Translations Archive

Weekly Playboy, 1995 #5


Akira Toriyama – Exclusive Interview

Gods of the Land of the Rising Sun: onward to a 21st Century where manga becomes “MANGA”1

These days, Japanese comics are not limited to domestic consumption. Having entered the final decade of the 20th Century, they find explosive support in parts of Asia such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, and are beginning to spread even further into Europe and the Americas, their first global foray since ukiyo-e2. Who are these new creators that the Land of the Rising Sun boasts of?!

■ At any rate, I needed my smokes

AKIRA Toriyama. In spite of being a charismatic and mysterious character above and beyond his title of “cartoonist”, it is the first time his unvarnished opinions have been able to penetrate this deeply.

It is also not entirely unrelated to the explanation for why Akira Toriyama’s face is deliberately obscured on these interview pages.

“I love wandering around and looking at stuff. There’s all sorts of things out there, you know? It’s fun just gazing at them.

“But, I don’t know how many years ago, I went to a new supermarket that had just opened. I was walking as always, when I passed in front of the fish department and I met the gaze of the girl who was working there. ‘Ah! You’re Toriyama-san3, aren’t you! Give me your autograph!’

“It couldn’t be helped, so I went to a darkened corner and tried to inconspicuously sign my name, but maybe because they’d heard about me or something, all these older ladies started crowding around me… they even went and bought markers and signature boards from the stationery section just to get my autograph.

“In the end, I couldn’t get out of there for quite a long time… Because of stuff like that, I haven’t been back to that supermarket since.”

And so, he started refusing the interviews he had given here and there up until then, and began avoiding blatant exposure of his face.

Japan’s Michael Jordan. It’s not a stretch to think of him that way. A being whom the children of America respect more than their parents, whom they dream of, whom they become speechless in front of, and whom they worship like a god. And at the same time, a superstar who has lost his private life. His field may be different, but there is no difference in his immeasurable influence.

“Well, I’m not that big of a deal. At the time of that autograph-frenzy, there were kids there too, going, ‘Hurry up and sign already. And don’t forget the illustration.’ (laughs) Actually, I usually live an extremely normal life, since I live in the countryside. Even when people call me ‘famous’ and such, I can’t really fathom it, even now.”

Akira Toriyama, denying [his reputation] with these words, has never lived anywhere but his family home here, in the vicinity of Nagoya. These days, with the spread of express deliveries, photocopies, and fax machines, there are many cartoonists who ply their trade from the provinces, but it was a rare thing at the time he made his debut.

“I hate crowds, so I didn’t want to go to Tokyo. And plus, I’m lazy, so I simply couldn’t live by myself. Right after Dr. Slump started in serialization, my editor T——4 told me, ‘If your manuscript is late, you’re coming to Tokyo,’ so I drew desperately so as not to be late.”

‘Lazy’. As he spoke, this became the key word.

“At first, I was working a typical office job at an advertising firm. As a designer, though, since I had at least studied design in high school. But I quit after three years. I was constantly late. (laughs) I felt that working at an office from the early morning was impossible for me. Anyway, I wanted to be free from that lifestyle as soon as possible. I wanted to take it easy.”

But naturally, his money would run out, and he couldn’t hold his head up high.

“After I quit, my parents would tell me, ‘Don’t go out; it’s embarrassing’. It couldn’t be helped, though, so I’d spend my time aimlessly, reading comics at cafés. But eventually, I ran out of money for cigarettes….

“Then, an issue of Weekly Shōnen Magazine I was reading at the time had “prize money: 500,000 yen” written for its new-talent award. I had a fair amount of confidence in my drawing skills, and I did like Tezuka-san5 and such, so I thought, ‘All right, I’ll draw a comic!’

“At any rate, I needed my smokes.”

To think that this man, for whom such an income would now be practically nothing, set down that path out of a need for cigarette-money….

And what was this about Weekly Shōnen Magazine and not Weekly Shōnen Jump?!

“That’s right; the deadline passed as I was drawing, so…. When I looked at Shōnen Jump, they were taking submissions every month. It was a monthly award. The prize money was only 100,000 yen, but I figured, what the hell.

“Then I got a call from my first editor T——, saying, why don’t you shoot for serialization? ‘Your story is still no good, but you have a novel way of drawing sound effects, like Kiii——n and Gacha, which has impact,’ he said. I had just done the same thing I did on posters with stuff like ‘Year-end bargains——!’ or ‘Super sale on now——’, though. (laughs)

“But in the end, I didn’t win the award. If I had gotten the prize money, I probably would have been satisfied with that and quit.”

What might the editorial department at Weekly Shōnen Magazine think upon hearing this? Nevertheless, as a result, from then on Akira Toriyama would begin his non-stop ascent to success-story.

■ I can quit at any time

Continuing on from his big hit Dr. Slump, Dragon Ball has received overwhelming support to this day, and it is common knowledge that he has raised the commercial value of comics in a myriad of ways. However, at that time, he says that many called into question his shift from gag manga to story manga.

“T—— knew that I liked Jackie Chan, and said that, in that case, why not draw a Toriyama-style Kung Fu story? When I first started, I even heard that people said it would be a flop. I’m a sore loser, though, so I thought, ‘All right, then!’ But in actuality, coming up with gags every single week had gotten pretty tough. So, I made it into a story manga. Then, as I was doing it, I came to think it was pretty enjoyable. You know how they say the characters sort of start acting of their own accord? That really does happen. Then again, I figured I could just quit if it was no good. So there wasn’t any particular pressure. The truth is, I wanted to rest a bit after Dr. Slump. I’d be able to smoke for the time being, after all. (laughs)

How about this philosophical attitude? He was earning money, and no longer wanted for anything. And yet, I felt neither excess nor arrogance in his words. He was too easygoing. As Akira Toriyama talks, he gives no sense of the ugliness or the clinging to fame that people who have gotten this big tend to fall into.

“It’s nice to have money, though. Up to the point that I don’t want for anything, anyway. Maybe it’s because of where I am now that I’m able to say that? But actually, even I don’t really know what goes on with my money. It’s Bird Studio’s, after all. Even back when we built this house, my parents moved the conversation along on their own. I was like, ‘Hm? Are we building something?’ Still, even after I became successful, my parents didn’t change all that much. They just stopped complaining so much.

“Although, at one point, my father did come up to me and say, ‘Come on, let’s get a Benz’. I thought he was being awfully ingratiating. (laughs)

His home certainly is grand. However, it is neither gaudy nor excessively large. Akira Toriyama himself, too, has the appearance of an ordinary person, in a sweatshirt, jeans, cap, and basketball shoes. When one thinks of his rumored income, it’s so ordinary as to be disappointing.

Nevertheless, the rumors fly as high as his name-recognition.

From Korea, a list of questions for a text-based interview arrived. However, the contents written therein made no sense. Where was the island he lived on, how was traveling by helicopter, and so on, all of uncertain meaning. When he attempted to confirm [the content of the questions], it turned out that word was going around that “Akira Toriyama bought an island, and goes back and forth by helicopter between it and Tokyo”!

“Actually, being called ‘Sensei, Sensei’ at parties and such is practically embarrassing even now, and even being told that I’m now famous beyond Japan, it just doesn’t feel real. There is a sense of, ‘Oh, really?’ though.”

Certainly, even apart from his money and fame, his lack of clinginess is surprising. And furthermore, his way of thinking is consistent with that, as well….

■ Conclusion: God is like a child

I heard this from his third editor, T——.6

“There was one time when his manuscript was almost lost. The delivery truck that it was always sent on at a designated time was involved in an accident, which caused a huge stir. Naturally, I called Sensei up in a panic. Then he said, ‘I made photocopies. Will those do?’ In a world where authors would be furious and editors would shave their heads in shame at the loss of an original manuscript, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Certainly, to an author, an original manuscript is special. However, there was even a time that manuscripts returned to him, starting with Dr. Slump, were left piled in the garage. And on top of that, apparently they have even been used by his son Sasuke-kun in lieu of sketchbooks.

“That’s because I have no more interest in things that are finished.”

When he shows me his workspace, plastic models he worked so hard to build lie broken, and the model guns he has collected sit neglected; a far cry from the loving display treatment of an enthusiast.

“That’s because I don’t look back at them anymore.”

I had to laugh. He had said he doesn’t think much about the past, after all. And actually, even for this interview, his editor T—— [Takeda] would ask him if something like this had happened, and eventually, “Ah, now that you mention it…” he was able to pull it out of his memory.

Is it that this lack of particularity goes along with the sheer depths of his ability?

“Ultimately, the times that I’m completely focused on doing something are the most fun. Maybe I’m just like a child. I’m full of curiosity about things, and it’s fine as long as it’s fun at that time, yet at the same time, I hate things that are tough.

“I say that I’ve never been late with a manuscript, but I don’t mean to be arrogant; it’s that I simply want to get it done as soon as possible so I can be set free. Even the fact that I almost never use an assistant isn’t because I’m particular about the art or anything; it’s just because I didn’t know about using them. I’d always been drawing by myself from out in the countryside, so I was constantly in wonder over how other people were able to draw so much. (laughs)”

His face as he answered while grinning certainly looked mischievous.

Just like a child.

But isn’t that both the most important, and the most difficult thing?

As they get older, many authors have no choice but to move from a shōnen magazine to a seinen magazine.

They are no longer able to draw children… the reason is because they no longer understand children.

But Akira Toriyama lives on with the same emotions as a child.

“I’ve ordered a classic car, one called a Jaguar Mark II. Right now, they’re doing a number of things over there (in the U.K.) so that I can drive it over here, but it sure was fun when I was thinking about the color scheme. I’d photocopy some lineart of the car, and then color it myself. Hmm, I suppose I must have done up to about 300. It’s good, doing the colors yourself. I’m probably grinning while I imagine it. That’s why I have no interest in things like Macs or PCs7.

“But, it’s now been about 3 years since I ordered it. I guess that’s probably normal in the U.K.”

He really wasn’t just an ordinary person. That car probably cost some tens of millions of yen.

When, from the side, T—— suggested, “Its finally coming is great and all, but don’t you unexpectedly end up not riding in it?”

Akira Toriyama again gave a carefree laugh: “Ah, you might be right”.

Lastly, I asked him something I had just thought of. A simple question, regarding a man this aloof, this unattached to things.

Did he fear death?

“Well, I’m really afraid of that. Really afraid.”

This, I felt, was the greatest outpouring of emotion he had had all day.

His eyes were remarkable. It was as though he were actually answering before the Grim Reaper beckoning to him.


“I mean, there’s still so many things I want to do!”

I inadvertently grinned at his subsequent words.

Yes, as manga prepares to take the world by storm as “MANGA”, this god is just like a child, as unchanging as ever.

And so, the fact that he does not change is an amazing one, but….

He draws his stories while wearing a dotera [padded kimono jacket], sitting at the kotatsu [low table with a heater and a blanket to keep in the heat]. From this sort of ordinary, everyday scene, his works come into being.

The following translator notes are included for the benefit of the reader as supplemental information.

1 “Manga” written again here in the same sentence is this time written in Latin letters, emphasizing the spread of Japanese comics around the world.

2 Mass-produced woodblock prints from the Edo- and early Meiji periods (1600s to late 1800s), often held to be the forerunner of modern Japanese comics. They were especially popular outside Japan in the middle of the 1800s, when japonisme, the European craze for all things Japanese, helped influence the Impressionist movement in Western art.

3 The “-san” here is written in katakana to emphasize its inappropriateness. He’s an artist, so he’s properly “Toriyama-sensei” to non-colleagues and non-acquaintances.

4 Kazuhiko Torishima, Toriyama’s first editor from his start in Jump through the Saiyan arc of Dragon Ball.

5 Osamu Tezuka (1928–1989), author of Astro Boy among many other works, and considered the “god of manga” who helped solidify the medium and many of its genres.

6 Fuyuto Takeda, Toriyama’s editor from the Cell Game to the end of the series.

7 Toriyama would not get his first personal computer — a Mac — until the following year, as mentioned in the Shenlong Times from Daizenshuu #7. In spite of his attitude at the time, however, he would eventually credit his drawing by computer with keeping him from retiring altogether as he grew tired of working with ink and paper.

English Translation: SaiyaJedi