Spotlight: Yoichi Kotabe

In animation and comic books there are artists that give said projects a distinct look, one that catches the attention of the audience and at its best stays with said audience long after. As such they aren’t just there to draw pretty pictures, but rather they are there to contribute to something special. In video games this is no different. Granted, these days artists are very much invaluable in video game creation, but back during the 1980s artists/illustrators in video games weren’t always as heralded. But then along came an industrial designer named Shigeru Miyamoto who helped change the landscape. Thanks to his creativity we were able to be introduced to great games and just as important, characters from said games that helped give Nintendo an identity with their audience. However, the characters hadn’t yet been refined visually. Especially Mario.

But then when Super Mario Bros. 2 was released in the U.S. the box art then showed a more detailed Mario in comparison to his original game which was simply a screenshot. Now we had a more distinct look to the character which carried over to the game itself.

But Miyamoto and his team were only getting started. For when Super Mario Bros. 3 was released that’s when Mario’s distinct look was finally realized, and has pretty much been his signature look since. While his 3D design is pretty good too, there is still something about his 2D design that fits the character to a T. And it wasn’t Mr. Miyamoto who came up with the final look for his creation, but rather artist/animator Yoichi Kotabe.

You may not know who he is, but chances are you have seen his Mario design in many things. From the insane Nintendo merchandise during the late 1980s to today, his design is very familiar. And it turns out his love for moving images go back to his own childhood where at the age of five his mom would draw stick figures on the corners of his textbooks. Though he was only a child those little things played a big part in what he would do later on in life.

Enrolling in Tokyo University of the Arts in the 1950s, Kotabe pursued drawing with a passion. During this time in Japan things like manga were frowned upon by the more “serious artists” but Kotabe was undeterred. Drawing was what he wanted to do and he didn’t care if he was living a “poor artist’s life”. While he was faced with that reality after graduating, he then found out that an animation company named Toei Animation was recruiting, and after seeing the company’s first full-length animated movie “Panda and The Magic Serpent” Kotabe knew where he wanted to go.

When Kotabe finally joined Toei the timing was pretty good because two other classmates named Isao Takahata and Hayao Miazaki were also attending, and the latter two would go on to become legendary animators in their own right.

For the first three years Kotabe would work on key frames on many films like “Little Prince and The Eight Headed Dragon” (1963) and Puss N’ Boots (1969). But as time went by he found the once creative atmosphere Toei had went to the wayside in favor of profits.

“At first, the company had a great deal of creative enthusiasm, but gradually it came to prioritize profits. Rather than producing original works, it started looking for popular manga serials and other materials to adapt. Even my own desire to create something fresh began to disappear.”

Yoichi Kotabe

Feeling he wasn’t taking enough risks creatively, Kotabe found inspiration in Takahata who helped him overcome that fear with the latter’s film, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. With his confidence raised Kotabe decided to leave Toei. He would continue to work with Takahata on projects like Heidi, Girl of the Alps, a series that still remains popular in Japan to this day.

Not too long after leaving Toei Kotabe began taking on freelance work, which was fun but yet he was still searching for something else. Then he got a call from Hiroshi Ikeda, who had also worked at Toei before ultimately being hired at Nintendo. With the arcade game Donkey Kong becoming a great success, and with it the realization that a designer not a programmer was the driving force behind its success signaled a shift at Nintendo. Though the company never dabbled in animation, Ikeda felt very strongly that Nintendo should take both art and animation into consideration in future projects, and from his experiences at Toei, Ikeda had some ideas in mind, along with a great deal of contacts. And when he met with Kotabe to discuss joining Nintendo, that simple coffee meeting would lead to Kotabe being hired.

Since Kotabe’s only video game experience was playing “Space Invaders” he wasn’t sure how his background as an artist would help this new medium. But he did trust Ikeda so he applied for the interview and was hired. And it was in that initial meeting with Shigeru Miyamoto that Kotabe saw Super Mario Bros. and that’s when it clicked for the artist. But even with that revelation Kotabe didn’t have much to do at first. He would come in to the office, come up with some doodles and kick ideas around with Mr. Miyamoto but not much else, until Super Mario Bros. 2 when Kotabe’s animation was put to use in a game, specifically the magic carpet’s movements which did take some tweaking until it was near-perfect.

As the 1980s rolled along Mario had become Nintendo’s star icon and with Miyamoto being Mario’s creator he would come up with character sketches and then hand them off to other artists who would then finish them. But with the first Super Mario Bros time was of the essence so Miyamoto had to do all the artwork from start to finish. This approach wasn’t exactly something that would work long-term, but fortunately Kotabe was more then willing to help.

With Kotabe he approached the project like a major motion picture, peppering Miyamoto with all kinds of questions to get a better understanding of what the latter wanted, not just what the characters looked like but also who they were as people, and it was here where Kotabe’s contributions really helped shape the Mario characters into who they were as people.

As a result of his efforts, Kotabe would truly become a key figure at Nintendo for many years to come. While he initially thought it would be for a couple of years, it would be a two-decade career for the artist, where he would be a close advisor to Miyamoto and help with recruiting some key people, like Yoshiaki Koizumi into Nintendo. And as technology improved, restraints in game development would lessen, and Kotabe would find new challenges and new ways to apply his skills in animation into video games, with a little bit of a cinematic touch. All of which came in handy when it came time to work on Super Mario 64.

Though Kotabe has now retired from Nintendo, his influence is still felt there in terms of how Mario, Luigi and all the other characters are both visually and in personality. Not only that, but if one was to not only look at the games (and the box art) but all the Mario cartoons, the Nintendo Adventure Books, and especially The Super Mario Bros. Movie, you can see that Kotabe style in each of those adaptations. Even in the numerous merchandise out there where if you see Mario in his 2D form it’s in that Kotabe-style design. And in many ways Mario feels more real and animated in that form than in his 3D form, which is also pretty impressive.

While Miyamoto is indeed Mario’s creator, it still took help to truly flesh out everyone’s favorite plumber to what he is today. And it couldn’t just be anyone, but rather an artist/animator who knew how to give that final touch to Mario that would allow him to come alive to audiences, and as a result transcended the video game world he came from. And now with the phenomenal success of his first animated movie, Mario has finally achieved that cinematic status that Kotabe always viewed him as when he began working on his design decades ago.

So thank you Mr. Yoichi Kotabe. Both Nintendo and the entire video game industry would be very different without your contributions, and like many Arcaders who were there at the beginning, I’m glad to have had my childhood shaped by these incredible games, with an Italian plumber from Brooklyn leading the way.

Check these out!

Bringing Super Mario to Life

Iwata Asks – Volume 8: Yoichi Kotabe

Truly an unsung hero, yet one whose work is recognized all over the world.

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