Digimon Games Community “Let’s Ask the Creators All the Things We Want to Know!” interviews — Character designer Kenji Watanabe

The Digimon Games Community website posted a series of interviews with Digimon creators between August and December 2017, held by Digimon game producer Kazumasa Habu. The following is a translation of an interview with character designer Kenji Watanabe, posted on August 9 and August 22, 2017.

(Character designer Kenji Watanabe | WiZ toy planner Maekawa | Former Digimon game producer Ryou Mito | V-Tamer 01 artist Tenya Yabuno)

For the sake of reading ease, redundant informational text between interview portions has been omitted.

Table of Contents

Part 1

In order to understand Digimon even better, we’re asking different creators about the process of creating its contents, their struggles to do so, and other things you don’t normally get to hear! In our commemorative first part, we’re featuring designer Kenji Watanabe-san! For this half, we’ll be looking back on how Digimon as a franchise was created.

1st interview: Character designer Kenji Watanabe (hereinafter, Watanabe)
One of the creators of the Digital Monster LCD toy. He has been involved with Digimon production for many years, and has also worked on a great number of Digimon illustrations.

Habu: I’ve been working with Kenji-san for a long time, but I’ve never gotten around to hearing about his career in detail…I do apologize, but please introduce yourself again!

Watanabe: Right. I’m Kenji Watanabe, the character designer for the Digital Monster series.

Habu: Kenji-san, you’re usually seen by fans as a Digimon character designer, and that’s generally how you’re introduced, but you’re also involved in project planning, right?

Watanabe: WiZ was originally a planning company established around 30 years ago as an independent company from Bandai, by President Yokoi, who’s famous for Tamagotchi. At the time, the company had around only five people, so everyone was doing all sorts of things at once. My main job was in putting together the project plan. At the time, I was the only one on staff who could draw manga-like illustrations, and the pictures in the project proposal have to make it look attractive at first glance, so my job was in making it look interesting. But as product development progressed, I started having to be in charge of things besides just planning, so I started drawing package art and illustrations of the characters that’d be in the product.

Habu: I see. So what led to you being involved with Digimon?

Watanabe: Around 10 years after WiZ’s creation, Tamagotchi development started, and I was in charge of a number of things ranging from pixel placement to character creation. Tamagotchi and Digimon were produced by the same department within Bandai, but Tamagotchi’s more of a toy for girls, isn’t it? That department is normally in charge of toys aimed at boys, so we figured we should make one while we were at it, and we thus decided to make a Tamagotchi that even boys would enjoy. Boys would probably enjoy raising characters, after all. But we also thought that boys would probably like to be able to battle with their friends, so we conceived of Digimon as “a Tamagotchi that can fight”.

Habu: I see. How many people were on the team at the time?

Watanabe: Digimon pretty much had the same people as Tamagotchi did, but it basically amounted to around three people on planning. For Tamagotchi, I was doing pixel placement, but for Digimon I was mainly focused on design and didn’t have time to do the pixels, so we had to ask someone in the company’s game department to do it.

Habu: So in other words, the Digimon development team was around five people?

Watanabe: In terms of number of people, that’s about right.

Habu: You weren’t a designer when you originally joined the company, and it was only afterwards your work started to focus more on design, right?

Watanabe: I was primarily on design, but at the time I was a newcomer right out of vocational school, so I was doing anything and everything they needed of me. So I made prototypes, patterns, and even models. There were times I’d even go to the factory and line them up on the production line myself.

Habu: When you develop a toy, which comes first, the pixel design or the character design?

Watanabe: When we were making Digimon for the very first time, the character illustrations came first. We’re currently making an artbook (Digital Monster ART BOOK Ver. 1~5 & 20th), and we’ll publish more info about this there, but we started with something like the three-way or four-way advantage and weakness elemental cycle, like fire, water, and earth, so I drew things like a fire dinosaur or a water monster. But then, they ended up looking exactly like characters from a certain video game, so we had to modify the concept…

Digital Monster ART BOOK Ver. 1~5 & 20th is currently up for preorder!

Habu: Were you scrambling to redo it from scratch?

Watanabe: Right. We basically didn’t have time anymore, so I had to negotiate with them to let me draw whatever I wanted. At the time, I was into American comics and figures, so I was thinking about doing something with American comic-style characters for children. As far as characters with thick shadows and defined muscle lines went, there were a lot of them in adult-oriented works, but not for children.

Habu: What did everyone say when you first proposed having designs based on American comics?

Watanabe: They thought it might be cool, since I’d changed the proportions to make them more like proper mascot characters. But the deadline was approaching, so I think they weren’t really in a situation to protest anyway. With that kind of schedule, they basically had no choice but to go with it. I think I drew around 10 of them or so. We put everything I could do into pixel form and took off with it.

Habu: And thus Digimon was born. Incidentally, which of those initial Digimon characters was your favorite?

Watanabe: I was most satisfied getting to draw Devimon.

Habu: Oh! When I was put in charge of Digimon, Devimon was also my favorite.

Watanabe: Oh yeah, I remember you said you liked LadyDevimon earlier.

Habu: I did. But these days, Devimon’s been kind of a small fry getting beaten all the time (laughs)…

Watanabe: He was supposed to be a mid-boss at first, but…(laughs).

Habu: He used to be a mid-boss, but now the power creep has escalated and he feels more like a starter mook villain…(sob)

Watanabe: He comes out and gets wrecked right on the spot.

Habu: He does. By the way, I was wondering if Devimon’s design took strong influence from (Canadian comic artist) Todd McFarlane?

Watanabe: I think (British comic artist) Simon Bisley was also a strong influence.

Habu: It does feel a lot like Simon Bisley. Did you feel that Digimon was likely to be a hit from the start?

Watanabe: Did I? Well, Tamagotchi was selling very well at the time, to the point it was becoming hard to obtain. So it was only natural for Digimon to sell well, since it was so similar. It was in the midst of the LCD toy popularity boom. On top of that, the Bandai representative in charge of it changed midway to everyone’s favorite Volcano Ota-san, and that got everyone even more excited.

Habu: When did you start feeling that it was taking off?

Watanabe: It was already selling well from the beginning, and we were able to work with V-Jump and Weekly Jump, so I felt our overall development was more organized than Tamagotchi’s was. Well, that’s probably because we already had the super-popular Tamagotchi to use as a base, but I think our media tie-in development went well. That said, I heard the figures didn’t actually sell very well, maybe because the method of raising digital monsters was more well-received than the actual characters. Tamagotchi also had more emphasis on the game contents, so at first I thought people didn’t care for the characters themselves, and so it was only natural for the figures to not sell well. I suppose at the time Digimon was just a character made for a toy product and nothing else…

Habu: Did that change after Digimon was made into an anime?

Watanabe: It did. But at the time, Digimon didn’t have any kind of story, so I was surprised when I heard they wanted to make an anime about it.

Habu: How did you go about making the lore? Prior to the anime, there was the game Digimon World (released in 1999 for the PlayStation), right? Did you use that as your reference point for expanding the lore?

Watanabe: Digimon World got off the ground after discussions about making a video game. At the time, Digimon wasn’t particularly aggressive about worldbuilding, but we did at least have a vague backdrop of this and that. So I consulted with a console video game producer about making “File Island” to serve as the backdrop for the story. We happened to be making the “Digimon Pendulum” LCD toy right around that time, so we developed it making full use of that worldbuilding.

Habu: So you were able to expand on the worldbuilding thanks to also working on Digimon World. Incidentally, what about Digital Monster ver. S: Digimon Tamers for the Sega Saturn? I believe the word “hacker” was already a key term for the LCD toys at the time, so did you just pull the existing lore straight from the LCD toys?

Watanabe: I was only asked to draw the characters, so I don’t remember the game lore (laughs awkwardly).

Habu: But there were so many unique hackers in it! Isn’t there any remaining data about them?

Watanabe: I don’t think so.

Habu: I was hoping I could make use of any we had left…but I couldn’t find any data on it anywhere.

Watanabe: My own computer crashed several times, too.

Habu: Right. Even after they put me in charge, they asked me to get all the data they had together because they lost things in computer crashes (laughs).

Watanabe: Also, every time WiZ moved or changed departments, all paper-based items were disposed of. So that’s why there’s surprisingly so little data left. When I’m working from home, I might have some left over, but everything I did on-site is gone. There would be entire piles of paper under my desk.

Habu: When did you start converting to digital?

Watanabe: It was digital from the beginning, but the lineart was traditionally drawn. We don’t have many left, but the ones we do have will be published in the artbooks. Also, since I might as well, maybe I should put them in frames and hang them in my office?

Habu: Lineart is extremely valuable these days (laughs).

Watanabe: But when I myself do the drawing, I don’t really feel any value in the illustrations themselves. Everyone tosses out their rough drafts, after all. There were people picking them up from the trash can…I was like, “stop!” (laughs)

Habu: A lot of old works don’t have any documents or materials left…with so many sub-series and products, each one adds more Digimon and lore to the lineup, so I’d like to manage them properly somehow…

Watanabe: But I think the games were really what made it complicated (laughs). Even we don’t know what kind of lore goes into the games. Of course, there are actual console games, too, but that doesn’t mean you know everything down to the behind-the-scenes lor.

Habu: Huh, I thought the card game was the one that added tons of Digimon? (laughs)

Watanabe: Both of them did (laughs).

Habu: In particular, there aren’t any remaining materials for the Digimon games for the WonderSwan…I’ve read all the games and strategy guides from back then, but I can’t understand the details and it’s frustrating.

Watanabe: There were so many Digimon games for the WonderSwan that it was nicknamed a “Digimon machine”. If you were playing something on it, it was either Digimon or Crush Gear (laughs). Back then, even WiZ had a distinction between the team for the original portable games and the team for the WonderSwan. We were each making our own bits of lore, and I was only tasked with drawing the characters. As far as lore goes, the request was for me to make a monster that looks like a collection of every Digimon, so I drew a character that looked like them all put together. That was Chimeramon, but after that came Millenniummon, who looked like Chimeramon…

Habu: Oh, right! The characters from there are still very popular ones, so I’d like to dig deeper into their backbone and give them more opportunities to have a prominent role. But in order to do that, I have to reorganize our materials…

Watanabe: Let’s set up a system, collect all the data, and archive it!…WiZ will be the main ones ending up needing to do it (laughs).

Habu: Right. Also, because you’ve been involved for so long, you’ve become a living archive (laughs).

Part 2

In order to understand Digimon even better, we’re asking different creators about the process of creating its contents, their struggles to do so, and other things you don’t normally get to hear! Here’s the continuation of our interview with designer Kenji Watanabe.

Habu: Now, moving onto our next topic! Please tell us how long it would take you to draw Digimon illustrations once the project got off the ground.

Watanabe: I think it was faster to get whatever we needed done back then. We’d hold a meeting, and we’d all draw up an idea of what kind of characters we wanted to make next, and we’d talk about putting this or that here or what to do with this next. There’d be exceptions, but in those cases I’d ask the project planner about it. I’d ask what we should do next, and I’d get back “I don’t really know” (laughs). So I said, I can’t just draw whatever I like without asking, so if you don’t think of something we’ll be stuck here!

Habu: Back then, everyone was working together, but don’t you think the division of roles has gotten more fragmented recently?

Watanabe: It really has. And on top of that, whenever I design a Digimon, I often end up doing in one shot. When we’re dealing with a need for quantity, we can think abouti t all together, but when we’ve got one specific Digimon that we need to promote, I have to fixate on the details. Especially nowadays, I often have to draw Ultimate-level Digimon, and the designs end up becoming very detailed and difficult to draw.

Habu: But that being said, even your Adult-level Digimon have a lot of details.

Watanabe: Zubamon was a character made specifically for the 20th anniversary, so I wanted to put a lot more effort into him than usual. Also, since it was the 20th anniversary, I wanted to draw a character that looked like a smaller version of the iconic Omegamon.

Zubamon will be in the upcoming game Hacker’s Memory!

Habu: While we’re on this topic, I’d like to ask this on behalf of all of our fans, but what do you think about all of these Omegamon popping up recently?

Watanabe: Don’t blame me (laughs). The request came from Bandai Namco Games (currently Bandai Namco Entertainment) to begin with. I’d already made (Omegamon) Zwart for the card game before, so I was asked to make a different kind of black version. The background lore was that it was supposed to use data to become an Omegamon, but if we’re going to make one, we have to make the Digimon it was before the fusion.

Habu: Huh, I had no idea…You’re referring to Next Order (Digimon World -next 0rder-, released in 2016 for the PlayStation Vita), right?1 Personally, I’d rather be filling in gaps in existing Digimon evolutionary lines.

Watanabe: Well, I do think Omegamon has turned out to be a symbol for Digimon, and whenever we put out a product, Omegamon ends up coming out first. And then before I know it, wait, what? I’ve found myself drawing another Omegamon.

Habu: Because when another Omegamon subspecies appears, it becomes a hot topic among fans.

Watanabe: But there are also a lot of fans who aren’t as receptive to how quickly they’re multiplying.

Habu: How about Omegamon Alter-S?

Watanabe: I think Omegamon Alter-S went over well with people because there was proper basis in BlitzGreymon and CresGarurumon.

Habu: I see. Here’s an idea, why don’t we add even more Omegamon and make a battle royale game between different Omegamon! Advertise it with the line “a battle to decide who’s the strongest Omegamon!” (laughs)

Watanabe: That’d be pretty fun, wouldn’t it? When I make something, I always hope they’ll be given a chance to do something prominent. Or perhaps that it’ll be nice if the fans could also make good use of it.

Habu: Right. If I’m going to be making a new Digimon, I’d also like to give it a proper role. But before then, I’d like my games to go a little more into existing Digimon forces. For example, the the Olympos XII.

Watanabe: Conversely, WiZ and I don’t have any way of doing something like that. We don’t have a place to show off the lore, so the only thing we can do is ride off the games or anime. If there’s something about the lore we want to get across, you might think we could request for people to use it with this or that lore, but it doesn’t really work that way. You can’t really get a lot of information through with just an LCD game, so it’s hard to get it out through the limits of toys instead of through media.

Habu: But if there’s a gap in information, the gaps could lead to a sense of mystery and let the player’s imagination spread further, right?

Watanabe: We do that deliberately. We put a lot of character lore in, and hint at this one and that one having some kind of relation. Some things still haven’t been addressed yet, but someday someone might make use of it.

Habu: So you do it aiming for someone else to come sort it out.

Watanabe: Even on the WiZ end, when whoever’s in charge changes hands, a new part of the lore is created. Also, now that the Internet is here, it’s become much easier for for the average person or fan to draw their own original Digimon and post pictures. It’s a good thing, but for me, it’s also very scary, because I have to worry about the fact I might accidentally take someone else’s idea. For instance, if I’m told to draw something-or-other-mon, and I look it up on the Internet and there’s already something drawn for it by someone else. So for a while, I was trying to stay away from it as much as possible, but nowadays there’s so much of it that I decided to not worry about it anymore. So I’m sorry if I end up doing the same thing someone else did. I promise I didn’t steal your idea or anything.

Habu: I think it’s interesting how Digimon proliferating on the Internet is right in line with Digimon’s original lore. There’s also been some Digimon that were made official by contest submissions.

Watanabe: There are.

Habu: I didn’t know until later, but CatchMamemon, who appears in Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory, is one of those.

Watanabe: CatchMamemon is one, although it’s from a long time ago.

Habu: That’s another fun thing about Digimon, that fan-created Digimon can actually exist. Let’s go back to talking about illustration production. You said before that you used to do the pixel illustrations for the characters at first, but have you been doing it differently since then?

Watanabe: There’s been times when the pixel art would be produced at the same time as the hand-drawn illustrations. We’d roughly decide what kind of elements I’d want to include, like “dinosaur” or “dog”, and proceed from there. But there’d be times like us discussing making something rocky, but then when it was converted to pixels it looked completely different. So I wouldn’t worry too much about it and would just keep doing my own thing. I’d check it later and fix the illustration or pixel art if something bothers me then.

Habu: How many designers are involved?

Watanabe: For illustrations, there are basically three people, including myself. I usually try to keep myself to what I’m good at, so for instance, if I need something with a ton of mech parts, I’ll ask As’maria-san to help me. For this kind of character, I’ll ask this person because they’re better at it, and so on. That said, I’m usually the one who draws the original motif sketch first.

Habu: It depends on the person, but there’ll be times when the final design is very different from your rough sketch, right?

Watanabe: I tell As’maria-san to draw what they want. If they try to draw the mecha the way I would, it wouldn’t look very good. When I ask someone to draw it for me, I want it the way they would do it, so I ask them to do what they want. So there’s times I’ve thought “wait, this doesn’t look like the rough draft at all!” (laughs), but I think that’s what’s allowed us to divide up the work nicely. Naturally, illustrators can’t draw everything, so there are some things they just don’t work well with, and sometimes it’s hard to get things to look the way they were in your head.

Habu: How do you correct things when they don’t go well or when they stray from what you were looking for?

Watanabe: I’ll redraw it, and of course I’ll point out the things that need to be fixed. For instance, I’d say the pose is off here, or the perspective only needs to be tweaked a little but it needs to be less “cute” and more “cool”. It’s especially tricky with the feminine Digimon. This is a series for young boys at its core, so I’d like the feminine Digimon to also be cool. Use “cool” as a base, add a little sexiness here and there, so it’s cool but also a little exciting. I want to achieve that kind of balance.

Habu: The humanoid Digimon didn’t show their faces at first. Was that a specific rule?

Watanabe: There were definitely a lot of Digimon that didn’t show their eyes. Eyes leave a strong impression, don’t they? I thought showing their eyes would diminish the feeling of themb eing digital. When you have fictional creatures like monsters, you usually make their eyes pop out to make them seem like realistic beasts. But I tried not to make the human Digimon look too realistic because I thought they’d lose their monster-like atmosphere if I did.

Habu: Did that change around the time of Lilithmon?

Watanabe: I don’t know if it was specifically Lilithmon…

Habu: Speaking of which, how did Lilithmon come about to begin with?

Watanabe: Lilithmon was from the Pendulum Progress, right? Incidentally, Lilithmon’s background and name were influenced by a certain giant robot anime that was popular at the time. Come to think of it, Andromon also started off with four legs, but Volcano Ota-san got mad at me, saying “You can’t just leave it that! I know I personally asked for this, but…” (laughs) So that’s how Andromon ended up with a standing pose instead. I’ve taken quite a liking to Andromon somehow.

Habu: You said you were influenced by American comics, but you also used anime as a reference, right?

Watanabe: I think it’s good to have things like that. Digimon are supposed to be information on the Internet in the form of monsters, so they’re influenced by what’s popular on the Internet.

Habu: I see. Please tell us what kinds of things you keep in mind when you work on the design.

Watanabe: Monsters are characters, so I try to make sure you can actually see thema s characters. With beast-type monsters, I used to try having them come off as a scary monster by making their eyes beast-like in such a way that you didn’t know where they were looking. But ever since the anime started, I draw it so that it’s looking at the viewer so there can be a sense of intimacy. Beyond that, I have the muscles be bulging and bulky to make it have an icky feeling of meat, but I want it to be charming too, so I distort the proportions. Of course, by the time it gets to Ultimate-level, the silhouette is complicated and hard to make out, but I try not to let it get complicated until around Child-level. I try to make it complex in ways that don’t affect the silhouette, like with belts. It makes it more Digimon-like, so to speak. Even with normal fashion, I like belts, zippers, and pockets, so I try to incorporate those in my designs. With zippers, I always make it more jagged instead of drawing it properly to fit, because it makes it come off like fangs and looks like a mouth when opened.

Habu: We have to be careful when we make the 3D models for video games.

Watanabe: You can see the inside through the zipper, and there might even be just empty space inside. Digimon are monsters with an outer texture, so you can have that kind of thing.

Habu: Oh, that’s interesting!

Watanabe: For the human Digimon, I think about American superheroes. If I had to put it one way, I’d say probably like a thin figure with well-defined muscles? The arms and other areas are kept thin. Well, the extremities are drawn to be thicker. But somewhere along the line I started thinking it didn’t have to be this way, so I started drawing rough drafts with smaller hands and feet, but Volcano Ota-san stepped in and said Digimon should have big hands and feet (laughs).

Habu: There are some Digimon with different-sized arms, and it’s hard to tell if they’re naturally that long or if they’re just stretched out for the picture.

Watanabe: For humanoid ones, I generally draw them with long hands, but sometimes they’re that way because I’m stretching it out.

Habu: The game development company staff often asks about Demon, like whether it’s okay to just make the model with a normal figure.

Watanabe: Using a normal figure is fine. I draw it that way to stretch it out. But there are some that really are that big. Cyclomon has an arm that’s prominently big. But sometimes, the design changes in the process of drawing. The art I initially drew for Tailmon and the art I drew when the anime started are very different. Now that it was in an anime, I wanted to make it cuter.

Habu: So it was an intentional change. Incidentally, what’s the most important aspect overall when it comes to Digimon design?

Watanabe: I want it to have “Digimon-like” aspects to it. I mentioned this earlier, but overall, it really does need to come off a bit like American comics. There was one point where I wondered if maybe we should drop this, but I’ve still never broken this foundation. Whenever fans draw Digimon art, they say that if you draw thick lines and add shadows, it looks like a Digimon. I feel like it’s become synonymous with Digimon in some sense.

Habu: Early illustrations of Agumon always had him with black on the top of his head, right?

Watanabe: I deliberately put a shadow there on top. The same goes for Tyrannomon. But putting the shadow on there was a time-saving measure. Back then, I was running out of time, so I figured I’d make it easier for myself by painting it black (laughs awkwardly), but it worked out well, and it became associated with Digimon.

Habu: Compared to designing for other properties, are there any unique peculiarities or difficulties when it comes to working with Digimon?

Watanabe: Digimon is basically my life’s work at this point, so what I need to draw naturally comes out. My other jobs are more confusing. When I receive an offer, sometimes I don’t know what they want, whether they want me to make something like Digimon or whether they want something completely new.

Habu: So with Digimon being your life’s work, if there’s anything within it you want to try in the future, please tell us.

Watanabe: I’ve been involved for many years, I think that instead of just making new Digimon, I should leave it in the hands of the next generation. Of course, there are times when I ask the younger artists to help me design, but I think it’d be better to shift to someone else who can do things like drawing my Digimon in a different form. Naturally, I’ll still be drawing what I want to make, and there are things that only I can do, so during those times I’ll do it myself, but it’s not like I can do everything. Nowadays, it’s normal to commission up-and-coming illustrators for video games, so I’m starting to feel that you guys won’t need me to be the one who designs the Digimon in the games. I start thinking, you’re already asking other artists to help anyway, so maybe you guys won’t need me to design~ (laughs).

Habu: We don’t think that way at all (laughs).

Watanabe: But I’m starting to take it that way! (laughs)

Habu: Both the fans and I would like to see you continuing to be active here!

Watanabe: I didn’t originally anticipate that Digimon would keep going for this many years, and although I’ve been mostly behind the scenes, I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to come forward. Like with this interview project, there’s been more opportunities to hear opinions directly from the fans. It’s fun to do things when you have a close relationship with the fans, and it’d be nice to come up with a new character through this kind of exchange. I want to keep doing what I can do, so please continue to support me.

Habu: Is there anything you’d like to ask of your fans?

Watanabe: For now, just…please go easy on me (laughs). But anyway, I want to keep communicating with the fans and putting all of my effort into what I do from here on out.

Translator's notes
  1. Watanabe and Producer Habu refer to the original Vita version of Digimon World -next 0rder-, which was not released in English. While Producer Habu served as producer for the game’s later ports that would be used for localization, he was not involved on the original Vita game’s production. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *