Friday, June 6, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 12...

Japan has a signature style of comic book known as manga and animation known as anime. Stylistically they are very different forms of cartooning compared to those of the West. The exaggerated proportions of the characters, the lanky features and oversize eyes are influenced by the work of Osamu Tezuka, considered the godfather of manga. Japan, unlike the US, has comics and cartoons created for different ages and different audiences. There are titles for kids, adults and families. These stories deal with all sorts of topics. From pro golfers and mobsters to alien invaders and medieval horrors just about every genre has had a manga or anime designed to fill the niche. Manga and anime based on cars and racing are not new. Street racers, pro classes and even sci-fi racers have had their own title over the years. There is a particular form of car cartooning however that is unique to Japan.

In the late '70s there was a certain style of art featuring cars that came into its own. At first it was featured on packaging art by Takara for the Choro-Q toy line. The toy company made small pull-back cars that were very distinct. The designers created caricatures of each licensed vehicle, featuring a much shorter frame and stance that made them look very "cartoony." The packaging art for Choro-Q was even more distinct. The cartoon cars had very strong angles applied to them and often featured bold paint jobs and bulbous tires. The cars never seemed to be standing still but perpetually locked into a burnout or sideways drift. Choro-Q was actually a play on words, choro-choro means dash around and Q was an abbreviation for "cute." The Choro-Q cars could certainly be considered cute dashers.

This style of caricatured ride began appearing on other products not produced by Takara. The entertainer Takayuki Haga aka George Tokoro is also a car fanatic. He is the editor of Daytona Magazine and runs his own auto shop and store. Think of him as a sort of Jay Leno / Top Gear personality, somebody that is an authority but also a huge fan of car culture. Anyhow Mr. Tokoro had his own series of models released on his favorite cars. The art on his boxes and even actual kits were very similar to what had appeared on Takara toys years prior. The only major difference was that Mr. Tokoro had a cartoon version of himself flashing the peace sign as a sticker on each car. George had purposefully had his model boxes designed by the same artist that created the stylized art for Takara many years prior. For Choro-Q the cars and not the drivers were the characters. They had their own personalities and in the Choro-Q universe were sentient creatures. They were like the Cars from the Pixar film except they didn't have eyes on the windshield.

Yasuhiro Nakamura was a little known illustrator that did not sign his work. Like many artists the company he worked for owned the rights to and likenesses of his particular form of cartooning. They prohibited him and any artists that came along later from signing their work. The work that Mr. Nakamura created nonetheless influenced several generations of Japanese artists and car fans the world over. The profiles on his cars, the various effects that he employed like speed lines, smoke clouds and sparks became as distinct as the work of Dave Deal, Ed Newton and Ed Roth. It was not long before other companies began poaching his style, if not outright hiring the illustrator for their own projects.

Mr. Nakamura went into game design and had a hand in developing Mario Party-e and Electroplankton for Nintendo. Most fans of his however recognize him best for the work on the Choro-Q game series. In particular Choro-Q HG 2, known as Road Trip Everywhere outside of Japan. The Choro-Q titles were social type games, like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon. They had countless missions to accomplish, upgrades to unlock and races to complete outside of the main story. The games were not always happy-go-lucky experiences either. Sometimes they were bittersweet but the harshness of life was tempered by the timeless art of Mr. Nakamura.

The Choro-Q line eventually got a sister franchise thanks to advances in technology. In 2006 Tomy released the Bit Charg-G remote control racers that were not much larger than the Choro-Q cars. Tomica and Tomy had actually merged to become one of the bigger Japanese toy companies. Between the two companies there is a license for just about ever car, boat, plane, submarine, train, monorail and subway car that has ever existed. Best of all these were done in the Nakamura style as well! There was no doubt that the stylized vehicles were just as influential to Asians as the toys and model kits from Ed Roth and friends were in the West.

The little cars and the games found their way overseas and helped build the brand and style of art. It was not long before other artists and designers were incorporating the work from Japan and the US when making up their own car caricatures. The next blog looks at how current artists are combining Eastern and Western cartooning aesthetics.

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