That’s Character: Where Is Kenichi Sonoda?

A continuing feature, giving the podium to one of the anime medium’s truly unsung heroes, the character designers.

Been picking the brain pan heavily lately on what it is that is truly missing in today’s anime sweepstakes. An oversimplified question to a much more complex issue to be true. And while I can also handpick a number of factors that have led us to a near barren wasteland of proto-moe cyborgs, and recycled plotlines(most of which are economic, I can assure you), I can also point to a massive singularity that’s been staring us in the face for years. Something that few have considered, but I have felt imperative to share with all of you now.

A lingering shame that has kept me wondering for years, even as I failed to grasp it at the forefront of my mind.

No Kenichi Sonoda,….anywhere.

From the days of the earliest OAVs, it became an obsession of mine to not only relish in the novelty of these great series & films I was running into via the local video hut, but to remember the names and styles of those responsible for these visions. And this was quite easy, considering that the industry was just beginning to catch fire, and it seemed of highest importance that the art direction be striking, and reek of personality. Which is why it makes all the sense in the world to begin with one of the 80s – 90s foremost design icons. Sonoda’s work, like with most people hit me square in the face with cool in Artmic’s legendary OAV, Bubblegum Crisis, which introduced a hip, post-Top Gun/Streets Of Fire angle to the Blade Runner mythos with its tale of cybernetically-enhanced vigilantes, and their war against renegade machines led by an unscrupulous corporation. Filled with color, flash, and an astonishing soundtrack, the BGC video series took off in Japan with a rage unheard of in the burgeoning direct-to-video market, and ushered in a new era in anime distribution. And it is likely no accident that this was also due to Sonoda’s distinctive art style. But such was not to last as sales eventually dwindled, but remained strong in the US, and international markets. The dystopian blockbuster had touched a nerve.

Soon after this, I realized that the man’s art had indeed been familiar to my eyes when upon re-watching the (also from Artmic) Gall Force series, particularly the original Eternal Story feature in which an endless space war has left the besieged Solenoids without males for generations, and the marauding Paranoids moving in for what could be the final stand. The entire female cast of Solenoids cover the spectrum of personalities in a story that combines classic space war melodrama, with a hard science fiction edge, with a little ALIEN wedged in there for good measure. The follow-up entries in the Gall Force franchise, played on the resilience of life, often reincarnating familiar cast members in new roles, which made for potentially confusing viewing for those playing the home game, renting them willy-nilly. But again, Sonoda’s characters are the star of the show, living up to the curviness of anime cute/girls-with-guns image throughout the latter 80s.

An avid lover of the mechanics of firearms, and some legendary trips to the US, led him to the creation of what eventually became his next most iconic creations, this time, totally on his own, and both in the pages of manga, as well as in anime form.

Early Rally Vincent & The Inimitable Bean Bandit

That’s right, courier extraordinaire , Bean Bandit is another in the massive cage match that is the plateau of manga bad-assedness. This is a guy, who can outdrive Steve McQueen, Vin Diesel, and countless others with both arms tied behind his back, and still find room to carry a reliable knife between his teeth, and still remain virtually indestructible. Chicago’s hard-driving, soft-hearted samurai of a man has had his own unfinished manga, an incredible one-shot OAV, and has even survived to become legend in the pages of his Chicago follow-up, Gunsmith Cats.

No outrunning them..

Now here comes the eye of the storm, Gunsmith Cats lives up to the promises of Riding Bean, and offers more high-speed action as we follow the adventures of Irene “Rally” Vincent, and “Minnie” May Hopkins. A pair of, well skilled, yet hopelessly underaged bounty hunters out to clean up the city one mark at a time. Told with tons of love for fast cars, and heavy hardware, the GSC universe was large enough to welcome Bean Bandit in a way that was more than fitting of that character since losing his own comic, introducing a slew of unique, and sometimes truly frightening villains. The three-part OAV released in the mid-90s was perhaps the last true chance we had to catching his artistry in its full glory, and we are more the poorer for it. Burst? Anyone?

So this brings me to what I love about the man’s work; It’s audaciously unique, and deceptively difficult. Where it seems simpler for some to latch onto the idea of cute characters, it is another thing entirely to give so much character to the eyes. That’s right. A lot of Sonoda’s characters carry so much here, that it is pretty easy to miss. Of admiration here are instances when seemingly simple characters carry a bit more than mere eye candy. May Hopkins is a pretty strong example in which her eyes take on a sharper edge, which imply something a little less innocent than her small frame exhibits. It may even give hint to something far more troubled and dangerous than Vincent could ever be. His curvy styles also play heavily into implying three dimensional space within a lot of his works. Rarely do his characters feel flat in any way, allowing them to almost pop off the page/cel. There’s also a near aerodynamic feel to them that is indeed something often missed in most current material. But most importantly, these are women and men of action. Never ones to rest easy, or rely on others to get the job done. Sonoda’s characters are a vision of motion, perfectly aligning them with the very nature of animation itself.

In the years since, he has worked on the fun as hell Cannon God Exxaxion manga, and even worked on the anime Solty Rei, but the anime world is truly a different place without him. With that said, I’m sure there is a battery of artists amateur & professional, who regard his work as an influence.

So as to my favorite Sonoda design/character? That one as tough as it seems on the surface, the answer has been clear for many years my friends..(Yes, even I play this game)

Becky Farrah, of course!

Oh…What? You thought I’d forget?

Tatakae, minnasan!

6 thoughts on “That’s Character: Where Is Kenichi Sonoda?”

  1. So he’s worked on Solty Rei, eh? There’s something wonderfully comedic and unique about his designs that I have missed for many years.

    1. Oh, I so agree. There’s a great sense of play at work in his characters that reminds me of how less seriously we have to play the material, and to have some real fun with it. His occasional use of chubby figures is almost Disney-like, and helps sell the alternate reality.

  2. Yeah, I agree recent animes are highly standardized, though I like it since moe fits my taste. Over-uniformity is a unique trait of the Japanese culture.

    Did Gunsmith Cats inspire Cowboy Bebop? The OP looks similar. Very Chicagonian jazz. And bounty hunters.

    It’s interesting to see Chicago politics in the anime. A corrupt Illinois state senator. Recently they had Blago, and now people from Chicago politics are running the country. How strange. Sonoda had premonition, the future of how America looks.

  3. The funny part of this LaMoe, is that I remember reading a story from Carl Horn, where he recalls back in the early 90s, when he, Toren Smith and pals met up with Sonoda, Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, and Yamaga Hiroyuki (that’s right, early GAINAX) upon their visit to San Francisco for not only a con visit, but to research the US for Gunsmith Cats. And I’m guessing they had their fill of horror stories about American political corruption. (Marion Barry, anyone?)They also had a chance to check out a firing range, which I’m sure Sonoda ate up like a happy tyke.:) Sonoda’s an amazing artist with a love for details that compliment the action of speed lines.

  4. That’s amazing. The extensive field research is what made Gunsmith great, hu? No wonder Gunsmith Cats is really detailed. Thanks for sharing an interesting behind the scene episode.

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