Did you think that the characters of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress looked particularly beautiful? This was largely do to the hard work of anime’s “chief make-up animator.”

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress made a splash earlier this year as a steampunk, samurai, zombie-action extravaganza. One of the things that stood out for this series is the visual style–in particular, the visual representation of the characters. Renowned illustrator Haruhiko Mikimoto (Macross) is credited with the original character designs; however, bringing the character designs to life was no easy task.

You see, the challenge in Kabaneri was not just how to make the characters look like Mikimoto designs, but rather, a step beyond: how to make them look like beautiful Mikimoto works of art. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is, in a way, an experiment to test whether such illustrations can work in animation. This is where the “chief make-up animator” Sachiko Matsumoto comes in.

In an interview with Matsumoto in Animate Times, she quotes Director Araki as saying that he wanted to reproduce the detail of Mikimoto’s illustrations.

In a different interview, this time with Sankei News, she explains how she herself wanted to recreate Mikimoto’s illustrations through the medium of animation. She describes his art as “having a delicate texture, even in every strand of hair. But that cannot be reproduced properly by using the regular coloring techniques. That is why in Kabaneri, we are putting make-up on by hand into each image.”

Many stages of layering are involved in this process–the behind-the-scenes guides that come with the Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress Blu-ray sets describe eight separate levels of “make-up” layering that are done to each individual frame. It walks you through a complex process of adding the color to a keyframe, giving the linework a more weighted texture, smoothing some shadow divisions, and using digital brushes to add more tones and highlights to hair and other aspects of the character, among many other steps.

The techniques themselves are not a wholly new thing, really. These sorts of handcrafted additions to texture and extra layered detail to certain elements are usually known as tokkō (short for tokushu-kōka; literally, “special effects”). They are often seen in tome-e, that is, cases where the cel is held on camera for a moment, with no frame variations, thus no actual motion. For example, on a close-up of a mecha, you may see dirt or paint-chips that have been added. In the case of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Souma, the staff made sure to pay particular attention to the food of the title and make it look as appetizing as possible, through the use of these tokkō techniques.

The way they are used in Kabaneri, however, is unique: according to Matsumoto, “it’s the first time such effects have been put onto a moving character,” (as opposed to the tome-e examples).

Matsumoto describes how the process is not applied to every instance of character motion, but rather, to certain key actions, mainly closeups. She explains that there are on average, around ten shots in each episode which utilize the technique. In particular, female characters such as Mumei and Ayame are “made up” to look more beautiful or cute, while Ikoma has some detail added to him is meant to give an especially strong appearance, in instances where he is emboldened to fight and such scenes. Overall, the effect is one that forms a delicate balance between a slightly rough, strong, heroic image for the men, and beauty and purity for the women. Thus, an extra visual element is added to the usually plain, flat layering of color and detail in cel animation. As a result, we have what can be described as moving illustrations.

“Animation make-up artist” may be a strange title to see today, but remember that at one point, “mechanic design,” “character design” and such were also somewhat new concepts back in the day.

If you are in Japan, the Mikimoto print exhibition is currently making a national tour through major cities, so check it out.

You can buy the Blu-rays sets with bonus content at Amazon Japan.

The series itself is also streaming on Amazon Prime.

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