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Country flags transform into anime samurai ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Seven country flags, including Japan, Australia and China, are depicted as samurai in a poster. (Photo courtesy of Digital Entertainment Asset Pte. Ltd./Kyodo)
Kozo Yamada, public relations officer at Digital Entertainment Asset Pte. Ltd., which works with the country flags project, stands in front of some of the framed illustrations in their office in Tokyo on Nov. 30, 2020. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- As the postponed Olympics approach next summer, a Tokyo-based content producer is hoping that his project to represent countries and their flags with anime characters donning traditional Japanese garb and posing with swords or other weaponry will help foster greater understanding between nations.

    Working with a partner company, Kama Yamamoto launched World Flags in 2018 alongside a handful of artists he has previously worked with on different ventures, hoping to help people around the world familiarize themselves with other countries and their cultures in a fun way.

    "I want the project to be acknowledged globally as something that can bring the world together through the Japanese elements of 'anime' and 'samurai,'" said Yamamoto.

    Kozo Yamada, 43, public relations officer at Digital Entertainment Asset Pte. Ltd., which has been working with the initiative, said the producer "hopes that countries will respect each other if all the characters look cool, as a form of 'world peace.'"

    He also expects that by using characters in samurai or other traditional Japanese garb to illustrate the different nations and their flags, the project will raise interest in Japan, Yamada said.

    The Peruvian character named Vargas, for example, is depicted as a ninja in red and white carrying a leaf-shaped "kunai" -- a small throwing knife -- that was inspired by the cinchona tree displayed on the Andean nation's flag.

    In the case of Chile, its national bird, the condor, sits atop a samurai's shoulder, while the Canadian character dons a white and red kimono with a red maple leaf on his sleeve.

    Yamada said efforts are ongoing to receive official recognition of the initiative by organizers of the Tokyo Games.

    Yamamoto's background is in so-called "personification" educational books, designing manga characters to represent jobs ranging from tapioca store owners to web designers. The books are aimed at children and include information on average salaries and what jobs involve to better inform kids of the wide array of choices available to them when they grow up.

    The educational purpose remains with World Flags.

    "The character designs are not based on a whim, but rather, (Yamamoto) researches the background and origins of how a country's flag came to be and reflects that in the design," Yamada said.

    The website featured around 80 characters as of early December, according to Hiroshi Tsuruoka, 33, marketing producer at DEA. It is regularly updated with new personified flags.

    Characters are introduced on the project's official Twitter page as soon as they are ready. With over 15,000 followers, the page also boasts fan art posted by those inspired by the characters.

    However, the characters occasionally undergo both physical and "personality" changes in line with advice or criticism from people around the world, helping them become better expressions of the country concerned.

    In one case, the Spanish flag, whose character is named Iniesta, was initially portrayed as a bullfighter but has since transformed into a flamenco dancer following criticism that bullfighting is now controversial in the country.

    A number of African flags with samurai depictions have also undergone changes after some noted their skin tone was too fair.

    The project got what Yamada calls its first "big break" in the summer of 2019, when the personified Chinese flag Aaron was shared widely online. Yamamoto soon began receiving offers for interviews from Chinese media, alongside offers to create a range of merchandise, from mousepads to water bottles, which are currently available online.

    The characters are each illustrated by a handful of artists brought onboard by Yamamoto, many from his previous projects, although other unaffiliated artists have also expressed interest in joining the team, according to Yamada.

    "Some of the illustrations are by full-time artists, but others have been drawn by people ranging from housewives to veterinarians who are drawing on the side as a hobby," he said. The flags are allocated by Yamamoto, who brainstorms a rough idea of the character design, to the individual artists according to their illustrative styles.

    As Yamamoto works to finish personifying all the countries, a number of people from smaller nations have expressed delight at finding their respective flags in samurai form.

    Some, including Mexico and Venezuela, have also received framed images of their personified flags at their respective embassies in Tokyo.

    "We believe that an anime-style character representing Mexico may be an ideal way to convey the long-standing friendship that exists between Mexican and Japanese people," Emmanuel Trinidad, the counsellor for cultural affairs at the Mexican Embassy in Tokyo, said in an email.

    "Every comment received about it in social media seems to praise the fact that the work goes beyond any stereotypical image about Mexico that may come from old-fashioned visions but instead presents a fresh and more modern approach to characters representing countries in general," he added.

    The project was published as a book for the first time last year, including character illustrations and information ranging from national demographics to the number of Olympic medals a nation has won.

    There are further hopes to turn it into a superhero anime or film in the future, featuring the characters joining forces to fight an enemy from outer space to save the world.

    "The story will have no protagonist, with all the characters equally working together toward a common goal," Yamada said.

    Yamamoto initially hoped to complete the project in 2020 ahead of the Olympic Games before their postponement due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. He is now aiming to feature around 200 personified flags by the end of this year.

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