For Dragon Ball‘s 30th anniversary, we wanted to once again ask Toriyama-sensei about the series. First we want to ask about the cornerstone of any series, its protagonist: did you have any policy when it comes to creating main characters?
I always draw strong protagonists; it’s not just Goku, they’re all like that. I think it’s easy to draw superhumanly strong guys, and fun too. If you take fairly ordinary, everyday stuff and add in one guy with extraordinary strength, then he becomes the center of attention, right? And I guess I like when some dumb, goofy guy turns out to be crazy strong. Like in kung-fu movies where the scrawny old geezer turns out to be a martial arts master; I love stuff like that.
Goku and Arale1 both have a huge gap between how they look and what they’re capable of.
Yeah. I prefer to put most of the focus on the story, so I gave them plain designs, but beyond that I think it boils down to the idea that it’s more interesting to have the weak-looking, plain guys be strong. With Goku, he started out just being a straight-up monkey. Then I thought about it some more and made him a human, but Torishima-san2 said that he needed to have something to set him apart, so I gave him a tail… but it just kept getting in the way. (laughs)
Did the tail get in the way of the fighting?
No, it’s just that I’m always thinking about how things are supposed to work, so it was a real pain to figure out how he’d put his pants on or stuff like that. That’s what always bugged me most. Is there a hole in the pants? Does he put his tail through first, then put the pants on? So that made me want to just get rid of the darn thing… which I did, in the end. (laughs)
I see. So then after that, Goku grew up…
I got a lot of pushback on that at the time. Apparently in shōnen manga changing what the main character looked like was a big no-no, but I didn’t care about that. His head/body ratio made fighting hard, so I said that if the series was going to start focusing more on battles, then I needed to make him an adult. But this really shocked them: “The series has finally gotten popular, and now you want to go and change everything!” That was the kind of reaction I got.
How did you manage to convince everyone at the editorial office?
“Convince” probably isn’t the right word. First I drew a sketch of adult Goku and sent it over to the editorial office to get their feedback. But then I started drawing the rough draft before I even heard back from them. (laughs) By the time I sent the rough draft to the editorial office, there wasn’t any time left to make major revisions, so they were just like “if you’re so dead-set on doing this, then fine…”
After that Goku changed even further, becoming a Super Saiyan. How did you come up with that design?
I gave him blonde hair so that it wouldn’t be as much work for my assistant. He spent a lot of time blacking in Goku’s hair, and I had to erase over it. It was a real pain… (laughs)
His eyes change shape as well.
With the usual design for his eyes, it was hard to have him look off to one side. It made it hard to tell exactly where he was looking, so I wanted to give him eyes that would make this more clear. His eyes from right after he transforms for the first time and looks up at Freeza… I based those off of Bruce Lee. Since that look of his where he glares right at you is paralyzing! That’s what I wanted to do in the Freeza arc… Once Goku gave that look, as far as I was concerned the story arc was over. I was like, “They have to start fighting now? What a pain!” My goal was just to get to that look. But when it actually came time to draw it, it turned out a bit different than how I had imagined it. I still thought Bruce Lee looked a lot cooler. (laughs)
Do you have any rules for making characters?
I suppose I do follow a few specific rules, but only subconsciously. Like when drawing bad guys, I won’t make them so devious and underhanded that it leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth afterwards. Not because I’m particularly concerned for the readers, but rather because I personally hate drawing that kind of stuff. Well, Freeza was pretty underhanded, but I generally don’t draw things that are so unpleasant that it gets to you psychologically. Also, I paid a fair amount of attention to how Freeza talked. After all, villains pretty much always talk rudely. I thought the contrast between his polite speech pattern and his cruelty and strength was really unsettling.
When it comes to appearances, it’s often said that Dragon Ball characters are very easy to tell apart going just by their silhouettes.
I guess I just ended up doing that naturally, because I use a lot of long panels, and that makes it easy to tell where and how they’re fighting. When drawing the characters small, it’s no good if you can’t tell who’s who, so it’s best to give them each some distinguishing characteristic.
Where do you start from when coming up with designs?
My process for drawing characters is basically that I start with their personality, and decide on their face next… then once the face is done, I can come up with their clothes. I try not to settle on any specific design concept ahead of time, because that takes all the fun out of it. I guess it just comes down to whatever’s influencing me at the time. And when coming up with new characters, I try to go with types I haven’t drawn much before. Like with the Ginyu Special Force, my kids were little at the time and were really into Sentai heroes, so I thought: “Hey, those are interesting.” It was real easy, since their uniforms would obviously be the same pattern as what the rest of Freeza’s army had on. It wasn’t too different than what all the mooks wore. So all I had to do was put five guys together and call them a “Special Force”. (laughs)
What about Freeza?
I vaguely remember basing him off a queen or something in some movie.
With Cell, you’ve said before that you like his second form.3
That one was the most expressive, since he had a mouth. Whereas his first form didn’t… well, I guess technically he did, but it was really hard to do, and I didn’t think he looked very cool.
Did your editors ever make any requests with the character designs?
I don’t know if you’d call this a “request” but… When Artificial Humans #19 and #20 showed up, I think Torishima-san got in touch with me. He said something like “Hey, it’s just a fatso and some old guy!” So then I came up with #17 and #18, but he said “Now it’s just some kids.”…There was no pleasing him. (laughs) So next I came up with Cell, but Kondō-san told me to make him look cooler… Kondō-san really liked swish, cool-looking stuff.4
From the midpoint onward, it became routine for the enemies to transform.
It all started with Freeza. I didn’t start out with any plans to have him transform of course, but midway through I thought it might be cool to make it look like a bluff and then have him transform for real. Probably at that point I also thought of giving him a sleek design in the end. I’m in the habit of giving characters progressively more complex and tough-looking forms, then finally making them really sleek. After all, it’s awful drawing them once they get all complex. (laughs) Complex guys are terrible when you have to draw them for weeks on end… Cell was a ton of work, with those darn spots of his. (laughs)
It was really shocking when Freeza revealed he could transform three times.
I hadn’t planned on that either. (laughs) I was like “That’s kind of a lot; I should’ve just had him say ‘two times’ instead.” (laughs)
So is that why Freeza’s third form, the most complex of all, transforms again so quickly…?5
… Yeah. I figured I should have him make his exit as soon as possible. (laughs)
How did you come up with the unique world of the series?
I probably mentioned this somewhere before, but with a fictional world… a world that’s not here and can be like anywhere, it’s easier to draw since I can just draw whatever I want. Drawing the real world requires a ton of reference material, right? And it sucks if you draw something wrong. Even just drawing a car, you need to research it first, and it’s so tiresome, I just hate it. So that’s how I’ve done things all along, and that’s how Dragon Ball ended up with its own peculiar version of the world. Though I can’t really explain it.
One part of the series’ version of the world are all of the gods that turn up. The fact that they’re also aliens is distinctive as well.
I always turn to God in times of trouble. (laughs) Gods and aliens and other unknown beings like that make it easy to craft the story. After all, gods can do practically anything. I have my gods be straightforward and not too fussy, so that children can feel comfortable with them. The reason I give gods attendants… Well, I guess it’s because important people always need butlers, and it’s easy to develop the story through conversations.6
So they’re mainly there to provide exposition?
Yeah, like with Kibito I gave him a stern face, but it turns out he’s really nothing special. Pretty much all of my strong-looking guys turn out to be weak. I guess I like inverting expectations.
You often set your stories out in the countryside. Are you fond of the country?
Like I said earlier, first I have these super strong guys. But if they lived in the city, they’d be the talk of the town. So that’s why I put them out in the countryside. Because who knows what’s out there in the sticks, right? My wife used to say that it wouldn’t be too surprising if deep in the mountains of China they had guys who could levitate a bit off the ground. It’s the idea that mystical sages might be secretly living out there somewhere.
So it isn’t that you particularly like the countryside?
No, it’s not that I like the countryside itself, so much as I like not having to draw lots of buildings and houses. But it’d get monotonous if it was the same thing all the time, so occasionally I’ll try and fool people by going off to the city. Because when coming up with the settings, I’ll draw cities as little as the story will allow. (laughs)
So you’re not picky.
The main thing is that they’re really tough to draw. It’s not as if I actually hate cities themselves. I even think I’d probably have been better off moving to Tokyo. Back in the old days I never wanted to go to Tokyo, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to find the city really convenient.
You’re known for drawing a lot of horizons in your backgrounds.
Yeah, I guess I do like horizons. When I was a kid, there was nothing but fields all around me, so all there really was to see was the horizon… There’s something about that I like. These days a lot of new houses have gone up, so it’s only half-country… It’s better for the country to be the country, and the city to be the city.
Getting away from the main story a bit, why do you draw so many dragons and machines in title pages and other illustrations?
I’m quite fond of drawing dragons. Everyone knows what they are, but they’re not real, so there’s no set pattern for what they have to look like. There’s Western ones and Eastern ones, all sorts of different types, so there’s no right or wrong way to draw them and you can just do whatever you like. When you factor in Dragon Quest7, I really have drawn a crazy amount of dragons. (laughs)
What about Shenlong in Dragon Ball?
Shenlong is based on an Eastern dragon, but he probably would have ended up more complex if I drew an Eastern dragon as-is. They’ve got fur and whatnot; I guess it’s not quite the same image. But drawing that each week would have been tough, so I made Shenlong like a mix of Japanese and Western styles. With the Shenlong on Planet Namek (Porunga), I figured that since this was the original one, he should look even more incredible… I wanted him to be on a whole different level.
You draw a lot of very distinctive machines in title pages and throughout the story itself.
I like designing machines. I enjoy thinking them up and drawing them, but it almost feels like a form of escapism. (laughs) Back then I only drew round designs, so you might assume I like those kinds of designs, but that’s not true. It’s just that at the time cars were usually very square, so I went and drew round ones. These days cars are designed with air resistance in mind and you see a lot of streamlined models, so on the flipside I guess I draw more square ones now. I just like doing the opposite of whatever is trendy.
A lot of sources say that Dragon Ball has its roots in kung-fu movies.
To be exact, it’s rooted in this one-shot called Dragon Boy8 that I did before Dragon Ball started in serialization. I was stupid enough to mention to my editor Torishima-san how I constantly watched Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master and whatnot, so he told me, “if you like it so much, you should draw something like that.” (laughs) But liking something and wanting to draw it are two completely different things, so I didn’t particularly want to do that.
But there was a positive response to that one-shot, so it led to Dragon Ball. However, it ended up as an adventure story, rather based around fights like in a kung-fu movie…
I liked adventure more, but it seemed at the time a road manga just wasn’t what people wanted. The setting changes with each chapter. At first I thought it’d be good to continue it for about a year, but it wasn’t very popular.
After that, due to the Tenka’ichi Budōkai the focus of the series shifted towards battles.
What happened was, it just kept getting less and less popular. Torishima-san was really on my case about it, saying “nobody likes it!” and mean stuff like that. (laughs) From the start I had thought in the back of my mind that since it was a shōnen manga it would be better received if I drew battles, but because I’m perverse I kept sticking with Journey to the West.9 But he really did keep nagging me.
So you shifted towards battles.
Well, I got tired of him going on and on about the popularity polls all the time. (laughs) Though I was reluctant to do it, the series’ popularity did indeed start to pick up around the Tenka’ichi Budōkai… And despite my reluctance, it still felt pretty good. (laughs)
Then after that, you returned to the adventure format with the Red Ribbon Army.
I tried to fight it. (laughs) I had Arale-chan make an appearance, and made things comical, and it felt like a struggle. But in the end, I couldn’t even satisfy myself, so I decided to bite the bullet and make it all about the fighting. Once that decision was out of the way, I felt a lot better.
Did you have anything in mind for the final chapter when you started out?
No, I didn’t. Once you decide on the ending, then that influences you so that you can’t change course midway no matter what happens. I’ve always thought it’s best to leave only the ending undecided. I suppose it comes from my old gag manga habits, since with gag manga you don’t need to work out what will happen later down the road. I just figured it’d be fun to have it like Journey to the West, with the setting always changing, all sorts of different enemies popping up, different locations, etc. The characters fight, get stronger, and the story moves forward, that sort of thing.
So when drawing Demon King Piccolo, were you thinking of ideas for the Freeza arc, or anything like that?
I didn’t think about that at all. Just handling Demon King Piccolo was more than enough to keep me busy. I suppose the first time I started thinking about the Freeza arc was probably midway through Ma Junior. The series was up in the polls, so I probably had a hunch that I wouldn’t be able to end it any time soon.
With one strong enemy after another attacking, did you have an image of future story developments?
I had figured that my only option was focusing on battles, but it’s not like I thought about how the story would develop next… Even though I was the one drawing it, there were still times when I was like “Wow, Vegeta’s teaming up with them!” Piccolo surprised me too.
Even though you say you didn’t think about what was next, you were still wonderful at connecting up bits of foreshadowing. Like with the origin of the Artificial Humans, or Goku’s tail being a Saiyan trait.
I kind of liked forcing everything to come together, since that way it made it seem like I had really thought deeply about everything. (laughs) I don’t plan things out right from the start; instead, when I think of how to make the story come together, I basically just go “Hey, I bet I could use that thing.” With characters too, I’m like “Hey, that guy’s still alive… maybe I could use him.” So it ends up seeming as if I’ve been thinking about the story for an incredibly long span of time.
The different editors you had over the course of the series have also commented that you’re a genius at making things fit together.
That’s the only thing I have any confidence in. Since if I don’t pull that off, things don’t link up and everyone realizes I was just making it up all along. (laughs)
The depiction of the battles kept on escalating, didn’t it? They kept increasing in scale, developing into the sorts of battles people typically associate with Dragon Ball.
I feel like they had to do that if they were going to escalate. As the enemies kept getting stronger, using Nyoibō or flying around on Kinto-un just wouldn’t cut it anymore, so the characters had to start flying themselves. When Tenshinhan first flew, I remember thinking “Hey, this is pretty useful.” (laughs) And when I thought of depicting ki visually in the manga, it really made things easier. Like with the Kamehameha and whatnot.
As the battles got more and more flashy, did your idea of what made for a cool scene change?
At the very beginning, I think I was still influenced by the movements in kung-fu movies… I guess I paid attention to stuff like stillness, movement, and space.
How did you feel as you were drawing the final portions of the series?
The Artificial Human and Cell story arc was pretty rough… I guess you could say I did all I could with Freeza, so I was burned out, and figured I couldn’t pull off a better battle than that. I thought, “Do I really have to keep going?” Even when Cell ended, it still didn’t feel like it could end. So before the Boo story arc began, I said “Once this next thing wraps up, I want to end it no matter what.” Because I thought there was no way for any stronger guys to pop up, or for Goku to get any stronger than he already was. So my starting point for the Boo arc was, “This is the end, so I’m going to draw whatever I want!” I always liked dumb gags, so I made things comical, with the Great Saiyaman and Gotenks and whatnot. It wasn’t until immediately before the final chapter that I thought up the ending. I needed something that would signal this truly was the end, so I jumped forward ten years… But I didn’t count on the series continuing in anime form11
, so I bet it was really rough on everyone over at the anime company. (laughs)
When the kanzenban came out several years later, I added a bit more to the ending.10 I thought that somehow it just didn’t click. I wanted to make it more clear that Goku’s battles were over, and that a new generation was taking over.
And now it’s been thirty years since the series began… What’s it like thinking back on it now?
My policy is to try and forget things once they’re over. Since if I don’t discard the old and focus on what’s new, I’ll overload my brain capacity. I still haven’t lived down going, “Who the heck is Tao Pai-pai?” that one time I was talking with Ei’ichiro Oda-kun.12 (laughs) But the fact that there are still people reading the series after all this time… All I can say is; “thank you.” Really, that’s all.