not like I don’t get anything to work with at all, so I generally think about how to complement the backbone of the character in my head, and also about the parts that wouldn’t be expressed in the actual story.”

Character designs that feel familiar

Watanabe-san has had all sorts of ideas to work with when creating all sorts of Digimon up until now. Among them, one of the core aspects of Digimon design came from “American comics”.

“When I was initially asked to design a Digimon, the current trends were leaning towards cute characters. I myself had worked with cute characters before, so at first I started off drawing cute characters. But then I got back, ‘it looks too similar to other characters, so we can’t use this.’ There wasn’t much time left, so I was told to feel free to do as I liked instead, and we worked from there.”

“Digimon are not cute characters, but they’re still characters made for children. While I was thinking about what to do, I thought it would be a good idea to draw with a sense invoking American children’s comics, which were rare in Japan at the time. Then, following the motif of actual creatures that tend to be popular among boys, like dinosaurs, we made the colors look bright and crisp, and made them into fictional monsters.”

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© Akiyoshi Hongou / Toei Animation

He says that when he designs Digimon, instead of focusing on “drawing a character”, he focuses on “drawing familiar things”.

“They’re Digital Monsters, but I also want people to feel like they really exist and that they’re alive. So as they evolve, they might gain mecha aspects, but to prevent it from looking too much like a robot, I designed them to look like creatures that wear mechanical parts. And in terms of the eyes, like with the eyes of a real animal, I have them put on expressions that make it unclear which direction they’re facing in.”

“I don’t want people to think that they’re from a distant place, just because they’re ‘characters’. So I often refer to things that people like and consider familiar to them. Also, Digimon designs often have a lot of things like pockets, belts, and zippers, because I like fashionable clothing design (laughs), but I think those kinds of things are little nudges towards you seeing it as something you recognize.”

Long-beloved characters share “simplicity” in common

Watanabe-san also told us that he refers to illustrations on social media when designing characters. He says that he watches current stylistic trends and what people consider to be their favorite characters. By keeping up with the times and what characters become popular, he is focused on making sure that the characters he designs don’t look outdated.

“Naturally, I think older characters are good as they are, too. However, there are also a lot of characters that I often think look very outdated. If I keep drawing with the same style all of the time, the characters themselves may end up fizzling out. So I refer to illustrations that are currently gaining popularity, and gradually adjusting how I draw.”

“However, as the times have changed, there have been a lot more characters being created and put out into the world. Sometimes, it becomes possible to express things in ways that weren’t possible in the past. For instance, Morphomon is drawn in a way that you might think feels quite different from Agumon and Gabumon. Back in the old days, if you had round black eyes and a mouth in the shape of a “ω”, you’d risk looking like you’re copying other character designs. Now that there are so many characters out there, you won’t be as likely to hear that kind of thing as much, and you have more freedom of expression.”

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Morphomon — © Akiyoshi Hongou / Toei Animation

On the other hand, some characters also continue to be well-beloved even as the times change. Watanabe-san told us that “simplicity” is what they have in common.

“I think characters with silhouettes that are easy to make out and can be recognized no matter who draws them are the kind that continue to be loved. They’re easy to draw, but you can feel them close to you. Digimon are somewhat difficult to draw, but if you go ahead and draw an Agumon, anyone will be able to recognize him. That’s why I generally try to make Digimon in such a way that you can tell which character it is, even if it’s a completely black silhouette.”

It’s “the final story”, but it’s not the end

With all of his commitment to character design, and continuing to support the Digimon franchise’s popularity for twenty years, and with these new Digimon that reflect the strength of his feelings to unprecedented degrees, there is no doubt about Watanabe-san’s love for his work.

“I’ve put myself into this one more than I’ve ever done before, and I feel that Director Taguchi and I were ultimately able to express what he wanted. And they took many of my suggestions into account, too. But of course, I’m sure there are many people who will see the new Digimon and say ‘the heck is this?’ (laughs) Nowadays, you can see things like popularity or unpopularity instantaneously, so I worry every time a Digimon is released. But even so, I will do my best to express them.”

In this era, you can tell immediately when people love or hate a new character. Since this is a series that’s had fans for more than twenty years, there will always be at least some critical opinions out there. Despite that, Watanabe-san says that getting to do design again for Kizuna was “absolutely for the best.”

“I really want to help the Digimon series continue on. And even though this is a story about an ending, in actuality this is a story that leads to the epilogue of Digimon Adventure 02, so this is not the end for Digimon. Personally, I myself would like to see what happens to Taichi and Agumon, and Yamato and Gabumon, and the others after this (laughs).”

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© Akiyoshi Hongou / Toei Animation

“This movie is a story about how Taichi, in the process of becoming an adult, struggles with how to live during that time, and worries about how to connect with his Digimon. There are a lot of messages inside this movie. Up until now, the children have been the ones depicted as leading the Digimon, but this time, we’re having the Digimon supporting them and pushing them on, and expressing the strength of their own intentions. I hope you pay close attention to the messages the Digimon send you, and observe the bonds between them.”

“We’re getting a newer generation of Digimon fans excited, while the older Digimon generation can’t hold back the tears while watching it. Please pay close attention to the words and expressions of Agumon and Gabumon at the very end.”

(Text: Yuuka Abe, Photography/&M Editorial Department)

Profile

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Kenji Watanabe

Representative of WOW FACTORY. Chief designer of toy planning company WIZ, and creator of the Digimon from the Digimon franchise. Major works include Tamagotchi, Yoicocchi, Magical Witches, and planning and production for the doll and voice actor variety program Dolly ☆ Variety. Also served as the creator for Legendz: Tale of the Dragon Kings.


Translator's notes
  1. The original article actually linked to this video, which is blocked in certain countries outside Japan. The video I used as a substitute has the same contents (and is also officially posted…and has subtitles!). []
  2. I chose to use “Kizuna” as the abbreviation, as it’s easy to remember and standard shortform for Westerners, but in Japanese the shortening, used both officially and among fans, is actually “rasuebo” (ラスエボ). This practice of “taking the first two morae from each word to make a shortening” is very common in Japanese, and in fact fuels the “Digimon” shortening in itself. []
  3. Although I did my best to make it clear within context, “Digimon generation” is a catch-all to refer to people who identify as having been in the target audience when Digimon Adventure through Frontier were airing and were childhood fans, and has been used by many of the current staff members to describe their childhood ties to the franchise. []

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