Yoshihiko Umakoshi, previously known mainly as the “Ojamajo Doremi guy”, has become quite a presence in anime: in the last few years he’s provided designs in his unique, dynamic style for quite a couple major anime with diverse genres and audiences. The dark, brooding Casshern Sins, the cute youngster-educational show Marie and Gally and our beloved HeartCatch PreCure all bear his signature style, identifiable by its thick lines and dramatic silhouettes that make characters suitable for jerky, “Kanada-style” animation.
However, many of Umakoshi’s works wear his influence so subtly that one might not even notice it. Compare the bouncy but dainty heroines of HeartCatch PreCure to the stocky kickboxing leading lady of Air Master (video) and you might not find any similarity. Indeed, through the 90s and early 00s Umakoshi seemed to be the go-to guy for heavyweight or grotesque designs for male-heavy series like those of Grappler Baki, Berserk or Zipang! — what caused his shift to cuter, more energetic characters? Probably a little magical girl franchise that picked up momentum in the earliest years of the 00s, Ojamajo Doremi.
In Ojamajo Doremi, Umakoshi steered away from his blockier designs and hewed more towards the style of his work for Gokinjo Monogatari, with cleaner colors and stubbier limbs. The remarkability of Doremi's designs does not come through in much of the series' promotional art, which too often features the girls clustered together with wide-open smiles that could be copied and pasted from each other. In animation, however, each character has, in spite of her simple features, a unique way of holding and moving her face and body. For the initial trio, for instance, Doremi's expressions frequently point upward, while Aiko's are directed horizontally and Hazuki's move downward. These subtle aspects of the characters make them seem lively and unique, even with their shared body structures and even in scenes with limited animation.
This sensibility carries through to HeartCatch PreCure, where the characters’ expressions are especially individual and dynamic; some of Erika’s faces have gained meme status online. These designs build on Doremi’s foundation, as in PreCure, each girl has a distinct shape in addition to a distinct face. The animation in HeartCatch PreCure goes through some muddy spots, but Umakoshi’s designs are such that they work remarkably well both as static images and as the endlessly dynamic ones we see in early episodes and the finale.
Here is hoping that this excellent designer continues his great work on magical girl series!
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