T/N: Forgot to mention this earlier, but in case you’re not familiar with it, the address “sensei” is used for mangaka/illustrators to show respect.
Special Interview: Obata Takeshi
Caption: The artist behind Death Note’s powerful visual imagery, Obata Takeshi-sensei! Creating distinctive characters, imparting the series with a rich, Gothic tone...we get the hidden intent behind the illustrations, and find out where the designs get their roots!
How to Design: The Making
Q: How did you get involved with Death Note?
A: Right around the time when Hikaru no go was finishing up, the editors approached me with the initial, one-shot version of the [Death Note] pilot. I’ve always liked Reapers, grotesque creatures; dark things like that, but until then I hadn’t had much of a chance to draw them. Death Note gave me that opportunity, and it’s been a lot of fun.
Illustration: Ryuuk and Light, lookin’ creepy together.
Caption: Ohba Tsugumi’s arresting development, and Obata Takeshi’s powerful visuals. Their powers combined make Death Note so appealing!
Q: Ohba-sensei does most of the panel division for you, correct?
A: Yes. Though on very rare occasions, I’ve made slight changes to the layout. Also, I spend time thinking about the camera angle for each scene, things like that. This work has a lot of dialogue in it, so I try to make it as easy to read as possible.
Illustration: L running through an explanation (while chewing on his thumb, as usual).
Caption: Even in very casual scenes, the artist uses involved character expressions and camera work to try and make the story easier to follow.
Q: What do you find difficult about illustrating the scripts?
A: This story is set in the real-world, but there are fictional elements like the Death Note and the Reapers…I’d say keeping a balance between those two is what I have to be most careful of. I basically do realistic illustrations, but it’s also necessary to insert ridiculous elements here and there to water that down. Particularly for the character’s expressions – I try to make them expressive, though I think if you take that too far it gets over-the-top.
However, I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I can point out as “difficult”. The author really gives me a lot of artistic freedom, and I can’t express my gratitude enough.
Q: As the story continues publication, has anything changed about the way you draw for it?
A: In a weekly publication, speed is a must, so I naturally end up finding ways to make it easier on myself, like leaving out unnecessary lines.
Speaking of which, during the Yotsuba arc, when Light lost his memory of the Note, the editors asked me if “I could go back to drawing Light the way he looked in chapter 1, since he’s a clean slate”. I remember thinking that was kind of a tall order, and ended up pretty rushed. I had to ditch the creepy, threatening Light I’d been using up until that point, and completely reset him.
Q: Death Note certainly stands out compared to your previous works. Did you intentionally try to change your art style for it?
A: I didn’t go in with the intention of say, making this as different as possible, no. I think it just turned out differently due to the way I go about illustrating.
When I’m drawing a story, I decide at the very beginning “this piece should have THIS sort of feel to it”, and then design the imagery along those lines. For something like Death Note, you’re looking at gothic things like crosses and skeletons. As a result, the cherry blossoms and Heian era imagery [Hikaru no Go] all turned to skeletons and gods of death, so that probably gives the impression that I’ve changed art styles.
Illustration: Ryuuk, talking about the problem of eternal ennui.
Caption: The Reapers look dark and brooding on the outside, but they actually say surprisingly amusing things. These lines and visual gags serve to underscore their characterization!
How to Design: People
Q: For the character designs, does Ohba-sensei give you any specifics or suggestions ahead of time?
A: Basically I don’t get anything at all from her; she lets me decide all on my own. I read the script, and sort of do the designs thinking “well, this character has these lines, maybe he should look like this?” Which is to say, Light and the other humans were fairly routine to come up with, but the Reapers gave me trouble.
Q: So you have your own idea of what each character is like, too.
A: ...well, you’d like to think so, but each time I think I’ve got the characters pinned down, Ohba-sensei turns everything on its ear with her surprising plot twists. Honestly, the characters are all just impossible to predict! Light lost his memory, turned into a totally different person, things like that…
So, contrary to what you’d expect, Ryuuk is really the easiest character to understand. And Rem and Jerasu were both just regular good guys. Actually, it might be easier to empathize with the Reapers, instead of the humans (laugh).
Q: Regarding Light and L, what kind of character designs did you consider for them?
A: Light is supposed to be “a brilliant, outstanding student”, though “he doesn’t entirely devote himself to his studies”, so I was able to settle on his current design without too much trouble.
As for L, I wanted to draw him as an oddball to contrast with Light, so I asked Ohba-sensei “do you mind if I don’t make him good-looking?” When I suggested that, I found out that she’d apparently been thinking the same, so L debuted as an extremely unorthodox character. When he showed up, you’ll notice his eyes were very vacant, very dead. I actually found that rather appealing, so I added dark circles beneath them for emphasis, and L just got progressively stranger.
Illustration: Sayu asking Light to help her with her homework.
Caption: The main characters’ designs were all built based on hints gleaned from Ohba-sensei’s scripts. Same for sub-characters, like Sayu.
Q: You’d set them up to physically contrast each other – is this because you expected them to eventually cross paths?
A: No, at that point they hadn’t met each other in the story, so it never even crossed my mind. I was simply searching for ways to make the manga more interesting.
However, when L had just debuted, I did worry that since he was so strange-looking, his cover would be blown if he ever did run into Light…but then he came forward and told Light who he was, anyways. So that wasn’t an issue.
Then I got a rather tough request from the editors – “make L look cool from different angles”. So even though he’s standing there scratching his leg in that first panel, I had to try and add in some “cool” expressions. When he first meets Light, his intense expression is because I’d spent some time thinking that might turn out well.
Q: What kind of image did you have for Misa?
A: Ohba-sensei didn’t have any particular orders for me, but we put our heads together and agreed on Goth Lolita as her style. That fashion looked like it would harmonize well with the gothic air of the Reapers. It’s possibly exactly the image we were supposed to come up with.
Illustration: Misa’s debut.
Caption: Even from the back, Misa’s Goth Lolita accessories leave an impression in her very first appearance.
Q: What kind of feel did you use for the minor character designs?
A: Well, if you take Matsuda as an example...I didn’t particularly think very hard for that one, I just drew him as a “regular young policeman”. Since the subcharacters are just there to help set the stage for the action, I didn’t think there was any reason to make them unusually marked in appearance.
Q: What kind of image did you have for Misora Naomi?
A: Well, I knew that she was destined to be killed by Kira from the very beginning. Thus, I had the intense impression of a really unfortunate woman. The sort of thing you get in a folk song, with the girl alone in the middle of the falling snow, saying “he died, and left me behind”. At the very least, I wanted to impart the snow scene with a feeling of life’s fragility. Since I’d never drawn a character anything like her before, Misora Naomi just sucked me in – I fell head over heels for her.
Insert: a short column detailing the artist’s favorite parts of the story.
Death Column: Obata-sensei’s Picks
1. Favorite Character
Well, I basically like all the characters, but I’m especially partial to L. I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for ages, and I like that kind of detective. The stoic investigator relentlessly plows forward to reach his goal, using methods that may seem bizarre to regular people...I like that a lot. In addition, L is a lot of fun for me to draw. He’s always eating something different. And then the things he’s munching on show up in the script – like if it’s flan, then “flan” is worked into the dialogue. These little running jokes are a lot of fun for me as the artist, too. When she came up with “Raw ham and melon” at one point, I even started worrying that we should go into a “fruit” series (laugh)
2. Favorite Scene
The bus jacking scene, where the bus jacker is shooting at Ryuuk. More so than “favorite”, you could say it’s exactly what I wanted to draw. At least, I really wanted to draw a scene with shooting in it. Also, I’m fond of the scene where Raye Penbar falls to Kira. It was fairly involved, so I had to make some minor changes to the script. In order to draw out the tension, I took a chance and switched from a scene in which he just collapses to the longer, building climax. I also snatched the reins to make sure that we got a good closeup of Light when he says “Goodbye, Raye Penbar”.
3. Most difficult situation
I generally get the script with plenty of lead time, so I don’t have that much trouble with deadlines. However, that first press conference with Interpol was killer. Lots of people to draw, and more importantly, I had no idea what an international Interpol meeting was supposed to look like! I just couldn’t picture it.
How to Design: God of Death
Q: Did you have any trouble designing the Reapers?
A: Yes, Ryuuk gave me fits. I mean, you’ve got nothing to go off with fictional things like the Reapers.
To tell the truth, in the beginning, I had Ryuuk drawn as this real cool guy. Attractive twenty-something, dressed up snazzy with black wings...kind of made Light pale in comparison. That’s because the mental image I had of the Reapers was something along the lines of Visual Kei band members.
T/N: “Visual Kei” is a type of music that combines elaborate costumes and visual special effects with music. Most of the emphasis is placed on the look of the performance.
Q: So what caused Ryuuk to end up the way he did?
A: I showed the good-looking Ryuuk to the editors, but the feeling was that the design was somehow lacking. They didn’t think he was actually that cool, for whatever reason.
But when I stopped to think about it, Ryuuk exists to teach Light about the Note, and he’s not really supposed to stand out that much. And I think that if Ryuuk were to become too much of a centerpiece, then the story ceases to be about the Death Note and starts to focus on him instead. So then I made him into an ordinary monster-type character, thinking that he was better off as simply an addendum to the Death Note, and that’s how he got the form he has today. And I think finalizing Ryuuk’s character design helped set the tone for the other Reapers, and the Note, and so on.
At any rate, the designs for the Reapers certainly are a lot of fun. I don’t have any particular set-in-stone rules for their motifs, so each time another Reaper comes into play I get to have fun puzzling out what to do with them.
Illustration: Ryuuk behind Light, looking spastic.
Caption: In comparison to coolly rational Light and L, Ryuuk’s speech is very exaggerated. In short, it’s very 'comical'.
Q: What about Rem’s motif?
A: At first, I’d thought about setting her up to contrast with Ryuuk. Her overall motif would have been something like “The **** Collection”, or “**** Mode” – ideas I’d lifted from fashion designers. And well, she’d have clothes one wouldn’t normally be able to wear, completely unbelievable silhouette suits and such. I also thought about snakes, making her look reminiscent of Medusa.
Q: What was your image for Jerasu?
A: When I read the script, I felt very sorry for the poor guy, so I drew him with lots of patches to make him look more pitiful. I also had his hand shake as he wrote down [Misa’s assailant’s] name. Like he was very aware that “this is it, these are my last words”.
Q: Does the Reaper’s world have any particular motif to it?
A: Not particularly. It’s sort of like a haunted house, sort of like a post-apocalyptic landscape...it’s a world I had locked inside myself, and it’s a place of scrap metal and rust, a world of despair. Trapped in a place like that, all the time – I think Ryuuk and the other Reapers would jump at any chance they get to enter the human world.
However, it’s not like I’ve got the entire place planned out. So every time the Reapers’ world shows up, it looks a little bit different. Sometimes it’s sort of a wasteland, sometimes it looks like a cavern filled with bones... I’d love to get the chance to sit down and map it out, but somehow I doubt the plot is going to take us there very often (laugh).
Illustration: some of the other Reapers.
Caption: The Reapers, still shrouded with mystery, and the strange world they live in. The day we learn the answers to their secrets…might come, eventually?
How to Design: New Characters
Q: Tell us about Mero and Nia.
A: These two designs were a little hard to come up with, at first. Ohba-sensei’s request was that they look “like a piece of L has been left behind in them”, and I wanted that too - I thought somehow it wouldn’t be right if they weren’t a little strange. And I really wanted to keep those dead eyes of his around in some form, too.
Q: At the end of the first arc you’ve drawn them as two very contrasting characters. Will that have any bearing on future plot development?
A: That’s…exactly what you’re supposed to think, I think (laugh). Nia is basically a pretty cool-looking guy on the outside, but it seems like he’ll actually conduct himself much like L did. Maybe even some of the same crazy gestures. Mero, on the other hand, has an air of someone slightly twisted. Like you never know what he’s going to do next (maybe). Also, Nia enjoys staying indoors, while Mero likes being outdoors, it seems. I don’t really know, though...they might both actually prefer being inside. I don’t know yet.
But I finished both of them together as a set, and although they aren’t particularly laid out as such, I still feel a bit like they’re twins, and I’ll probably draw them that way.
Sketches of Mero and Nia (same as the ones we saw last time).
Caption: The new characters who will control the future of “Death Note”. What kind of characters will they be written as? Look forward to seeing them in Part 2!
Q: That would be a truly startling twist, wouldn’t it? At any rate, we’re all certainly looking forward to the second part, with the new characters and visuals!
A: Thank you. I know it’s a hard manga to read, but I’ll keep trying my very best, so pease, look forward to it!
Previous interview can be found here and here.