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Interview: Last Exile and BEM Artist Range Murata

by Richard Eisenbeis,

We had the had the opportunity to sit down with Range Murata, the character designer behind works such as Last Exile and Blue Submarine No. 6 among many more. For the summer 2019 season, he was given the chance to redesign the characters of the 1968 Yōkai Ningen Bem for its newest incarnation, BEM.

But how exactly does one go about redesigning the characters of a classic anime for the modern age? Basically, a lot of meetings. “I met with the Creative Productions and the creative team during the script meetings and--that's where I got a lot of feedback and ideas from the creators--and that's how we recreated the characters,” Murata explained. “At that time, the concept of what this [new] BEM would be like was already developed.”

The darkness of the world and story presented in BEM strongly influenced the designs as well. “If you put it in [terms of] color, it's very 'grayscale,'” Murata began, “so I tried to convey that in the characters as well.” And this wasn't just in the form of color choices. “One of the things I paid attention to was that since they live in such a dark and grim world, these characters don't have a lot of facial expressions--especially a smiling face. These characters can't really have those types of emotions,” he went on to explain. 

Most of the characters greatly resemble their 1968 counterparts. When I asked what he felt was important to keep from the original designs in the new ones, Murata's answer was simple: “The color patterns--the [basic] design itself, also--but the color patterns were pretty important.”

However, with that in mind, there is one glaring exception: the character of Bela. “The original [Bela] was a scary middle-aged lady but this new one is totally different. She's a teenager now.” Murata continued, “It was actually pretty challenging after I found out they were going to turn Bela into a teenage girl. It was challenging to create this look and character.” 

Of course, if you're looking for a character that shares the original Bela's design and color scheme, the “Mysterious Lady” fits the bill. But while Murata, was quick to point out the similarity, he wasn't willing to say anything beyond that.

While BEM is a traditionally animated show, for the most part, Murata has also had experience designing characters for 2017's ID-0--an anime that is fully 3D animated. Murata had a lot to say about the differences between designing characters for 2D and 3D animation.

“It's very different from the beginning. For 3D, it's really flexible. Once you create a character you can really do lots of things. You can manipulate it and it can depict a lot of details as well. You can translate a very detailed drawing into animation easily,” Murata informed me. “But for 2D you create these characters but then you have to hand it off to animators. [..] Depending on how many people draw your animation--draw your characters--it will look different. You have to try not to put too much detail into the design because it's very hard to replicate and convey every single part of the character into animation. That's the huge difference [between 2D and 3D].

Intrigued, I asked Murata if that meant that 3D animation portrayed the characters in a way closer to his original vision. While Murata agreed, it wasn't quite that simple: “It also depends on the person who's modeling the designs into 3D. [...] It all depends on that artist's sense of interpretation. Small things like the depth of face--the construction of the face. If that person understands that well and has a great sense of imagining the dimensions of the characters I draw, then yes: 3D animation can convey what I create into more realistic animation.”

“In that sense, I think ID-0 really did a great job of recreating my designs in 3D,” Murata added.

With all his praise of 3D animation, I was interested in what he thought the downsides of the animation style were from the point of view of a character designer. “Even though it's a free form of movement that you can create for these characters with the 3D animation, at the same time there are a lot of limitations.” Murata began. “For instance, in ID-0 I designed the spacesuits and helmets as well. When you put [a character with long hair] in 3D, the hair doesn't fit in the helmet. Meaning that the technician would have to go back in each time [something like this happens] and resculpt the characters.” 

“Before we even start on the character designs,” Murata continued, “there are a lot of guidelines or points they will give us saying things like: ‘don't make the hair too long’ or 'you can't have this kind of design on the clothes.' [...] Even take a long coat. When you make it into 3D, for the movement they have to draw in what they call ‘bones’ to make the coat move and flow. So sometimes the producers or directors say 'I don't want to have too much movement in this show,' so you have to consider 'okay, no coats.'” 

But it's not just the staff that lay down these guidelines. Murata himself must always be conscious of how the characters will be interacting with his designs in a 3D anime. “Even pockets!” he exclaimed. “I have to find out if any character will be putting their hands in their pockets. If they do, then I have to create the inside of the pocket--I have to draw that. So there are a lot of pre-design meetings that I've got to have to flesh out all those restrictions and limitations--the requirements I have to follow.” 

“That's probably the most difficult part of working with 3D,” Murata concluded.

Murata is a man of many talents. Apart from being a character designer, he has also done the illustrations in light novels, been a mechanical designer, and even an episode director. So I wondered, what non-character designer job he had enjoyed the most. “I really do like designing mechanical stuff or accessories,” he removed his personally designed sunglasses to show me, “like these glasses and watches and bicycles. I like designing those things.”

As far as expanding his talents into new areas, Murata had this to say: “I mean, I would love to try different types of jobs within animation but I simply just don't have the time. I got a lot of offers lined up that I have to do. Besides character designing, I have a lot of projects for illustrations and so on but if I had the opportunity I would love to.” 

“But I really don't want to direct anime.” He added after a moment. “Because it's really busy. It's a really hard job.”  

In closing, I asked Murata, when his career is over and he is no longer producing new work, what would he most like to be remembered for: what job or artistic work would he want to be his legacy. While I expected to get an answer pointing to a past work, what I got was the exact opposite. 

“I actually have one project that I really want to do,” Murata slyly began, “I think that with this project, I would be able to input all that I have done--including character design and mechanical design and everything. So if this project ever gets finished, I would like to be known for being its creator.”

However, what this project is, Murata wouldn't say. So we'll just have to wait and see what this prolific illustrator and character designer does next.

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