Japanese design, like Japanese culture, can be bewildering to outsiders. But Japan’s design culture has influenced designers all over the world. Digit speaks to Western creatives who know that great Japanese design is more than just Godzilla in pink.

Japanese design influences are all over the place – in movies, advertising, video games, furniture, fashion, and even in food. Many Japanese designers in the digital space are creating for a home market, and the stylized Japanese design we see in the UK is often a Westernised version. In the process of adaptation, subtle nuances can be lost, and cultural references mixed up. An appreciation of the design movements and ideas to come out of Japan are key to understanding this complex creative culture.

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<b>From Manga to movies</b><BR>Before investigating the influence Japan has had on Western design, it’s worth examining some of the more influential Japanese design forms, although plotting the whole evolution of Japanese design would obviously be impossible. According to Lewis Blackwell, senior vice president for creative direction at Getty Images, image collage and montage has been a powerful player in Japanese graphics, producing its own unique Japanese forms. Typography has formed its own path, with a mixture of different Japanese and Western scripts. 
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“The graphic expression comes out of a very different sensibility in Japanese photography and colour preferences,” says Blackwell. “Some of this is driven by deep cultural symbolism and some is just different craft emphasis. If you looked at the pre-digital work of the hugely respected graphic artist and image-maker Tadanori Yokoo, you would see examples of this. Just look at all those great Japanese poster designers of the 70s and 80s and you see the different sensibility which digital exploration has inherited. In photography, you might say that Hiroshi Sugimoto’s art photography stands out as most influential and expressive of particularly Japanese values.”
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There are also some uniquely Japanese design forms – notably the ubiquitous Manga style. “Manga is an interpretation of the Japanese world in a very graphical, manic, and dramatic way,” says Piero Frescobaldi of unit9. Osamu Tezuka is widely credited as the most influential pioneer of Anime, the animated form of the Manga strip. This has its own heroes, but many started like Tezuka, illustrating Manga strips. Tezuka’s Astroboy, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Steamboy, Ghost in the Shell by Mamoru Oshii and anything by Hayao Miyazaki are all influential classics of the genre.
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“Animation and comic enthusiasts, mainly young adult males, used to be regarded as sad geeks, known as otaku,” says Kanako Damerum of Manga Media. “However, in the last ten years or so, the Anime style of illustration has gained in popularity, probably due to the first generation of Anime enthusiasts who are now our top media creators.”
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The last 30 years have seen video games emerge as another successful artform to come out of Japan. “Game designs have always influenced me, in their structure, look, and animations, and I’ve always been fascinated by the creativity and labour put into some of those games,” says Ben Hibon, formerly of unit9 and now a commercials and video director for Blink Productions.
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“The video games industry has had a lot of creative freedom since its creation, because of its very particular audience. It has allowed an amazingly diverse array of motion graphics, character designs and logo-types to be created, covering pretty much every single area that today’s graphic design and Web design is using.” 
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An obvious influence in recent times has been in movies, such as The Matrix trilogy and Kill Bill. “Anime and Manga are very exaggerated, in emotion and action, which is exactly what we have started doing now,” says Frescobaldi, whose background is in film production.
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“The Matrix wasn’t the beginning but it was one of the first signs of the West starting to be a little more graphical in their depiction of the action, in a way that animation in Japan has always done – freezing time, inventing graphic representations of emotions and expression. When there is something dangerous in Anime, the sky gets dark – it’s not just the character and his acting. The whole environment around him changes to portray that sense of danger. That often occurs in Japanese movies, too. That’s why if you were watching a Japanese movie 10 or 15 years ago, Westerners often found them slightly fake and overacted, but it’s something we in the West really like now. Now we also have this very static graphical way, with everything overdone. No one just jumps any more. Now they fly in the air, but in a way that’s still real. Japan had that sense of distorted reality much earlier. Now we’re relating to each other a lot more.”
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The relationship has been built up slowly but it has been accelerated in recent years by video games and the Web. “The Internet has made Japan as much a neighbour as France or Germany,” says Jason Arber, creative director of Now Wash Your Hands. “It sounds a cliché, but Japanese culture is only a mouse-click away. On the news portal site I run (www.pixelsurgeon.com) a lot of our news is about Japanese artists, artists that we’d never even have heard about if it wasn’t for the Internet.”
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