Range Murata ~ Beyond Last Exile

Range Murata ~ re:Writing the Future

Cosplay Lab met with Japanese illustrator Range Murata at Anime Expo 2004. Best known for his amazing work on Blue Sub #6 and most recently Last Exile, Murata sensei shares with us some of his methods for developing characters with a fresh style and a level of detail not seen in other anime productions. Join us as we explore the many facets of his career and where he's headed.


How do you pronounce your name and what does it mean?

Range, pronounced Ren Ji, is a pen name I made up. The character Len in Japanese means lotus and I really like the lotus flower so I wanted to put that in my name somehow.

How did you get involved with character design?

I used to be a simple illustrator doing magazine cover art and one day I was contacted to do character designs for an anime. Back when I was studying product/industrial design in college, I created things like watches and office products. So when I started to do character designs, I used a similar approach. I start by setting up a role for each character, then draw the character to fit that role. In the real world, everyone laughs in their own way, so I try to design my characters so that, just by looking at them, you can tell that they laugh and act differently.

Which of your works is your favorite?

I always say it's my latest work. In terms of animation, Last Exile went beyond just illustration, so it has a dear place in my heart. I continue to evolve my artbooks and doujinshi on a regular basis.

How are you using the computer in your illustration?

When I was originally contacted by Gonzo to do artwork, they requested that I draw however I want and not try to limit myself. I didn't really consider the computer graphic aspect while working on the designs. Some of my designs were very difficult to animate, but the CG artists still managed to work with my designs and I think the results are very well done.

Prior to 2002, I used paper and markers, but when I started work on Last Exile, I had to employ the computer, so I used Photoshop for the bulk of my illustration work.

Blue Sub #6 and Last Exile characters have a distinct quality. How and why do you draw them so detailed?

The departure point for the designs is the critical difference in creating the animation. When regular animators begin their career, they draw the same art over and over for cels to make animation before they can advance to character designs. They decrease the number of lines to make the characters easier to animate. They may draw silhouettes that don't look very good as a still image, but look really good when animated. That is their particular style. I started out as an illustrator and when Gonzo recruited me, they said they didn't care how hard it was to animate, just to do what I wanted and they'd animate it for me. So I really did design what I wanted to.

I always wondered, "Why do anime characters have such big buttons? Why are the creases in their clothes so deep?" Things like that. And when I designed the characters for Last Exile, I tried to have them wear clothes that could exist in real life. With some knowledge of how clothing design works, I tried to draw in the kind of material that would have been used in creating their clothes and try to represent the stitches connecting the fabric. I always try to represent that in my artwork. After I designed the characters, the animators color it and animate it, so some of the three-dimensional aspect of the characters is lost, and that is the departure point.

The Guild in the Last Exile are from the future, so when I was designing their outfits, I added a more structured and artificial element. It goes back to what their role in the world is, so I keep that in mind throughout the entire process.

How did you come up with the uniform designs for Last Exile?

I didn't have any direct visual references to use during the design stage, but knowing that some of the characters aren't the most friendly sort of people, I leaned toward the German military style. In the world of Last Exile, there are 5 major factions. With the Sylvana, they are more modern and utilitarian, but the other factions are more traditional and aristocratic, so that is the first differentiation I made.




Both aesthetic and functionality are important. When I am working on a character design, I work with the director or script writer to create something that reflects what they want. I focus primarily on making the apparel look realistic. Some designs require more function than form, so it depends on the circumstances.





How is the expressive range of clothing and costumes in anime used as an extension of the character's personality and their role in the show?

Although clothing can show a lot about the character, it really only assists in showing some of their personality. Sixty to seventy percent of their personality is shown in their face, their eyes, their hair and their expressions. So I think the clothing designs only assist in developing their personality. For example, with clothes, you can show what kind of colors the character likes, or how tall the character is. If it's a female character, you can show a lot about their personality through making her wear pants or skirts. If she's a tomboy, then you can draw her wearing pants. If she's a calmer type of girl, you can convey this by giving her darker, muted clothing. So I think it is only partially possible to show the personality of a character through the clothing. Some anime shows try to go against this convention by drawing a tomboy girl wearing frilly dresses, but I try to approach it in a more realistic way.


I hear you get inspiration from your antique collection. What are some of your favorites?

Well, there is a lot. I have these 1:43 scale model cars that are precise to every detail and there was only a limited number of them ever made and I really like those. I also have antique cameras and antique electronic equipment like phones and radios from long ago that I really like. With Last Exile we originally set the world far in the future, but then somehow we kept pushing it back further into the past until around the 1910-1920 era. From my antiques, I had a good knowledge of what the world was like at this point in time and what science could do, and the types and strength of materials they used that affects how everything is designed in the world. This led to my designs of the vanships.

Production was going in parallel with the script writing. My background knowledge created the economic standard of that world. That in turn affected the kind of products I designed. I considered whether the people of that world had discovered streamlining in their aerodynamic designs. I also wanted the smallest objects within that world, such as goggles, to reflect their available technology.

What is the funniest thing you remember happening during production of Last Exile?

[ponders] There are so many things strange and good that happened every day. It seems that not a single episode was able to be done on time to make broadcast. Somehow an animator would get sick or someone in their family would die and they would be gone for a week. [shakes head smiling]

How has your popularity in the U.S. and abroad affected your work?

It hasn't really affected my work very much. I don't get to meet the fans very often, so I don't really get a sense of being well known except that I do have a lot of work coming in and it's very nice to be able to feed myself. [smiles]

What does it feel like to see people wearing costumes of your character designs?

Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed and apologetic that some of the designs may be a little "way out" or could have been better designed. It's been many years since I actually sewed anything myself.

You recently started making your fashion designs available for purchase. Is that where you'd like to see your career head?

I don't really want to limit myself to any one thing. Basically I just design what I want to design at the time. Whether it be a character, or clothes, or mecha, or a watch. I don't want to be limited to a single genre. I think of myself as an illustrator and even when I do character designs, I focus the design around a certain aspect like the clothes, or a bike, or a car. As for my own fashion line, someone approached me saying "Hey maybe if we actually make products based on your clothing design, they will be great." That's how it came about.

What is your favorite thing to illustrate and why.

Most of my illustration work is for magazines and the clients tend to request drawings of cute girls. [smiles]

The character designs for the Power Instinct games, did you look to martial arts for influences?

These designs were solicited internally at the company I was with, so there were a number of designers working on the characters. Only a couple were my own. We each had to develop the motions for our characters, but I didn't have any martial arts references.

You have a booth at the next Comic Market in Japan.

Yes and I am planning on releasing new designs, however if I don't start working on them, I will be in peril. [sobs]

How would you feel about working on a U.S. animation project?

I would be interested in that opportunity, but I can't fully comment on my current plans. I've published a couple of artbooks in Japan, and there is an American publishing company working to release it here in the states some time in 2005.

What were some of your early influences and what contributes to your present tastes?

When you live in Japan, you are inundated with manga. Since childhood, I was part of the Shonen Jump generation and enjoyed reading Jojo's Bizarre Adventures. There was a lot of anime on TV, so I tended to watch everything. Some of my favorites include Haiyao Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan, The Adventures of Gumba, and other anime re-runs. If you are a manga artist, typically you would draw with a manga style. Because I like retro references and antiques, I find those things becoming more influential in my current work. I listen to a lot diverse music and I am particularly fond of African music.

What are your comments about the current economic outlook for animators today?

I think it's not a good thing. I'm an illustrator that does contract work with animation houses. Compared to the amount of work that I put into Last Exile, the pay wasn't that terribly high. One thing that I can say about working in the animation industry, it's a very fun line of work. A lot of people are proud of the work they do, and it's the pride that keeps them going.

As a professional artist, what is your view of others using your work for their own web sites, or doujinshi?

In general I see it as a sign of flattery. Some of the work I do is owned by companies like Bandai or Geneon and those people are not as forgiving as I am. As for my doujinshi, I am more lenient on those type of efforts.

How long did it take to compile your Futurhythm artbook?

The Futurhythm artbook lent itself well to my desire to experiment with product packaging and binder style. I wanted to design something that would be bold and interesting. I also tried to work within the parameters of Japanese distribution channels which is not as lenient as it is in America. Typically if you wanted to publish an artbook, you would take 50-100 of your favorite illustrations and hand it to someone and have them publish it. However, there would be no sense of accomplishment if I did that. I want to surprise my audience and entertain them by being creative with the format. The same holds true for my doujinshi. It was very a satisfying project.




What is the difference between Futurhythm and Re:Futurhythm?

Re:Futurhythm is a more discounted version. It is closer to the shape of a traditional book and includes drawings of characters that appeared in the first edition.

Share some of the steps involved in the creation of one of your illustrations.

The way I work, I would start with a rough composition. This is the master planning layout stage. About 60% is involved in this stage. The rest is refinement which is fairly mechanical in nature. It really depends on the type of illustration, but simple designs take 3-4 days and more complex layouts take 1 week.

What kind of emotion would you like your viewers to feel when they look at your work?

My first priority is to come up with something that has a high degree of completion. If I incorporate ten elements into my art and the viewer finds five of them, I would be happy. If they find something unintended on my part, that is also encouraging.

What is the story behind An Egg Story?

An Egg Story was from a manga called FLAT, published with three other artists. It's a story about a girl trying to return an egg to its nature habitat, but as of yet, it remains unfinished.


What is Pinky St?

[surprised] I didn't know people in the states knew about Pinky. The Pinky figures are a series created by Aiyuki Katatani. These are small figures with interchangeable parts, so you can put the hair from one onto another and exchange clothing pieces. When I got an offer to design my own Pinky line, I did the design and supervised the whole process. They should be available in early 2005.

How did the Fa Documenta project come about?

One of my publishers came up with the idea of fabricating some of my designs, and I quickly learned that, although I had always attempted to make my designs realistic, there are still some compromises to be made during manufacturing and that some items would be too costly to produce. It's still an ongoing project, but I try to incorporate elements from things that are important to me in my work.


Murata sensei, your illustrations are very thought provoking and go beyond simple description. Now that we have a little more insight into your thought process, it builds even more anticipation to see you future work. Thank you for making Last Exile your best work to date, with character designs that have subtle, yet unique elements. May success continue to be your friend as we shall continue to be your fans.

Garry aka Prof.