October/November 2018 Gashapon Blog interviews with Kenji Watanabe

Translation for a pair of interviews with Digimon franchise character designer Kenji Watanabe, held with Gashapon Blog on October and November 2018. The first part discusses his involvement on the Digital Monster Capsule Mascot Collection and general Digimon design, and the second part details his thoughts on Omegamon Merciful Mode, the Omegamon form used in the recently-completed Digimon Adventure tri., and the background behind Omegamon himself.

Digital Monster Capsule Mascot Collection: Interview with Digimon designer Kenji Watanabe!

The fifth edition of the “Digital Monster Capsule Mascot Collection” will be released in November!

And, for October, preorders from Premium Bandai for “PREMIUM ver. 1.0” have started, and the series is flourishing thanks to all of your support.

Today, we’ve held an interview with Kenji Watanabe-san, the creator of the Digimon series and the supervisor for the Mascot Collection!

We asked about all sorts of things, such as how the project got started, secret stories behind development, and the future of the series.

Looking back on the series

–Firstly, please tell us about the beginnings of this series.
When I first heard about the project, I heard that they were going to use my illustrations and make them into 3D. Truthfully, I was wondering “is that really okay?”
The illustrations they were using were already twenty years old, so I was worried about the fact they were going to use such old drawings for this.
But once it was released, we got a great response from the customer base and many people ended up playing with it, so i was very happy.

–The illustrations from back then left a huge impact on everyone, and there was an attractive quality to them.

–This series also features particular attention to the coloring. Please tell us about what kinds of requests you made as a supervisor.
Watanabe: My illustrations generally have very strong shadows, and so there are a lot of parts you can’t see very clearly, and some parts that come off as rather black, and when I looked at the coloring of the prototype models, they all came out black.
To put it simply, “they were painted as if they’d come out burnt” (laughs). Okay, okay, I thought, I’ll have to fix this a bit more.

–Please tell us about what you can create by posing the models in this series.
The illustrations I draw make hard use of perspective, and there are times I exploit its 2D aspects to “cheat” a little.
The emphasis is on there being a sense of power, and the arms and legs might be bent to degrees that would be impossible. Were we able to reproduce that in 3D?
But even if you can’t do the exact pose per se, the qualities of the illustrations are still there, reproduced faithfully.
Greymon’s illustration really gives off the feeling of his teeth having a munch-munch-munch feeling to them, and it doesn’t look that odd in the actual picture, but the question “how do we reproduce this in 3D?” caught me off guard.
I also thought, “hmm, I guess I’m going to have to put some more proper thought into the perspective when I draw things” (laughs).

–It’s interesting to look at the illustrations and compare them with the solid figures.
Watanabe: Even in the 3D models, we have the “base angle”, which is basically the angle for which you can have it look the same as the illustration.
I would be grateful if the buyers would try it out and appreciate that little point, since we put so much into making that work.

–You were very exact in figuring out posing for this series.
Watanabe: I was, I was. That’s what makes this series so fun. Generally, when you make a three-dimensional object, you want to make a pose that’s easy to remove from the mold and is easy to mass-produce.
But for this series, there are some parts that are difficult to make (laughs). And yet, even though it’s this tiny, they managed to reproduce the finer details. Normally we can’t do this, we can’t do that.
We managed to barely make it for this one, and it makes me realize that this kind of technology is amazing.

–Are there any Digimon that you think were particularly well-done?
Watanabe: Not in particular, I think they’re all wonderfully made. If there’s one I want to promote in particular, though, probably MetalGreymon. Mainly the fact that we managed to get him into this size.
That said, the level of challenge (for development) has been upped with each series, and now the challenges have gone in rather strange directions (laughs).

–You always push yourself to the limit (laughs). Do you have a favorite Digimon in this series?
Watanabe: It’s really gotta be Numemon. Because you wouldn’t imagine that we’d actually include a certain little thing in the package.
Isn’t it funny? Like, “why’d you have to put this pink piece of poop in here?!” (laughs).

–And you reproduced the shape of the poop quite faithfully, too (laughs).
We were watching the reactions on social media, and people seemed to keep getting Numemon for some reason. But every time I kept seeing people go “Not another Numemon!” on Twitter, actually, I was kind of jealous.
It’s amazing to see all of them together like this, and personally I wish I could have a ton of my own. Please, everyone, go out and collect them!

–Actually, that first series was rather expensive (laughs).
Watanabe: The modeling was particularly elaborate, and we even threw in a poop as a bonus. From a character-focused perspective, if you see it as a “bad roll”, then it’s a bad roll, I suppose (laughs). But personally, I actually like those sorts of characters people call “bad”.
But then, I also happen to think “I’m glad this kind of character exists.” It’s nice seeing this kind of character in figure form.
Incidentally, the prototype version of Numemon was also drenched in black. I had to tell them, “no, we can’t make his rear end black!” (laughs)

–The dramatic contrast of the shadows has gotten milder with each series.
Watanabe: It has, but when you look at the photos people have been putting on Twitter, their own shadows end up cast on it.
Of course, we can only do so much when it comes to mass production, but we were thinking about the fact that this will eventually end up in the hands of individual collectors, and we thought, how can we account for what happens when they get it? If you cast a solid shadow on it, it ends up resembling the 2D illustrations.
So actually, every time it releases, I look forward to seeing the photos uploaded onto social media. It became something that I became acutely aware of, even as a developer (laughs).

–So it’s like sending the ball back and forth between the developer and buyer.
I don’t know if the buyers see it that way, though (laughs). But on our end, that’s something we particularly focus on.

Premium 1.0 launch!

–From the same series, we also have Premium Bandai’s “Digital Monster Capsule Mascot Collection PREMIUM ver. 1.0” set for release!
Watanabe: You know, I would have never guessed BlitzGreymon would be in the lineup. Like, I was thinking along the lines of “Airdramon, and then eventually…” and so on and so forth.

–BlitzGreymon was included as part of the lineup from the Digital Monster ver. 20th, so it’s a surprisingly recent Digimon.
Watanabe: I did the primary rough design, but the illustration itself was by Haito Nakano-san.
It’s a next-generation Digimon for a new series, so I wanted there to be a fresh, new feeling for younger people. I mean, it’s been 20 years, so if I’m the only one doing everything…that’s not good.

–Incidentally, why is BlitzGreymon such a bright red color?
Watanabe: Hmm, why is it red indeed? Well, it was red even during the initial design stage. I think I probably wanted to have it clearly distinguished from the previous versions of Greymon.
The pre-evolutionary form, Greymon, and WarGreymon are a standard orange, you know? And MetalGreymon is purple-ish, bluish.

–Do you put a lot of thought into the colors?
Watanabe: Yes, I generally try to use very vivid colors. It’s fundamentally supposed to be a character made for children, so I wanted to use more crisp colors rather than realistic colors.
That’s also why I tend to draw my inspiration from American comics.

–So how about that BlitzGreymon figure?
It’s seriously huge! (laughs) But of course, it’s made really well!

–How about Meramon and Airdramon?
Watanabe: (As of the time of this interview) I haven’t seen the colored samples yet. I’m still thinking about what they’re going to do about Meramon, like, “how on earth are you supposed to paint this?!” (laughs).

–Right, it makes you wonder how they’re going to add colors and shadows.
Watanabe: Right? (laughs) There was a time way back when, when they could do three-dimensional figures and have the mold be transparent. All you’d have to do is spray paint there and it’d feel like “flames”. But for this one, I don’t think they can make it transparent.

–They’re working hard on it, so it’ll probably come out looking very cool.
Watanabe: The technical capabilities of the factory have improved quite drastically as of late. They’ve probably got some coloring master in there. Actually there aren’t that many people, not even at the factory.

–We’d like to see more from the series, especially the Premium line. Which Digimon would you like to see in three-dimensional form?
Watanabe: I’m sure they (the development team) would absolutely hate it, but JESmon. JESmon was a Digimon drawn with the level of detail that would make it possible for it to be three-dimensional.
But if we were to make a figure out of this, we’d have to make it a bit more dense, but that’s hard to do now…so maybe we shouldn’t?
But I’m really hoping someone out there could make a 3D version of him (laughs).

–It is a challenge, in some sense (laughs). Very nice, JESmon! Let’s do it!
Watanabe: But if you think that’s something by itself, JESmon (X-Antibody version) is even more incredible. That one would be hell (to make into 3D). The illustration is by As’maria, who also draws for Gundam.
He’s the kind of person who draws to the extent that it’s like, “okay, okay, don’t go any further than this!” (laughs)

–The X-Antibody version has an incredible amount of detail! Finally, please leave a comment for the buyers who are looking forward to “PREMIUM ver. 1.0”.
Watanabe: Come on, look, it’s BlitzGreymon! His power is beyond whatever you’ve seen before, and his volume and imposing bulkiness are incredible (laughs). And Nakano-san’s original picture is fantastic in itself, and the pose is cool!
This is the kind of thing I’d want myself from this kind of thing. Not like, “why is this here?”, but more like “oh, wait, no, actually, this is it!” (laughs)

–Apparently even the manufacturer was thinking “wait, why this one?” (laughs).
Watanabe: But I think it’s interesting that they picked Digimon different from the usual standbys. It’s good that you don’t just stick with the straightforward path. You can see all sorts of future possibilities.
By pushing back the emphasis on the older series and by focusing on the new generation of Digimon, you can bring to the forefront Digimon that wouldn’t usually be there. You get to have the feeling of “anything is possible” coming out of it. You think, “all right, how far can we go with this?”
This is the future of the series. It might be a series that goes on for yet another twenty years, with the Digimon franchise (laughs).

–Thank you very much.

Click here to preorder “Digital Monster Capsule Mascot Collection PREMIUM ver. 1.0”!

Interview with Kenji Watanabe, Part 2 -Omegamon: Merciful Mode-

Omegamon: Merciful Mode
Interview with Digimon designer Kenji Watanabe-san

We’re bringing to you our second interview with Digimon designer Kenji Watanabe-san!

With the new Premium Bandai limited item
“ULTIMATE IMAGE Omegamon: Merciful Mode”
being put up for preorder, we’ve asked him about the Digimon Adventure tri. movie series, and about Omegamon.

–Please tell us about Merciful Mode.
Watanabe: I originally had no intention of having him appear in Digimon Adventure tri. at all. Actually, I straight-up said, “I am not going to make another Omegamon for you!” So in other words, I refused.

–May we ask why you refused?
I mean, how do you put this, don’t you think they keep going back to Omegamon way too quickly? (laughs) So I said, “can we please stop doing this?” But they really, really needed a character who could sublimate Meicoomon, that is, Ordinemon, at the very end. At first, we were thinking of just changing the color, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for a finale. For a character like Ordinemon, who had ended up denying her own reason for being alive, we needed a so-called “agony-sparing suicide assistant”1, it would have to inevitably be an Omegamon…so I figured, if it’s gonna be for the very end, then I guess it’s going to have to be that way after all.

–What is the origin of the name “Merciful Mode”?
Watanabe: Merciful, so-called “mercy”. English doesn’t have a good word for the concept of an “agony-sparing suicide assistant”, so they named it after “mercy” instead. That said, there really wasn’t any mercy at all with that. Actually, I don’t even think it’s particularly right to think of Merciful Mode as an “agony-sparing suicide assistant”.

–So the design is also inspired by an “agony-sparing suicide assistant”?
Watanabe: I did want to make it a bit Japanese-style, so one arm is a Western-style sword, and one arm is a Japanese-style sword. I also wanted to bring out a bit of the concept of a hero-like character into it. My original reason for getting into drawing was manga, and I particularly liked manga by Shotaro Ishinomori. After all, when you think of hero characters, you think of Ishinomori characters, like Kamen Rider or Cyborg 009, right? And when you look at them, they have quite the impressive scarves. So Merciful’s wings ended up becoming like a scarf. When I first conceived of the idea, the wings were more like that of an angel, but Kouji Itou-san, the animation director and the one in charge of the Digimon anime designs, requested that “it should be a bit more like cloth, so please make it a bit ‘fluffier’.” Once I heard that, I realized, “oh! Wait, I should make it into a scarf!” And by making the wings into a scarf, you still get the feeling of it being an angel, so it gets rather interesting.

–It’s surprising to hear that you designed a Digimon after Ishinomori heroes.
Under his eyes, you can see a so-called “line of tears”. That’s also from characters like Kamen Rider and Kikaider. The tear lines are light blue, giving it the image of tears flowing. The whole thing gives you the image of a white costume. But then when I saw it in the movie, it didn’t feel like a scarf at all (laughs). It was more like “wait, those are wings!” Even though Itou-san told me to make it “like cloth” (laughs).

–The part about it being like cloth was still in the liner notes, though.
Watanabe: Well, when Itou-san told me that it should be like cloth, and I imagined it being like a scarf, I felt like I’d finally gotten it. “Ah, I’ve finally figured out what Merciful should look like in my head.”

–So did you end up giving it a strong scarf-like feeling in the official illustration you made for use as a base for the three-dimensional figure?
Yes, yes, you can clearly see it’s like a scarf. But that’s what ended up making it very difficult for molding purposes.

–It was something they paid particular attention to for the molding.
Even during the planning stages for molding, I wanted to make it very clear that it had to be “like cloth!” (laughs).

[Note translation: “This part is like cloth”]

–Right (laughs). The official illustrations make it look difficult to make a model out of, but you do get a very strong feeling that it looks three-dimensional.
Watanabe: Actually, I was the last person to draw an official illustration for Merciful Mode. The audience has already seen the movie, and the collaboration illustration for Battle Spirits has been released, and I have a very hard time drawing him. However, I felt that some of the illustrations that were published didn’t really seem to convey the original background points very much, so I’ve drawn them here so you can understand them properly.

–It’s not a three-dimensional drawing, but it has an impressive effect.
Watanabe: I always worry about characters with this kind of volume. If you don’t have the right effect, its presence feels very thin. So I added a lot of “effect” so you can see it in the picture.

–Beyond the part about it being “like cloth”, are there any other aspects you want to see in the 3D figure?
Watanabe: Well, I didn’t really worry too much about what would happen in terms of the 3D conversion process (laughs).

–Thank you very much (laughs).

Digimon Adventure tri.

–Please tell us about Digimon Adventure tri., the series that introduced Merciful Mode.
Watanabe: When Digimon Adventure first broadcast, the main customer base was comprised of children who are now in their twenties. Now that they’re adults, they can buy whatever they want. Nowadays it’s pretty normal for adults to buy things from franchises they liked as a child, like Kamen Rider or Gundam. So it’s nice that they made something for that sort of audience.

–Please tell us about how the project started.
Watanabe: It had been quite some time since the last series, Digimon Xros Wars, so they figured, “let’s do something new to commemorate the 15th anniversary!” I was able to draw for a lot of things between the 15th and 20th anniversaries. It was fun to help out, so I was grateful.

–It was a full-length series, with six parts.
Watanabe: They ran out of budget somewhere in the middle…it must have been hard (laughs). Seems like it really is difficult to make stuff like that, and difficult to change the course of things once you’ve started. Especially six of them. Considering that they managed to make it to the end in spite of those circumstances, we should commend the director, staff, and other involved people for managing to pull it off.

–How was the reaction from the fans?
Watanabe: Naturally, there were all sorts of reactions. Everyone seems to have very strong feelings about it. Well, there are all sorts of ways to get into Digimon. That’s why some people know it from the games, and some know it from just the characters, and some from the card game, and some people are loyalists to the anime, and there are the comics, too. Because the entry gate is so huge, everyone thinks differently, and to be honest, I think it’s impossible to cover all of the audience. That said, I’m doing my best from the character designer’s perspective. And, of course, it’s an anime, so Toei Animation will have their own particular thoughts on the matter.
Right now, the people who are currently working on the Digimon franchise are mainly from the generation who were fans of it back then. So when you think about it, people who like Digimon are getting involved in the industry and making the next generation of Digimon.

–Do you feel like Digimon has changed, or that it’s got a different feel from what it used to have before?
Watanabe: On the contrary, it’s that the addition of new staff has allowed for further developments with the characters, resulting in those changes. There are a lot of things that I wouldn’t come up with, so it actually becomes rather fascinating. So the work starts expanding, or rather, it’s made to expand, and gets to continue on.

The birth of Omegamon

–Please tell us about the birth of Omegamon.
It was the final evolutionary form featured in Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! We already had WarGreymon and MetalGarurumon, so I figured it’d be fine if they were the ones at the forefront. But the director, Mamoru Hosoda-san, wanted to see the Digimon fighting as one instead of separately, and suggested that maybe we could fuse them.

–Were there any points you ended up concerned about in the design?
Watanabe: I ended up lost in thought about it for a long time, about how we could get WarGreymon and MetalGarurumon to fuse, and I just couldn’t come up with a good way. There was an order from Hosoda-san that it should be “generally quite tall and lanky”. On top of that, he said that the characteristics of each Digimon should be on each arm, and the conversation turned to “okay, we’ll have each of their heads on his arms!” But personally, as a character designer, I was thinking, “I feel like he needs hands“…But then Volcano Ota-san, who was in charge of Digimon planning, told me, “don’t worry about it, this character won’t be needing to eat anytime soon.”

–Volcano Ota-san was an employee at Bandai at the time (laughs).
Watanabe: “He doesn’t even have a bowl to eat from, so it’s fine!”, he said (laughs). Well, it definitely is a character made only to fight, and so with that I had a breakthrough, and he ended up settling into the form he’s in now.

–As for Director Hosoda, he’s currently finding fame as the director of Mirai these days.
He is. Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! is also considered to be one of his directorial masterpieces (laughs). Also, Ryouma Takeuchi-san of Kamen Rider Drive named that movie as “my favorite movie from Director Hosoda”.

Our War Game! really is quite the masterpiece. Well, then, please give a final message to fans who are looking forward to
“Merciful Mode”
being released as a figure.
Ah, yes, I really am looking forward to this after all. I was very, very impressed by the prototype. Also, I think “everyone should make their own (weapon) effects and add them on” (laughs). I’m looking forward to seeing how people mod it on social media.

–Thank you very much.

Kenji Watanabe
Representative of WOW FACTORY. Chief designer of the toy planning company Wiz, and creator of the Digimon and Tamagotchi series. He is involved in a large variety of things, as an illustrator, project planner, and producer.

  1. Watanabe refers to Merciful Mode as being named after a kaishakunin, effectively a designated helper who assists someone in committing honorable suicide (seppuku) by beheading them at the greatest point of agony. []

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