Today we’re meeting with all of the graphic designers, who can be considered the parents of Pokemon. To start, please tell us how you are involved with the Pocket Monsters series.
Sugimori: I’m in charge as the 2D art director. The GM of design. I supervise the dot art (sprite graphics displayed on the game screen). I’ve been involved with the Pocket Monsters series since its inception, so I also supervised the design of the original human and Pokemon characters. This time I was slightly less involved, but I did work on the hero and Pokemon designs.
Oumura: I’m in charge of 2D graphics. I started with Pocket Monsters Diamond and Pearl, and this time I worked on the designs of the human characters and Pokemon such as Mijumaru.
Sugimori: Ibe and Tagami came on board at Game Freak when we were working on Pocket Monsters Platinum. This is the first time they’ve made a game from scratch.
Ibe: Right. The Pokemon I was in charge of designing was Victini. Aside from that, I designed about 10 other Pokemon.
Tagami: I designed Tsutaaja. After that, the Little Pigeon Pokemon Mamepato, and a Bug-type Pokemon called Kurumiru, for example. I worked on about 10 Pokemon.
Between the 4 of you are everything from veterans to newcomers, but how many designers worked on Pocket Monsters Black and White in total?
Sugimori: There were 17 people total. Each person designed about 10 Pokemon. [Note: 17x10 = 170!]
This time all of the Pokemon are new. When did you start designing the Pokemon?
Oumura: Around the Spring of 2008.
Sugimori: We were developing it at the same time as Pocket Monsters Platinum and Pocket Monsters Heart Gold and Soul Silver. In this game, since old Pokemon do not appear, and a new world is the stage, we needed to create an ecosystem purely for the newly-designed Pokemon. Up until now, we designed with the philosophy that, “a mouse-like Pokemon already exists, so let’s make other Pokemon”—but this time they were all new. So, once again we designed a mouse-like Pokemon, a dog-like Pokemon, etc. from scratch.
Then, you started from nothing in the true sense of the word. What kind of Pokemon did you think of?
Sugimori: At first I told the designers, “You can draw freely; draw things you like.” Gradually, the number of Pokemon was decided, and the instructions became more concrete, such as, “We don’t have enough of this Type, can you try to draw some?” By the end they were directly ordered, “Draw this Pokemon!”
Ibe: I like dogs, so I submitted a dog-like Pokemon.
Sugimori: Right. She likes dogs. The Pokemon designs are a collection of the individual designers’ emotional attachments. That’s why I originally said, “Why don’t you draw the things you like?”
Tagami: In my case, it’s bugs. There really is an insect that wads up leaves, called an Otoshibumi. I thought that behavior was fascinating, so I tried to design a Pokemon based on it.
Oumura: I looked at the lineup of Pokemon that everyone had submitted to me, and designed whatever was missing. Piplup from Pocket Monsters Diamond and Pearl was embraced, and this time I was once again designing Water-type Pokemon. Not to suggest that Water-types are my specialty.
Mr. Oumura was Mijumaru, Mr. Tagami was Tsutaaja. You designed the 3 Starter Pokemon.
Sugimori: The 3 Starter Pokemon and the Legendary Pokemon were a lot of trouble.
Tagami: A lot of trouble. I think of Tsutaaja all the time.
Sugimori: Of course, it was determined that the 3 Starters would be Grass, Fire, and Water-type Pokemon. We’ll combine the shared horror of our experiences up until now. The Water-type and dog weren’t cute, the Grass-type and ??? looked scary [note: we'll fix this sentence later]. (laughs). This time, a designer who isn’t here presented the Fire-type as a pig, and Mr. Tagami presented the Grass-type Pokemon as a snake. I decided it was an interesting combination.
Tagami: I was reading a picture book and it said, “There are snakes that look like vines.” I said, “That’s it!” (laughs) It was a hint at an idea.
Sugimori: I told him that snakes are discomforting. “When you see the line entering its stomach, it’s creepy.”
Tagami: But being discomforting is a snake’s most important trait. I was conscious of that with Tsutaaja as well.
Sugimori: Since it was discomforting, if we took that away, it would become a character without any personality.
You combined the elements of the Grass-type and the snake to create a Pokemon.
Sugimori: Next we needed to give it a personality. It will be boring if all 3 Starters have the same personality, so we pick a direction for the personality, such as Naughty or Gentle. This time, the pig Pokemon was Naughty, and it had a reckless feel. Tsutaaja was aristocratic….for example like “The Rose of Versailles”. (laughs)
Tagami: I created an image like something out of an art museum. Like the Hermitage Museum in Russia. (laughs)
Sugimori: This time, the Water-type was the most troublesome.
Oomura: I said, “How about a sea otter for the Water-type?” But if a sea otter were to evolve, what would it become? That’s where I hit a wall. Eventually I said that if a sea otter was to evolve, it would transform into something completely different. [Note: The third rumored evolution of Mijumaru from a few days ago looks completely different than Mijumaru.]
Sugimori: Since we intended for those 3 starter Pokemon to be with the hero throughout the game, we wanted them to have surprising evolutions. We kept adding more twists so the forms of the third-stage Evolutions would have an impact.
Oomura: Also, this time we wanted the 3 starter Pokemon to be split into Japanese, Western, and Chinese imagery. We said Tsutaaja would represent Western imagery, Pokabu Chinese, and Mijumaru Japanese. We discussed it: “Couldn’t a sea otter be a samurai?”
Oomura: I was a little worried, so I went to watch the sea otters at the aquarium. I happened to see the sea lion show, I noticed how strong the sea lions were. I thought, ah, I’ll try combining sea lions and otters together. I came up with the idea of them fighting by using the shells on their stomachs like swords, and Mijumaru and its [next] evolution were completed.
In order to design Pokemon you even visited an aquarium. Did you go out to research often?
Sugimori: At the beginning of development, the entire team went to the zoo. In this case it was the Tama Zoo that we visited. We each went our own way to watch the animals. The mole exhibit was really interesting. Tubes were connected through the ceiling, and the moles ran through them at incredible speeds. I was shocked.
Tagami: Usually I look at picture books and nature programs on television. When I heard about Mr. Oomura’s trip to the aquarium, I also went to the zoo to observe the snakes. But I watched the snakes for about 30 minutes, and they didn’t move at all. (laughs)
Ibe: I also went to zoos and pet shops where I could actually touch the animals. I checked where the joints met and watched how the birds folded their wings. (laughs)
That’s interesting. What ended up being your best reference?
Oomura: Actually observing living animals, of course. As the game’s development grew more hectic we couldn’t go out to research, but we’d come to understand how the animals moved, captured prey, etc., and that made drawing easier.
Tagami: When the development was hectic, I would reference the people walking around town. People’s hairstyles and so on. It was interesting. (laughs)
Sugimori: It’s as they said. Many different things went into the Pokemon. For example, with the Fire-type Pokemon, the pipes from furnaces and ironworks went into the shape of the body and the markings. By tying different images together, new designs were born… [the rest of this interview will be translated and posted later].