I never intended to be a cartoonist to begin with
First off, I’d like to ask you about before you became a cartoonist. What sort of child were you when you were little?
I was a cheeky little brat: the kind who was strong to the weak, and who wouldn’t approach the strong. (laughs) On top of that, my grades at the time were quite good, so I always had the privilege of being designated as class officer by the teacher.
Did you read comics?
I read them often up until around the fourth grade. Astro Boy [Tetsuwan Atom], Gigantor [Tetsujin #28], Osomatsu-kun… I’ve generally read things in that vein. Also, it’s not comics, but even as a kid, I thought the art design in Disney animation was incredible, and I practically devoured it. In One Hundred and One Dalmatians in particular, things like the way the humans were drawn and the animals were caricatured was awesome, and I often imitated it. I played around outside during the day, of course, but when I came home, I had nothing to do, so I had fun by drawing pictures.
What sort of pictures did you draw?
Things that I wanted. At the time, I wanted a horse the most, so I drew it, thinking, “It’d probably fun to ride down the neighborhood streets, clip-clopping as I go”. After a while, I realized that a horse was probably unrealistic, so I started drawing the next thing I wanted, which was a chimpanzee. But when I went to the zoo in Nagoya, the chimpanzees’ butts were pretty gross, and I was instantly disillusioned. I mean, the chimpanzees I saw on TV wore pants, right? So I had no idea. So, while it was rude to the chimpanzees, my interest shifted to the next animal. (laughs)
Were you influenced by anyone in your enjoyment of drawing?
My father, mother, and little sister don’t draw at all, so it’s just me within my family. Even with my friends at school, we’d just draw manga pictures together, and I didn’t get any particular influence or anything. I had no intention of becoming a cartoonist to begin with; I wanted to do graphic design. So, I went to a high school with a design course, and when I was looking for employment, I thought I’d like to do things like posters, so I decided on a design firm.
His favorite character from Dragon Ball is Mr. Satan.
“I like how he’s so petty. Also, it’s cool how Piccolo doesn’t talk much.”
What sort of work did you do at the design firm?
It was almost all flyers. Among those, there were clients who didn’t have the money to take photos, and they’d make a request where they wanted me to depict chicken in illustrations. Then when I drew a chicken and showed to them, they’d say, “This is a rooster, so it’s no good. We only sell hens.” (laughs) Apart from that, I drew lots of things, like hundreds of pairs of socks, or baby rompers. I hated it at the time, but having that experience behind me, I think it might have come in handy.
It’s surprising to think that you were drawing flyers.
All that sort of work would come to me, so at any rate, I often worked overtime, and I’d generally get home around 2 or 3 a.m. Then I couldn’t get up in the morning, so I’d constantly be late for work. It was only about 10 or 15 minutes, but if you were late three times, it was treated the same as missing an entire day, so when I compared my bonus with a girl in the administrative section who had just joined the company, mine was a lot less, even though I was in my third year. I thought this wouldn’t do, so I decided to quit my job.
I learned how to draw comics through repeated rejections
So then you decided to set your sights on being a cartoonist?
At first, I thought it’d be nice if I could make it as an illustrator. But that kind of convenient work just doesn’t come in. At one point, I looked at a copy of Shōnen Magazine that was lying around in a cafe, and there was an article taking entries for a “new artist award”, where if I remember correctly, first place had a prize of 500,000 yen. I drew it figuring that even if first place was out of reach, I could at least manage honorable mention, but I didn’t make the deadline. It was still a ways out from the next contest, so I thought, “How about Shōnen Jump?” And when I looked, they were also doing the same sort of contest. If I remember, the prize money was 100,000 yen or so. I thought it was a bit low (laughs) but in terms of timing, I decided to send my entry in to them.
So that’s how it came about?! By the way, how did things go with your submission?
No good. I was confident in my art, so the fact that I lost out was really frustrating. Almost entirely out of stubbornness, I set my heart on not giving up until I got the prize money. I immediately drew my next work and sent it in, but it was also no good. Afterwards, however, Torishima-san (the model for Dr. Mashirito in Dr. Slump), who would become my editor, called me up and said, “It seems like you’ve got some promise, so send [your work] directly to me.” Much later on I asked Torishima-san, “What exactly did you see in me?” and he said, “You were good at hand-lettering.”
Not the art or the story, but the hand-lettering? (laughs)
So I was picked up by dint of that, and drew [more works] and sent them in as I was told, but I had no idea about how to draw a comic, so every single one of them was rejected. So it was like, as I drew, I gradually learned how to do it.
And so, in 1978, you made your debut with the one-shot work Wonder Island.
But it wasn’t at all popular with the readers. (laughs) I drew a few more after that, too, but none of them were popular. Then Torishima-san said, “You’re good at [drawing] girls, so try drawing something with a girl as the main character,” so I drew Gal Detective Tomato, and got my first positive response. And so the serialization of Dr. Slump was set.
Dr. Slump is synonymous with Arale-chan, but you really wanted to make Senbei Norimaki the main character, didn’t you?
That’s right. At the time, I wanted to draw something manlier, but since Torishima-san told me to make the robot girl the protagonist, I had no choice. Before starting the serial, I hurried and drew two chapters’ worth of material, but because there were too few pages or something, they ended up being run together, and all at once I was left without any stock (material prepared ahead of time). That was the start of my hell. (laughs)
The characters depicted in the setting of Penguin Village became very popular. How did such a unique concept come about?
When you watch overseas animation like Disney, the animals talk like it’s nothing, don’t they? In my mind, I had the idea that that was just how cartoons were, so I started it without any sense that it was unusual, but I guess it was still pretty rare in Japan at the time.
I was working from chapter to chapter every time, and even I couldn’t tell where it was headed
You let the word “hell” slip out a moment ago; so you really were quite busy during the serialization?
I was busy. Well at any rate, I couldn’t sleep. At its worst, I’d be up all night for four days, sleep for 20 minutes, then be up three more days. The style of Dr. Slump was that each chapter was to be self-contained as a rule, so I had to come up with a new story and punchline every time, which was tough. Once I had finally run out of material, I pleaded with Torishima-san to let me end it no matter what, and he told me, “If you start a new serial three months later, then you can end it.” I thought to myself, “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean,” (laughs), but I was so desperate to end it that I accepted the condition.
His favorite characters from Dr. Slump are Nikochan the Great and Suppaman.
He really likes how they’re petty and underhanded. His least favorite is the author’s self-portrait.
Dr. Slump ended, and at last, Dragon Ball began. Where did the concepts and ideas for it come from?
At the time, I loved Jackie Chan, and I’d watch videos of kung-fu movies while I did my inking and such. Then Torishima-san came and said, “In that case, draw a kung-fu thing next,” and I refused, [saying,] “the things I like and the things I want to draw are different, so I don’t want to,” but in the end, [Torishima] got his way. So to test things out, I drew a kung-fu one-shot called Dragon Boy, and it was relatively popular, so [I thought], well, it looks like I’ve just got to do it. At first, I intended on using the setting of Journey to the West as-is, so I made the main character a monkey, but [Torishima] told me that a monkey was no good, so I drew Goku next. Except, maybe because he was a little plain, there was the opinion that I should give him a bit of a defining characteristic, so I added a tail.
And for that simple reason, Goku was born?!
Come on. I wanted to quit because I was exhausted; it’s not like I was going to have ideas for a new serial, right? (laughs)
What sort of response did you get when Dragon Ball began?
It wasn’t received well. At the very beginning, there were something like “anticipation votes” in connection with [my work on] Dr. Slump, but right away, my ranking in the reader surveys went toward the lower end. However, I knew that it would probably be popular if I increased the fight scenes. Even so, I’m a contrarian by nature, so it would rub me the wrong way to go that way immediately. (laughs) In spite of that, I wasn’t in any position to say so. So, I started the Tenka’ichi Budōkai and shifted toward fighting, and it started to gain in popularity. Once it actually started to get a good reception, I got feedback even as I drew, which was nice.
I think it’s amazing how, in spite of the serial staring in a state of you having almost no ideas, it continued to expand without ever running out of subsequent developments.
I was definitely working from chapter to chapter every time, and since I was doing it with a sense of, “what should I do next?” even I couldn’t tell where it was headed. Even with the Tenka’ichi Budōkai, I was drawing it without knowing who would win. At first, even I thought it might be Goku after all, but along the way, there was a survey [in Jump] about “who will win?”, and the result was overwhelmingly “Goku”. Since I’m a contrarian, I don’t want to go along with what everyone else thinks. (laughs) I was desperately thinking up ideas about how not to have Goku win the championship.
The setting for the fights kept getting bigger and bigger, going from Earth into Space, and then to time-travel. In what sort of way did you come to be aware of where it would end?
I was truly drawing without thinking about that sort of thing, but when I got to the Majin Boo arc, I felt that there wasn’t anywhere to go beyond it.
Since it was such a popular work that everyone knew, did you feel like you couldn’t really control it yourself, or rather, did you feel any strange sort of pressure?
There was, somewhat. However, perhaps because I live in the countryside, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I think that was actually probably a good thing. If I had been conscious of it, I would over think things, and it might not have amounted to much.
Drawing an illustration of Goku. There is apparently no set order for drawing him; this time, [Toriyama] starts with the outline. Watching Goku’s face gradually take shape was truly moving. This illustration has been properly framed and now graces the editorial department.
Do you ever re-read your own works?
No. However, with respect to Dragon Ball, about 10 years ago I had to redraw the cover illustrations to coincide with the release of the kanzenban volumes, and at that time, I first re-read it straight through.
What were your thoughts on it after reading it properly?
I thought it really had energy. I felt a sort of power to it. That, and I really managed to make it as big as I talked it up to be. (laughs) I really brought it all together, if I do say so myself.
I don’t have much experience being well-received when I draw it how I like
I’d like to ask about your latest work, Jaco the Galactic Patrolman. You made the comment, “This work might be the last comic I do by myself”; what did you mean by that?
In my case, I do all the work start-to-finish by myself, so it takes quite a bit of time. In spite of being old enough to know better, I tried to draw for half a year straight on about two hours of sleep a night like I did when I was young, and ended up wrecking my body. So, in terms of stamina as well, this 11-chapter serial is probably the last one I’ll illustrate myself. Because I was thinking that, I drew it the way I personally like. Except, I don’t have much experience being well-received when I draw it how I like, so I added a bonus with +1 at the end.
The total of 11 chapters was expressed as 10 + 1; so that means that the “+1” was an extra?! Which means that the punchline in the final chapter wasn’t something you had in mind from the beginning?
I didn’t have it in mind. I believe that with Chapter 10, I was able to draw a perfectly enjoyable masterpiece, but whether the population at large will think so is another story altogether. So, I reviewed it from an objective standpoint, and, thinking that it might be a bit too subdued since there are no flashy battles and the art style feels a bit old, I added one chapter as a bonus. All it is is an extra, and yet everyone says only that last part was interesting. (laughs)
That ending was really something to see! It seemed like everything, including the older style of the art, all connected back to that.
This was true during Dragon Ball as well, but I just happen to be good at making everything hang together. (laughs)
Making cartoons might just be a lot of fun
Having finished drawing Jaco, what are you going to do from here on out?
My wife knows how much I push myself to extremes, so she says things like “hurry up and retire already”. Only, while it’s tough drawing pictures, I would like to do another manga script. In that event, I’d want Masakazu Katsura-kun to draw the art. I’ve been friends with Katsura-kun since way back, and he’s the only person who ever complains at me. (laughs)
I’d definitely like to see that!!
I also think it’d be interesting, but Katsura-kun is so slow with his work. Even when it comes time to do it, we’ll probably have a lot of difficulties. (laughs)
Now then, the final question. Frankly, what are comics to you, Sensei?
Let’s see here. At first, I thought illustration and design were better, but by the time Dragon Ball was just about to end, I came to believe that cartoons which you can do yourself the way you want might just be a lot of fun. I was really late in realizing it, (laughs) but now I think it’s good work.