Which dark haired character am I looking at, anyway?

I love drama-ful shoujo manga. I’d say that my collection sits at about 60% shoujo in volume numbers (though it’s a little skewed thanks to longstanding series like Naruto, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and One Piece).

But if there’s one gripe I have with the genre in general is that it’s difficult to come up with unique character designs that fit within a ‘semi-realistic’ setting. Particularly with haircuts. Shounen doesn’t really have that problem: just look at all the hairdos they have in Dragonball, Naruto and MAR. When you stick to more realistic settings, it becomes harder to distinguish characters, straight up. Realistic clothes mean that it’s difficult to differentiate, and realistic hairstyles means resorting to other defining features (which can be difficult sometimes, given the prominence of a haircut on a visual level).

One of the biggest perps of unoriginal character designs is Tanemura Arina. Now, I absolutely love her art and all the detail that she puts into her work … but all of her characters look the same. If you put Full Moon (the character), Kaitou Jeanne, and Sakura (Sakurahime) standing next to each other on a single panel, I wouldn’t be able to really tell them apart.

I’m exaggerating a little, but I am not exaggerating when it comes to The Gentlemen’s Alliance: Cross. Half of the time I honestly could not tell if I was looking at Haine or Maora without flipping back a few pages or digging really deep into the context of the conversation. They all just look like clones of each other, which is jarring.

I’m kind of getting the same vibe from Skip Beat, which I just started. It’s not really the same; Kyoko is an actress, so she goes through a lot of wardrobe and hairstyle changes. The problem is that she doesn’t really have any other defining feature that lets me know I’m looking at her. So if she’s sharing a panel with another female that happens to have the same haircolor as her (which is not uncommon in a black and white color scheme), I get really lost as to who is thinking or speaking. I understand that consistency is not possible when trying to portray a real character that actually has more than one pair of clothes, but at least give us some other defining feature.

Even sisters Yui and Ui look identical in K-ON, but only if you take away their respective hairclip and ponytail (as was shown when Ui tried to pose as Yui for a performance). I’ll jump back to The Gentlemen’s Alliance: Cross again to talk about the two twins of the story who were supposed to be identical but had different color hair in the manga. If you read one of the side panels (and you should be reading those, you know), Tanemura explains that they actually are identical, but she needed some mechanism to allow the reader to distinguish between the two.

So … why not something like a hairclip or ponytail? At least they could still have the ‘same looks’ without ‘looking the same.’

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2 thoughts on “Which dark haired character am I looking at, anyway?

  1. As a shojo fan, I’ve definitely heard people complain about shojo art and I’ve always been a bit bothered by it. Shonen manga authors tend to have more art assistants helping them, so it makes sense that there’s time for more complex, differentiated character designs. As for shojo art, Arina Tanemura is the worst offender for similar looking characters; it’s especially bothersome when one of her characters is stated to be ‘fat’ or more attractive than the others yet all the characters look exactly the same. I never really got why people love Tanemura’s art so much – CLAMP does frilly artwork much better, in my opinion. One shojo mangaka I really respect in terms of art is Ai Yazawa because her character designs are realistic without all seeming the same, and her art is really detailed.

    • I’m not sure about the art assistant stuff. I assume that assistants don’t actually provide character designs; that one’s on the mangaka. Considering how detailed Tanemura’s art is, I really doubt that it’s something like time constraints; she just seems like she has trouble finding original or distinguishable designs. Once she’s got the design out of the way, all the assistants need to do is emulate it anyway, right?

      I love Tanemura’s art just for the sheer level of detail. I’m a huge fan of CLAMP but I like them for other reasons — CLAMP’s artstyle is something I love for their extremely rigid lines and use of negative space. That negative space use is really impressive to me, for whatever reason. It just makes everything look so clean.

      I’m not very familiar with Yazawa’s work, other than Nana, which I think is great. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the character designs in Nana from a personal standpoint (I favor your typical moe-moe, big-eyed deal over other styles), but I can certainly appreciate the variance, the wardrobe designs and level of detail that’s been put into it. Plus I’m a total sucker for series that place an emphasis on music.

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