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TOKYO (Reuters) - Some of Japan's top automakers, with a reputation for quality performance wrapped in often bland design, are turning to the country's pop culture to give them "J-factor" and help set them apart in a world of increasingly look-alike cars.
Designers of Nissan Motor's GT-R supercar, for example, borrowed from the popular "Gundam" sci-fi anime franchise to give the pug-nosed $100,000 model a mechanical, robot-like appearance, with a squared off rear and round tail lamps.
"Take a look at the car's window and roof line. It doesn't flow smoothly from front to rear, it's bent. We wanted to express the awkward but cool, powerful shape of the Japanese anime robot," global design chief Shiro Nakamura told Reuters.
"We wanted to set us apart from Porsche, Ferrari and other supercars, which are designed to mimic the streamlined beauty of a hunting animal, like a jaguar."
Nakamura, who has also designed for General Motors and Isuzu Motors, wants Japanese cultural aesthetics to help Nissan cars stand out from the crowd, noting that "globally, cars from the mainstream brands have started to look more and more alike."
"We stress Japan because we're a Japanese brand," he added. "Unless you derive design and styling from your own cultural DNA, there's no chance for continuity, and you lack confidence."
Nissan and others hope that efforts such as these can help them differentiate in a market where so many of today's cars are difficult to tell apart.
"Efficiencies of mass production, economies of scale, brand globalization, a risk-averse corporate culture, a car's ergonomics, and infrastructure and regulatory constraints all play into this phenomenon," said Richard Kong, managing partner at Montaag, a California-based design firm, who was previously a chief designer at Ford's Lincoln brand and also worked at BMW's design subsidiary.
Others, too, are searching for that J-factor.
At Toyota Motor, the front grille and angled LED headlamps on the latest version of the hybrid Prius C are said to make the hatchback look a little like Pikachu, the tough but cuddly hero of "Pokemon", another popular, long-running Japanese anime series.
However, Toyota's global design chief Tokuo Fukuichi said the resemblance was not necessarily intended, and was more to do with engineers' efforts to improve the car's aerodynamics.
For Toyota, and especially its premium Lexus brand, the J-factor is more in the car's functionality than its styling, Fukuichi said: "the way the doors open and shut and how knobs and switches and the steering wheel feel when you touch them."
"Ahead of how the car looks we try to put the importance of visibility to reduce blind spots, for example. We stress the craftsmanship. That's our DNA and J-factor," he said, referencing a national culture where a bullet train stops at the platform within just 10 cms of where it should, and the conductor apologizes if the train is 30 seconds late.
At Nissan, Nakamura has experimented with a modern interpretation of Japanese pop culture's affinity for cuteness.
He says he has been told that the Nissan Juke, a mini-SUV, looks not unlike Monkey D. Luffy, a piratical lead character with a large grin in Japanese anime "One Piece". He says he has no issues with this, though any likeness was unintended.
"That ... cutesiness is also Japanese pop culture DNA (that) we try to convey in some of our cars while keeping them modern," Nakamura said, referencing also the Cube microvan, which is boxy and squat but has a modern look and an asymmetrical wraparound rear window.
"Symmetry is a Western concept," he said. "Japanese are more comfortable with imbalance."
Reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu and Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan