In 1984, when he created Dragon Ball (including Dragon Ball Z–in Japan, the “Z” refers only to the second part of the anime series), Akira Toriyama was already famous in Japan for his previous comedy manga series, Dr. Slump. Based on the success of his short story Dragon Boy, about a boy with dragon wings, he decided his new series would be a Chinese-style kung-fu story about a boy with a monkey’s tail. At first, a gag artist working on an action series may have seemed like a novelty, but the individuality of Toriyama’s artwork gave it a charm that more square-jawed, pecs-flexing series couldn’t match.
When the Tenka’ichi Budôkai (“Strongest-Under-the-Heavens Martial Arts Tournament”) storyline proved popular, the series took off like ki-powered wildfire. The hero, Son Goku, grew up; got stronger; saved the world; met the deities, like a hero from Greek myth; and even got married and had children. Toriyama made each new fight interesting (even when the fights last hundreds of pages), made every new character, from Bulma to Vegeta to Majin Buu, different from the ones that came before.
Dragon Ball has spawned anime, video games, and translations around the globe. But while movies and video games are necessarily group efforts (ask Toriyama–he’s designed characters for numerous games, including Dragon Warrior and Chrono Trigger), the power of manga comes from the style and personality of the artist. So with many thanks, we enter the mind of Akira Toriyama, where somewhere, among Jackie Chan and science fiction movies, among costumed heroes and children’s cartoons, is the spark behind his amazing works.
■ Selected Toriyama Timeline
1955: Born in Aichi Prefecture, Japan
1978: Debuts in Weekly Shonen Jump with Wonder Island
1979: Dr. Slump begins (see p.108)
1984: Dr. Slump ends. Dragon Ball begins (see p.63)
1993-5: Toriyama Akira no Sekai (“Akira Toriyama’s World”) art exhibit tours Japanese department stores
1995: Dragon Ball ends
1997: Cowa! (see p.108)
1998: Kajika (see p.108)
2000: SandLand (see p.108)
(SIDEBAR) The Original Son Goku
Dragon Ball was originally modeled after the ancient Chinese legend Saiyûki (“Journey to the West”, also known as “The Monkey King” or even “Monkey”). In Saiyûki, Son Goku is a powerful monkey born from a stone. Instead of being asked by Bulma to help find Dragon Balls, he is asked by Sanzo, a priest, to go from China to India in search of sacred sutras (Buddhist religious writings). After the first Dragon Ball quest is over, the stories aren’t too similar…except maybe for the moral that your former enemies can become your best friends.
(SIDEBAR) What’s in a name? 鳥山明
Akira Toriyama’s name is made up of three kanji characters. His first name, Akira, means “bright.” His last name, Toriyama, is made up of two characters: tori, meaning “bird,” and yama, meaning “mountain.” Since Toriyama is fond of using pun names for his characters, it’s not too hard to see why he named his studio “Bird Studio.”
■ Art Style
How old were you when you first started drawing? What sorts of things did you draw?
I started copy-drawing other people’s manga characters when I was about 5 years old, but I only started drawing manga with a proper storyline when I was about 22 years old.
What are some of your artistic influences?
I was an avid anime watcher from the age of 7 until I was about 10, when I moved to manga. I think I am influenced by Osamu Tezuka’s and Walt Disney’s works which I watched during that time, such as Tetsuwan Atom (“Astro Boy”) and 101 Dalmations.
How did you become a manga artist?
I submitted a story to a monthly contest for amateur artists in Weekly Shonen Jump. It didn’t win, but afterwards, I was approached by one of the editors [Kazuhiko Torishima, now Weekly Shonen Jump senior director], and after I studied for about a year, I became a pro.
You have an incredible ability to draw anything in the world in your own distinct personal style. Do you often use reference material to draw different objects, places or things?
I almost never use reference material for places, but for objects–for example, if there’s a particular model of car that I like–I’ll use a book as a reference to draw from.
What kind of drawing materials did you use on Dragon Ball? What drawing materials do you work with today?
I’m not sure if these particular brands are available in the USA, but on Dragon Ball I used G-pens [a type of quill pen], Kent paper [a bristol board-like paper made in Japan], waterproof ink, and color inks for coloring. Today, I use a Macintosh for coloring.
I have heard that you are a fan of Jackie Chan. Out of all Jackie Chan’s movies, which is your favorite?
Drunken Master (the first one). If I hadn’t seen this movie, I would never have come up with Dragon Ball.
Are you a fan of pro wrestling? I ask because in Dragon Ball, there are some wrestling-style characters like Mister Satan.
Unfortunately, I’m not really a fan of pro wrestling.
What are your hobbies? How do you spend your spare time?
Actually, I have a lot of hobbies, but I’ve kept up with model-building the longest. In particular, I love military models.
I hear that Dragon Ball was inspired partially by a trip to China. Out of all the places you’ve been, which are particularly memorable? Do you do much sketching when you travel?
I’ve been to many places, but Australia, with what I felt was a pleasant balance between its cities and its magnificent natural spaces, moved me very much. I don’t sketch anything in particular on my trips.
■ Dragon Ball
From 1984 to 1995, what was your work schedule like on Dragon Ball?
The majority of manga in Japan are drawn in the shûkan (weekly) format, so I was drawing one episode every week. [Approximately 14 pages, plus a title page–Editor] But for me this pace was very hard, and I really didn’t like it.
Dragon Ball developed from a comedy series to an action/fighting series. Do you feel that your art style changed in the process?
I wasn’t particularly conscious of it, but my art style did change depending on the circumstances. But when it comes down to it, more than anything, I like drawing really silly, absurd comedies.
I’ve heard that many plot developments in Dragon Ball were influenced by letters from readers. Is this true, and if so, can you give us a concrete example?
Parts of it were, yes. For example, take Vegeta–when he first appeared he was just a bad guy, but because he became very popular, he stayed in the series from that point on.
Dragon Ball seems to have influenced many video games and manga. Where did you get the idea for the attacks that appear in Dragon Ball, such as the kamehameha and the whole idea of chi power?
Chi [also spelled “Ki”–Editor] has been used in China since ancient times, but it’s supposed to be formless and invisible. However, in manga, in order to make it easier for any reader to grasp, it was necessary to give it a shape. For the kamehameha, I myself did a lot of different poses and chose the one that I thought would work the best.
Where did you get the idea for the cosmology/mythology/religion of Dragon Ball, with deities like Kami-sama, Kaiô-sama, Kaiôshin-sama, etc.?
To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about it too deeply. For example, as the story progressed, when it became necessary to have something exist that was greater than Kami-sama [Japanese for “God”–Editor], I created Kaiô-sama [Japanese for “Lord Emperor of the World, or Worlds”–Editor], and so on.
Why did you decide to incorporate science fiction elements in Dragon Ball, such as the Namekians, Saiyans, other alien races and space travel?
I love sci-fi movies. Especially the first Alien movie–that’s my favorite. I incorporated science fiction into Dragon Ball to expand it scope.
How do you come up with ideas for different power-ups and transformations?
When you draw a fighting manga, stronger and stronger enemies keep appearing. If a new enemy is weaker than a previous one, the readers won’t be satisfied. However, the main character is the same Goku, so it becomes necessary to make him power-up quickly and immensely. Transformation is a way of putting that in drawing which is easy for readers to understand.
Who is your favorite Dragon Ball character?
It’s Goku, naturally. For one thing, I’m a very perverse person, so I’m drawn to a pure, innocent character like him.
What is your favorite fight in Dragon Ball?
I don’t remember that well, but probably the battle with Piccolo.
■ Toriyama Today
I’ve heard that you are re-coloring, and possibly even re-drawing, parts of Dragon Ball for a new “Perfect Edition.” What is it like drawing Goku and Co. for the first time in a long while?1
I haven’t redrawn any of the actual manga, because then I’d start getting nit-picky about everything.2 Just new cover art. To draw it again for the first time in so long produced a very complicated mix of emotions, combining nostalgia with the feeling that I don’t want to draw Dragon Ball any more.
Dragon Ball has been translated into many different languages around the world, and seems to have an extremely universal appeal. How do you feel about it being translated into more and more languages?
Of course it makes me very happy, but I’m still trying to live like I always have, without really thinking about it.
What new projects or manga are you working on currently?
Right now, I’ve taken a step away from manga,3 and am studying things that I’ve always wanted to do, such as design and book illustration.
What message would you like to give to American fans?
That people in faraway America are fans of Dragon Ball truly makes me happy. The method of producing comics in Japan is very hectic, but it’s also rewarding because it’s possible to do both the story and art all by yourself. In this way, it’s possible to bring out one’s individuality. If this idea appeals to you, I call on you to try drawing your own manga. Because the people who can draw manga that Americans will truly love are other Americans like you.
Interview – Ask Akira Toriyama!
From 1998 to 2002,4 the DRAGON BALL and DRAGON BALL Z monthly comics received thousands of letters from fans in the U.S., Canada, and around the world. We’ve taken the most interesting questions from the letters and asked Akira Toriyama himself!
(1) Why are almost all the characters name after food or clothes? –Readi Alexander, Missouri
When there are lots of characters to keep track of, it’s easier to give them names if you choose some pattern ahead of time. That way, it’s also easier for the reader to tell which group they belong to by their name alone.
(2) Do any of the characters have family names? –Cora “Chi-Chi” Warden, New York
Some do, some don’t. For example, “Son” is Son Goku’s family name, but Vegeta doesn’t have a family name.
(3) Is there such a thing as a female Saiyan? –Erin Holt, Alabama
Of course there are. Even though they don’t appear in the manga, they do exist.
(4) Is Son Goku a black belt or what? What form of martial arts does Goku and everybody else train by? –Laura Mickelberry, Army Post Office; Mike, Via Internet
They’re various imaginary forms of kenpo (kung fu), but because they’re fundamentally based on Chinese forms, there are no belt colors. [Although Chinese kung fu uses sashes, like the ones the Dragon Ball characters wear, belts per se are specifically a feature of karate and tae kwon do–Editor]
(5) Is Pu’ar male or female? –Cari Wynne, Virginia
For what it’s worth, I thought of him as male when I was drawing him.
(6) I like Goku. He is every girl’s dream guy–big, handsome, good-hearted, never critical, always has a nice thing to say, etc. But I am totally fascinated by Piccolo (ain’t it always like that?). He is a green Clint Eastwood. His character shows much postwar angst, as in the German nihilistic writers, like Hermann Hesse. I wonder if the Japanese mainstream post-WW2 writers have the same tendencies? –Nancy Peters, Alabama
I don’t think so. Manga artists, especially the young manga artists who are currently considered mainstream, have pretty much had no contact with war. War is just something that happened long ago that’s described in textbooks. Just think of it as one of many existing character types.
(7) What is Freeza really, I mean, what type of species? How did he get so powerful? Why does he have an army when he can blow up the universe with the blink of an eye? –Joshua Dare, New York
There aren’t many of them, but perhaps they are a new hybrid species that came into existence from an accidental spontaneous mutation in our grandfathers’ time. As for Freeza’s men, he doesn’t consider them an “army” so much as convenient followers.
(8) Why do all the monsters have those ears that look like stubby volcanoes? –Ali J. Agdeniz, Kansas
It’s just my personal preference. When I was a child, I imagined that monsters had ears like that.
(9) Why don’t Goten and Trunks have tails? –Kakarotto, Via Internet
It seems that tails are a recessive genetic trait.
(10) I want to create my own comic series, but every time I sit down and try to plan the action, dialogue balloons, camera angles, etc., I get overwhelmed and quit. How do the pros know when to start? –Patricia Calamaco, Texas
I always play the stories out as movie scenes in my head and imagine how they would unfold. Since America is the birthplace of movies, perhaps you can watch a lot of them and study them.
(11) What’s up with the third eye on my main man Tenshinhan? Is Tenshinhan human? –Charles Moyer, California; Evan Coltin, Via Internet
In certain parts of Asia, beings with a third eye on their forehead are thought to be godlike and are said to possess the power of true seeing. It seems that Tenshinhan, who was raised by the evil Tsuru-Sen’nin [Crane Hermit], lost the ability to use the myriad powers of his third eye for good purposes.
(12) What happened to Vegeta’s tail after he was defeated on Earth? –Marc LaCroix, Nova Scotia, Canada
The tail lets you gain tremendous strength instantly by transforming into a giant ape, but the risks are equally great–you’ll lose your strength if it’s squeezed. Once you’re as powerful as Vegeta and Goku, the tail just gets in the way. It is thought that the bodies of Saiyans, who are a fighting species, decided that their tails are unnecessary appendages.
(13) Dear Akira Toriyama, My name is Mike Sampson. I am your biggest fan. You may have gotten a lot of letters like this, but this is different! Everything I buy has to do with Dragon Ball Z. You are the best cartoonist that there is. I want to grow up just like you. And I was wondering if you could hire me in your business, I draw well and have great ideas. I would be so satisfied. Please. I don’t mean to be rude, I just love your manga. –Mike Sampson, Georgia
Thank you. However, unfortunately, I am not currently drawing any manga. And when I occasionally draw a short story, I intentionally do everything by myself. I think it would be much better if you yourself study what you’re interested in and draw manga in your own style. That’s how I did it too.
(14) How long does it take you to draw Goku? –Nicole Jeanette, New Jersey
Do you mean, how long does it take me to draw one chapter of Dragon Ball? It varies wildly depending on each episode, but if it goes quickly, it takes about 20 hours. If it goes slowly, it can take a week.
(15) What is Majin Buu’s power level? –Giovanni Toso, London, England
The frightening thing about Majin Buu is his unknown, unfathomable power. Whether it’s actually not that much, or whether it’s really stupendous, Majin Buu himself probably doesn’t know the answer.