ŌKAMI: AMATERASU DESIGN ANALYSIS

Ōkami, a video game I am well aware because thanks to its beautiful art, I venture to investigate about the old Japanese art. Ōkami is a game inspired by the Japanese watercolor and wood carving art of the Ukiyo-e style. At first, the game was planned to be photorealistic with a 3D style, however, the limitations in the Play Station 2 hardware made impossible to achieve this. It’s when one thinks how the limitations can bring the best of people, in this case, of the game designers.

Talk about this game, it’s talking about art, legend, culture and a lot of technology, which means many ideas and information to write in a post. That’s why I delimited this article to one thing: the analysis of the main character, Amaterasu. The reason is that this character wasn’t just thought for 2D but also for 3D since it’s the only one with a stuffed animal version for marketing proposing. Well then, let’s begin!!

FIRST THINGS FIRST: ABOUT “OKAMI”

To put into context, Ōkami is an action-adventure video game developed by Clover Studio and published by Capcom. It was released for Play Station 2 in 2006 in Japan and North America, and in 2007 in Europe and Australia. In 2008 – 2009 a Nintendo’s Wii version was released. This video game brings together several Japanese myths, legends and folklore to produce a story where Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess, came to land to save it from darkness. Inside the game, the player controlled the Celestial Brush and Amaterasu, who has the form of a white wolf.

Ōkami suffered from poor sales in the past, however, thanks to the release of the high-definition version, Ōkami is now considered one of the best video games ever made.

AMATERASU AS WOLF

In Ōkami, Amaterasu takes the form of a white wolf with items that make reference to the Goddess of the Sun. The most emblematic is the Goddess’s sacred mirror Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡) which is on the Ōkami main character’s back. Other elements are those that can be considered as representative of the sun. They are the red color, on the lines of the wolf’s body; and the flames around the sacred mirror, which are very similar to the solar flares.

Having the general structure of Amaterasu as wolf, let’s analyze the art and other interesting details that work as inspiration to create the main character.

DRAWING WITH INK

Owing to the fact that the initial idea of cel-shaded rendering put a strain on the graphics processing of the PS2, the first design decision made for Ōkami’s creators was to simulate the ink wash painting, or sumi-e style.

The ink wash painting is characterized by the ink density variation. In Amaterasu’s drawing this is presented in two forms. The first one is with the load of ink which is more on the silhouette than in the details, making the external strokes seem darker than the internal ones. As an example, in the images below the hairs and the muscles of the wolf’s legs are as painted with more diluted ink that the one used to draw their contour.

Diluted ink to paint the hairs and the muscles.
The contour seems darker for using ink less diluted.

The second form of the sumi-e style is the variation given by the stroke thickness. For example, this technique is very obvious in the wolf’s tail.

WATERCOLOR TO GIVE COLOR

Having established the drawing’s black element, it’s time to talk about color. The main character has warm colors (red, orange and light yellow) to represent the flames, and green for the mirror. The attribute all this tones share is the transparency. This feature is to give the sensation of a painting done with watercolor and, I guess, it’s to achieve harmony with the ink wash painting which is also a water-based technique.

A clear example that illustrates the stated before is seen on an overseas poster where it’s possible to appreciate the other elements drawn behind Amaterasu flames because the slight transparency they have.

THE SOURCE OF EVERYTHING: UKIYO-E STYLE AND THE GODS

If we searchfor the style that inspired Ōkami’s design, without a doubt the first word that is going to appear on our investigation is “Ukiyo-e”. Ukiyo-e is a genre Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. This style has a rich history, however the important thing for this post is the characteristics that it possesses to know if our white wolf respects this style too.

First, Ukiyo-e is appreciated for a well-defined, bold, flat line, which is visible in the examples utilized to talk about the Ink Wash Painting.

Secondly, this style includes areas of flat (unshaded) color, which it’s a theme which had already been referred to when I mentioned the Play Stationed 2 limitations. I respected the designers to find a solution to the console limitations through the art. This makes me realized that the creativity is expanded when we study about all kinds of topics.

Finally, the asymmetry of design. This attribute is in the flames in the back of Amaterasu. These are more inclined to the right. In fact, according to the Ōkami Art Book, the flames mimic those carried by Buddhist statues. These are called flame-emitting meditation and it’s possible to find them for example in the Statue of Acala, known as Fudō Myō-ō in Japan. These flames begin at the bottom left side to grow clockwise until they reach half the circle to getting smaller.

Acala’s Statue

Talking about Gods, another important object which accompanies the flames is the mirror. This one is inspired in the Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡) mentioned before and that is currently part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. This mirror can be seen only by the emperor for being considered the descendant of Amaterasu. That’s why Ōkami sacred mirror takes its design from some other Japanese and Chinese mirrors discovered in ruins. The mirror followed the form of having concentric circles and decorations in one of the external circles. The illustrator employed random details because the real mirror is not public.

Bronze Mirror in Ancient Japan, Kofun Period.
三角縁獣文帯四神四獣鏡(椿井大塚山古墳出土)
Wikiwikiyarou [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

AFTER ALL, IT’S A WOLF!

To finish the analysis, it’s time to take the most evident detail: the wolf’s form. Amaterasu’s drawing comes from a real wolf. However, one thing is exaggerated to take advantage of the drawing with brush are the whorls. They came from the canine whorls that are small patches of hair that grow in a spiral, circular manner. These are very common on the elbows, but Ōkami’s main character has it also in the feet and in the tail to emphasize the drawing with brush-strokes.


Well, this is all for this post. I hope you enjoyed it and that it motivates you to enter the world of Japanese art, history and culture as the video game of Ōkami did with me. Please tell me your opinion and comment! See you in my next post!

I'm a Graphic Designer in love with Otomes and JRPG. I like the interface design area and that's why I really like to talk about this theme. You can conquer me with a good videogame Illustration book and a good capuccino.

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