Q&A: Get to know Tsuneo Goda, creator of meme sensation Domo

The man who dreamed up the beady-eyed, toothy and gentle-hearted monster tells us about the character's unlikely origins

Tsuneo Goda and Domo visit <em>Time Out New York</em>'s office

Tsuneo Goda and Domo visit Time Out New York's office Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

Mention the name Domo to any active citizen of the Internetor pull up a picture of the fuzzy, blocklike, perpetually openmouthed monsterand you're likely to get a reaction along the lines of "I love that guy!" The official mascot of Japan's public broadcaster NHK, Domo has developed quite a following stateside, with NHK's original sketches airing on Nickelodeon and collaborations with Target and 7-Eleven.

The imaginative mind behind the beloved character is Tsuneo Goda, founder of his animation studio, dwarf, in Tokyo. Goda, along with a life-size Domo, recently attended the Japan Day celebration in Central Park, and chatted with Time Out New York about his loyalty to analog methods and what kind of trouble Domo might get into in NYC.

Domo hardly needs any introduction, but how would you tell the story of how he came into existence?

It all happened 15 years ago, while I was working as a director for a TV commercial production company. The producer heard about the design competition to create the character for NHK BS in commemoration of its 10th anniversary and suggested that I enter. At the time, I didn't know exactly how to create a characterI only had experience drawing storyboardsso I started doodling geometric shapes: squares, circles and triangles. That is how Domo came about really, so I was surprised myself to know that they liked my ideas and decided to go with it.

What are some of the traits that make him unique?

Domo can only say "domo" and his mouth stays wide open. Because of this, people will never be able to truly understand what he has to say. But this also gives the viewers the space to use their imagination and guess. That is one of the reasons why I like Domo so much-he can be interpreted in various ways.

Has Domo's worldwide fame affected either your process of coming up with ideas, or your process of producing work over the last 15 years?

His popularity abroad has opened up new opportunities such as Target's Halloween campaign, 7-Eleven ads and a whole variety of goods.  Each project was a new challenge for us, which influenced the way we work, but I try not to think too much about his popularity. As for production, yes, I think it has changed in terms of equipment and process. 
As computer animation has become more and more advanced, [people ask] why have you stuck with stop-motion?
I love the way each frame is created by hand and I believe there's something special about it when created by primitive techniques. Good things are good, whether it's today or 30 years later. I'm hoping to create something that will be appreciated for many years to come.

Do you think people perceive and relate to Domo differently in Japan and the U.S.?

Domo is regarded as a child in Japan. Children think of him as a friend and grownups see him as their child or a reminder of their childhood. In fact, we usually take inspirations from our own childhood memories. In the U.S., I think he has a more broad appeal. He seems to relate to people of all ages.

Why do you think Domo has become so popular with American audiences?

That's a difficult question...I guess there were some people who happened to find him and were kind enough to spread the word through the Internet for us.

Tell me about your animation studio, dwarf. What drives you as artists and storytellers? What message do you want your work to convey?

One of our goals is to create a timeless masterpiece (as seen in many children's picture books) and at the same time cater to what is needed now. I started to feel very strongly about this, especially after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. I would like to create something that touches people's souls.

What sights and activities are you looking forward to while you're in New York?

It's a very short trip, so I hope I will have some free time to wander around, watch the crowds and visit the major museums.

What other plans do you have while you're in the U.S.?

After the New York event, we will be heading to San Francisco where PBS will be hosting a conference, inviting the media and other people in broadcast. We will be talking about stop-motion, animation and the fascinating world of Japanese culture.

Do you think Domo would like New York City?

Domo usually lives near the hills and rivers so I think he might get dizzy. But he is full of curiosity so he might get told off for eating or touching something he is not allowed to. Also I'm 100% sure he would get lost.

Which of the other characters in Domo's world do you think would like New York?

Mr. Usaji used to play the trumpet when he was young and loves jazz music, so he might like New York too.

Americans are probably most familiar with Domo, but dwarf has come up with dozens of other characters. Which of these are you especially proud of
and do you think they have the potential for Domo's level of success?
Komaneko. She may appeal to children more than Domo but she has an ebook app.

What's planned for the future?

We have produced a music video called By Your Side using one of Sade's songs. This video can be viewed at zapuni.com and is part of a charity project to support the children in the Tohoku region.

Domo explores New York

Domo explores New York Photograph: Nagamitsu Endo/NHK

Domo visits the American Museum of Natural History

Domo visits the American Museum of Natural History Photograph: Nagamitsu Endo/NHK

Domo visits the American Museum of Natural History

Domo visits the American Museum of Natural History Photograph: Nagamitsu Endo/NHK

Domo explores Central Park

Domo explores Central Park Photograph: Nagamitsu Endo/NHK

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)


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