The Korean Digimon fansite DiGiFES (now defunct; not to be confused with the official yearly Japanese DigiFes events) had a section titled “THE INTERVIEW” that contained interviews with staff involved in Digimon production. The third interview, held with Kenji Watanabe, was posted on September 19 and September 26, 2015.
A designer. Along with the character design for the Tamagotchi, he has been responsible for almost all the monster designs in the Digimon series since the Digital Monster Ver. 1. He has continued to take charge of more recent Digimon designs such as Hackmon, Jesmon, and Mastemon. Recently, he has expanded into other areas of activity, such as dolls.
–Hello! Firstly, please introduce yourself to the Korean fans.
Kenji Watanabe (referred to below as W): Hello! I’m Kenji Watanabe, who does the Digital Monster designs.
Thank you for always supporting Digimon!
–Thank you for treating us to this interview!
Thank you so much for drawing an illustration for last year’s DiGiFES offline event1)). Because it wasn’t possible for you to come directly, could you tell us your impressions of what you heard about DiGiFES?
W: Last year, there was a Digimon Adventure 15th anniversary event in Japan, and I was very happy to hear that there would be a fan event in Korea as well.
And when I was talking with CL-san from the DiGiFES committee, I wanted to do something to help, so I contributed with a colored signboard illustration.
Even though I couldn’t go to the event venue, I felt, “it seems like it was a success from what I can see of everyone’s tweets”, so it’s a shame I couldn’t be there.
–The autographed colored signboard illustration was awarded to a fan as a present through a lottery held at the end of the DiGiFES offline event.
Omegamon, Agumon, and Gabumon are in the illustration. Why did you choose those Digimon?
W: Because of the fact that it was also the 15th anniversary of Digimon Adventure, I chose it thinking that I wanted to draw the original core character of the Adventure series.
Omegamon is obligatory.
–The original core character of the Adventure series! They have a continued lasting presence, such as their appearance as main Digimon in the most recent game2.
We will publish Kenji Watanabe-sensei’s DiGiFES illustration at the end of this interview!
The Digimon designer
–We’ll go right ahead into the interview.
First, we’d like to ask about you as the designer for Digimon. Can you tell us how you came to design the first Digimon?
W: I was a designer for WiZ, the original Digital Monster company behind its planning and development, so I was involved with their character designs from the beginning.
I was busy with the Tamagotchi that I had to draw at the same time, so juggling it with Digimon character designs was very difficult.
–Do you remember which was the very first Digimon you designed?
W: The very first one was Tyrannomon, which was depicted in CG on the package for the very first Digital Monster.
–I see! In what circumstances was Tyrannomon created?
W: The request from the staff was for a dinosaur-like monster, so I created him with the feeling of “it’d be interesting if you could raise a dinosaur in a cage”.
–At the time, the Digital Monsters were pixels, we would think you’d have to design them in consideration of the fact they’d be reduced to pixels. Was it actually like that?
W: When I was making the Tamagotchi, I was also making the pixel versions myself, but because I needed more work time for illustrations with the Digimon, the company’s game staff had to make the pixel sprites for me.
In the beginning, the illustration would be drawn first, then made into a pixel sprite later. But starting from around the second release (Digital Monster Ver. 2), I believe I would take the pixel sprite and work imagination around there to make it more like a monster design. Trying to fill in the blanks like “this pixel sprite is actually something like this guy” was fun, so I did it with comparatively more freedom.
–Recently, new Digimon such as Hackmon, Jesmon, and Mastemon have appeared in succession, so how were those Digimon created?
W: Since the number of games for social networking services has increased, there needed to be characters that could be used for them, and because there would only be basic character frames on top of the setting and there would be uncreated characters, I had to give them designs that would complement in that kind of situation.
Hackmon was made with the image in that he was raised by Gankuumon to become a Royal Knight, and grows into Jesmon.
Mastemon was a character made for Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. From the beginning, she was made with the image that she would be a Jogress between Angewomon and LadyDevimon, so I pulled from their character designs. After that, I wondered “is there something out there that’s a fusion between an angel and a demon?” and looked into it, and when I saw Mastema, the angel leader of the demon corps, I thought he was cool, so I named her after him.
–From Tyrannomon to Mastemon, there really are many different Digimon, so is there something specific you pay close attention to when designing them, or something you’re particularly conscious about?
W: In the earlier days, since we would be showing Japanese children the design of a character inspired by that of American comics, I designed them thinking “isn’t it cool?”
In other franchises you’d see things that were only “cute” or “cool”, so with Digimon I tried to infect it with little peculiarities so that they would incite something in children when they saw it. I felt that I wanted to jolt their feelings.
Afterwards, when I heard children from America, the home of American comics, saying “Digimon is cool!”, I was very happy to hear it.
Because the design is of a digital life form, I’m making them a fusion of digital and organic without paying too much mind to it.
–From the design to finalization, could you briefly explain how a Digimon is created?
W: The procedure back when we were making LCD games was that everyone in the staff would throw in their ideas on what kind of character they wanted to put in this time, we’d make an image of it, and if we liked it we’d make an illustration of it.
I drew it feeling like it was the collection of everyone’s ideas coming together as one.
Afterwards, we would look at the resulting character, then several people would split up and make illustrations like one-panel comics along the lines of what sort of nature it would have.
–Are you directly involved in the designs for all the Digimon?
W: I’m the base designer, but there are times when I design it while someone else corrects and draws it.
Occasionally there are characters in which the staff looks over it and decides to just leave it as-is (^^;)
–There are a fair number of Digimon designs based on things like shamans and shrine maidens or cowboys, with a motif of a specific cultural sphere. Do you think you would be able to make one with Korean culture as a motif?
W: I don’t really make them under the motif of specific countries, and I often make character designs from general mythology or an ethnic cultural motif. Well, because these characters are made in Japan, there are a lot of Japanese-like ones.
If we’re to mention Korea, the mark on the Kyubimon evolutionary lineage is the yin and yang symbol3 from Taoism and Tai Chi, arranged in a Digimon-like manner. Taoism (its mark) is also on the Korean national flag, and Taomon is named after it.
Since Korean food culture has been well-established even in Japan, it could be possible to make a character on those lines4, and I wonder what other kinds of interesting characters you could make?
–Beyond just Digimon designs, there are various parts of the setting of considerable depth such as the Royal Knights and the Olympos 12. Were you involved in the development of such settings?
W: I receive the basic outline from the staff, and make the design with that kind of image. Then they go over the name and special attack.
Sometimes it goes right through, and sometimes it completely changes.
–Because you’ve made a lot of Digimon, of course you must have an attachment to all of them, but if you had to pick one Digimon that you really liked, which would it be?
W: I say it every time, but it’s Beelzebumon. I like dark heroes. On that note, I also like BeelStarrmon, or “Beel-ko”5. She’s a girl, among other things (^^;)
–What was the most difficult Digimon for you to design?
W: It might have been the recent Jesmon…By nature drawing mechanical parts isn’t my strong point, so drawing him was difficult. But if they make a figure of him, I want it! I’m sure it’ll be cool!
Fanwork as seen by the designer
–Have you seen fanwork, such as Digimon fanart? What do you think of it?
W: Everyone’s really good at drawing. I couldn’t draw something like that when I was that young~
–Have you also seen fanart from overseas? Is it different from how it’s done in Japan?
W: They use different styles of painting and use of color from Japan. It’s unique, and the atmosphere is wonderful.
There are a lot of Japanese people who draw their own pictures by imitating manga, but overseas there are a lot more people who can make it look exactly like the original design.
The designer’s favorite Digimon things
–Among all the Digimon works, such as the anime, games, and comics, which is your favorite?
W: From the anime series, Digimon Tamers. I had a relative degree of freedom in making the designs for it, and I liked how the story went. Although it did become quite a difficult story around the halfway point (laughs).
I also love the movie Our War Game!. I’ve seen it many times, but it still makes me cry.
–There’s recently been a lot of Digimon goods, such as clothing, stationery, and other goods on top of figures, coming one after another regardless of type. What’s your favorite?
W: It’s making me very happy nowadays to see my own illustrations be commercialized. The leather jacket6 is really cool!
–You really do like Beelzebumon (laughs).
W: I always wear a hat, so I want to try designing a hat (laughs).
Kenji Watanabe as a designer
–From this point on, regardless of its relation to Digimon, we’d like to ask you about your career as a designer. When did you decide that you wanted to become a designer?
W: I liked drawing things ever since childhood and I wanted to be a manga artist, and I even submitted manga to publishers.
After I graduated from high school, I decided that I wanted to learn painting in earnest, so I went to design school, graduated, and ever since I entered WiZ I’ve always been doing toy design and illustrations.
–So, did you have any design work with WiZ before Digimon?
W: I was doing work for Tamagotchi at the same time I was doing Digimon.
Because WiZ is a planning and development company, I often had to draw concept sketches that were meant for presentations.
I’ve done many illustrations for toy packages and manuals.
I’ve also gotten work on my own as a character designer for magazines and games, and I often do my own painting.
–We’ve heard that you’re working on design for a brand other than Digimon. For “fans who want to see more of Kenji Watanabe’s work”, please give a brief introduction of your activities other than Digimon.
W: Recently, my business has been on that of two extremes: Digimon, which is a product on mass media, and my individual hobby with dolls.
There are also several doll makers in Korea, but the “Visual Dolls” I’m making are nice ones that are light, strong, and easy to handle!
–It’s been a long interview, but it’s coming to an end. Please tell us about your future activities.
W: In June of this year, independently from WiZ, the company I’ve served for 30 years, I founded WOW FACTORY as a place where I can exhibit and sell the previously-mentioned Visual Dolls.
In the future, I’d also like to put up things I’ve made and things I’ve drawn in an art gallery.
Of course, I will continue with Digimon as I have before, so look forward to that.
–Finally, please say some words for the Korean fans.
W: I’ve heard that even when Digimon products weren’t coming out in Japan, Korea still had mobile games that it was playing. I’m very grateful.
And it’s a country I’m very indebted to in regards to my original work, Legendz: Tale of the Dragon Kings, and a work I was involved in, Origami Warriors.
From now on, I’ll be working very hard on various things, so I leave it to you to support Digimon.
And if you ever come to Japan, please come to play in WOW FACTORY~!…Oh, but I can’t go to Korea (^^;;
–We’re at the end of our long interview, so thank you very much!
W: Thank you very much. I derailed the subject quite often, so…please forgive me.
- “Last year’s DiGiFES offline event” = Refers to a Korean event called “DiGiFES 2014″, which included an offline event on December 28 at the Boramae Youth Center in Seoul. The event included video screenings, a merchandise and Kenji Watanabe art exhibition, TCG and creative workshops, a talk with two voice actors from Digimon Adventure and Digimon Adventure 02 (titled Power Digimon in Korea)’s Korean dub, a talk with Genki Yoshimura and the revelation of the contents of the drama CD in the Digimon Adventure Blu-Ray BOX, and a concert from Ayumi Miyazaki.
- The “most recent game” at the time of this interview’s writing refers to either Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth (the most recent game released at the time) or Digimon World -next 0rder- (the most recently-announced game at the time).
- Reference: yin and yang, and its use on the Korean national flag.
- There is indeed a very, very famous character in Japan named after a Korean dish.
- The “-ko” suffix is a common ending for girls’ names, hence BeelStarrmon’s nickname.
- “The leather jacket” = Refers to the Beelzebumon jacket from 2014.