Ken Sugimori, art director and character designer for the Pokémon franchise, reveals the link between pocket monsters and wabi-sabi.

Some phrases and concepts don’t translate well out of Japanese, and one of these is the aethestic concept of wabi-sabi, sometimes translated as the beauty of imperfection, where a thing’s flaws enhance its beauty rather than detract from it. It’s in the full moon, slightly covered by clouds, the transience of autumnal leaves, and the single flower in a simple vase. It’s also in… Luxray?

According to an interview with Ken Sugimori, the character designer for the Pokémon franchise, the eponymous Pocket Monsters were given design flaws deliberately to amplify their overall look and win them fans.

Twitter user @mihori_t posted an excerpt of an interview with the famed art director, one of the main people behind the evolution of the iconic characters. In the interview, Sugimori explains the importance of balance in creating the monsters, where overly serious monsters were given some element to take the edge off, or where characters considered too cute where given intentional imperfections.

While the person questioning Sugimori finds it hard to believe that there could be anything wrong with designs like Lucario (who, while undoubtedly cool, is not someone you’d want a hug from) or Luxray, Sugimori explains that Luxray would look even better with a smaller head, and slightly more pointed eyes, but the decision not to make those changes was a deliberate ploy to stop him from being too perfect. With slightly off proportions, they figured, Luxray would make for a more memorable character.

▼ If you’re trying to imagine what Luxray would look like with those changes, wonder no more.

Sugimori reasons that players are unlikely to feel a connection to, or be moved by, a character that is overly perfect. Each character should have at least one feature that resonates with players if they are to be remembered and loved as the franchise goes on. He gives another example with Oshawott, with its distinctive freckled cheeks. Each cheek features three of the freckle-like dots, but take those aware, says Sugimori, and Oshawott becomes cuter but also more forgettable.

▼ The lovable sea otter on the left, and something instantly forgettable next to it.

As one of those tasked with seeing the Pocket Monsters off into the world, there to fend for themselves, competing with each other for fame, glory and the affection of fans, Sugimori may well be onto something. The enduring popularity of the franchise is in large part a result of the variety and visual spectacle, an aesthetic that appeals to adults and children alike. The common features ensure characters that are recognisably Pokémon, even when they feature in awesome mash-ups, while still retaining their individuality. Consciously or unconsciously, perhaps Sugimori and other designers embracing of imperfections and flaws in their designs is a result of a culture steeped in the aesthetic values of wabi-sabi.

Source: Twitter/@mihori_t via Hachima Kiko
Featured image: Twitter/@kazuki_mikan