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Akira Toriyama Interview

The story behind the creator of one of the best anime’s ever seen.

Akira Toriyama's style is one that's immediately identifiable, even among a sea of other manga artists—no one does it quite the same. Toriyama's male characters are shorter, rounder, and somehow tougher, with a combination of Tezuka-like saucer eyes, throbbing muscles and laughing, toothy mouths. His female characters have their own brand of solid sexiness and cross eyed cuteness, and simply put, no one has a better grip on drawing children. Like rambunctious school kids, Toriyama characters dominate their space on paper as if it were their own sovereign state—when they shout, run, fly, kick, punch or let fly with a power blast, you can almost feel the energy crackle.

Toriyama traces his origins as an artist to his elementary school days. Even today, he remembers the first time his drawing began to really come together. "My first memory of a satisfactory drawing was that of a horse," he says. "I still remember it. I knew I got the joints right.

"I've always liked to draw," he continues. "When I was little, we didn't have many forms of entertainment like we do today, so we were all drawing pictures. In elementary school, we were all drawing manga (comics in Japanese) or animation characters and showing them to each other.' But when asked if this early, self-made training in drawing is what led to his current career as a manga artist, Toriyama is skeptical. "Perhaps," he says. "I just kept on drawing. We all start out with around the same drawing skills don't we? I started to do portraits of friends and whatnot and started to think drawing was fun."

As to what he drew back then, Toriyama points to the popular animated shows of the day. "I don't remember the very first animation show I saw, but the one of which I have the fondest memories is Tetsuwan Atom. I used to send out coupons to collect Atom stickers." Nothing too surprising there, as Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom (a.k.a. Astro Boy) is remembered fondly by nearly every Japanese child who grew up during its on-air run. More surprising is Walt Disney's hand in Toriyama's early art career.

"When I was a child, there was a drawing class in the neighborhood," Toriyama says. "The kids would go there and draw pictures. I remember drawing 101 Dalmatians and getting a prize. That must have gotten into my head and made me what I am today," he laughs.

Aside from Atom and 101 Dalmatians ("I remember that movie for the great art"), Toriyama remembers watching Tetsujin 28, 8-Man, and the TV show Osamatsu-feun. We all imitated Iyami's 'shee' from that show," he recalls fondly. Later in his elementary school career, he began to like the live-action costumed hero shows and monster movies.

Nearing junior high, his tastes began to run more toward regular, theatrical movies, but his roots were not forgotten. Toriyama confirms that the Ginyu Special Forces in Dragon all had poses based on the live-action shows he watched with his son. "Those shows are pretty fun," he admits.

monkey business

Before he created Dragon Ball, Toriyama the artist had already become well known in Japan for his slapstick manga (and later anime as well) Dr. Slump, a story of a cute li'l robot girl and her antics with her inventor's family. Dragon Ball's genesis came on the heels of Dr. Slump. "In ending Dr Slump, I conferred with my editor many times about what to do for my next serial (weekly comic pages)," Toriyama says. "I always liked Jackie Chan and had seen his Drunken Master II many times. Torishima encouraged me to draw a kung fu manga if I liked it that much. That was the one-shot Dragon Boy I drew. The readers liked it, so I decided my next serial would be in this vein."

To give himself a change of scenery from the "American West Coast" art style of Dr. Slump, Toriyama decided to keep the Drunken Master origins for his new serial in mind and go with a focus on China.

"If its going to be Chinese, it might as well be from the Monkey King," Toriyama decided. "The Monkey King is, after all, a tall tale with adventure," he says. "However, I decided to go with a Monkey King with some modem elements. I thought it would be easy to arrange with a base story all ready." The Monkey King, known in Japan as Saiyuki, or "The Journey west," is a legend known to nearly every Asian child as the archetype of the quest story. An early thought to draw Goku as a real monkey, however, was discarded as unoriginal. "That would have been the Monkey King exactly. That wouldn't show any creativity, so I decided to make the main character human. I wanted a normal human boy, but that wouldn't have character." Ultimately, Toriyama decided to add a little something extra.

"The main character in Dragon Boy had wings, so I wanted something immediately obvious like that. So Goku got his tail. That way, he could hide behind a rock, but if his tail showed, the readers could tell he's right there. Then, I added the Dragon Balls that grant your wish when you collect all seven of them. I thought I could make a Monkey King type of journey story."

 

In keeping with the Monkey King's tale, Toriyama fitted out his supporting characters to stand in for Goku's traditional companions in the quest. Bulma fits the part of Sanzo the priest, who harnesses Goku's power; Oolong stands in for Hakkai the pig; and Yamcha is Gojo, the river monster. The parallels are near exact fits, with slight variances—in the original Saiyuki legend, the Monkey King is bound to Sanzo’s service by a golden headband, which the priest can constrict with a word. In Toriyama's world, Oolong is the one to receive a "restraining" order of a somewhat different type from Bulma (PP candy). Even the group's goal of collecting the seven Dragon Balls harkens to the Monkey King and his companions' search for sutras sacred beyond price. The Dragon Balls have the power to fulfill dreams — certainly beyond price. But apparently, Toriyama's initial idea for Dragon Ball went no further than that first Saiyuki-like quest for the Dragon Balls. "In the beginning, I was planning to end Dragon Ball when all seven Dragon Balls had been collected."

martial arts and merchandising

Although Toriyama's success with Dr. Slump would have been acclaim enough for any artist to retire on, Dragon Ball was such a hit that it completely eclipsed its predecessor. Serialized in the weekly manga anthology magazine SHONEN JUMP (which sells from four to six million copies per week) from 1984-1995, Dragonball became one of the most popular and most widely known manga and anime series in the history of Japan, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Foreign editions of Toriyama's manga have been translated and published in countries all over Asia and Europe, such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Italy, France, and Spain, and the animated version of Dragon Ball has been seen in France, Spain, Belgium, Italy,

Greece, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Once you add CDs, video games, and mega merchandising all over the globe, sales of Dragon Ball-related goods are estimated at US$3 billion worldwide.

But how did all this happen? What sparked such runaway popularity? According to Toriyama, "The manga wasn't too popular before the Tenka-Ichi Budokai ("World's Ultimate Martial Arts Tournament"). Torishima told me one time: 'your main character is too quiet. That's why it's not so popular.' I wanted to win readers with the story this time around, and I had even made the effort to come up with a normally dressed main character, so I was peeved, and I told him, 'I'll do some 'crowd-pleaser material, then.'

"In the Dr Slump days, event and tournament stories like the Penguin Village Grand Prix were popular," Toriyama, continues. "So I decided to go with a simple tournament. That's how the Tenka-Ichi tournament came to be. All the characters except Goku got pulled out, Kame Sen'nin (The Turtle Hermit) came back, and the new character Krillin showed up. Immediately, popularity went up."

This "crowd-pleaser material" became the hallmark of the second animated series; the fight-fight-fight-oriented Dragon Ball Z. Toriyama took marital arts past even the most outrageous excesses of Hong Kong action films and into the far reaches of the realm of superheroes. In Dragon Ball, if you train hard enough, you can fly, firepower blasts, split into multiple bodies, teleport and even fuse two beings into one that combines the powers of both. That's if you train hard enough, mind you.

"When you think about the character Goku, the best description of him is that he wants to get strong, so I decided that should really show." But even so, Toriyama had to work at winning his audience over to Dragon Ball's new martial arts motif — super powers or no, not even Super Saiyans have it easy. "Goku only wins for the first time in the third tournament," he says. "People around me tell me that they all know Goku is going to win. I am so contrary that if people say that, I'll go out of my way to make him not win."

dinner and a TV show

As with most manga success stories, an animated series wasn't long in the making. The animated Dragon Ball TV series went on-air in Japan in 1986, the name of the series later changing to "Dragon Ball Z" in 1989. This second series, Dragon Ball Z, was a run away hit, producing literally hundreds of weekly episodes until its end in January 1996 — not to mention various animated movies and TV specials, plus a third TV series, independent of Toriyama's manga storyline, Dragon Ball GT, which started airing on Japanese TV right after the end of Dragon Ball Z.

Toriyama remembers watching the animated Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z TV series while eating dinner or together with his own young son. He enjoyed the show (as did his son), but largely kept his own input to the show to a minimum.

"I don't tend to interfere with the animators’ process. I wanted a fantastic story, so I did tell them that, but the basic production was all up to them. I might put in a small word where I thought it'd really matter." Instead, the animation actually ended up having an affect on the look of Toriyama's own manga. "When I talked to the animation director Toyo'o Ashida and saw his drawings, I thought that it was more effective to depict fights with sharper lines," Toriyama says. "Until then, I had tended to use subtler colorings, but I changed to more defined colors, like in the animation. I learned that you can get the same effects as gradated colors if the coloring is done right. So I was able to do sharp colors, which were more suitable for a boys' magazine, and learned an easier way of coloring at the same time. This was the influence from both the animation and Mr. Ashida.

"I'm always impressed with the work of animators," Toriyama says. "You have to be able to draw the scenes' in-between movements. I'm impressed with the way they can do that — I don't think I could. Also, I envy animation for being able to show sudden movements and for places where they can use light. In animation, an explosion can flash, and light and sound will follow as effects. In manga, the sound has to be hand-written, so " it's not as effective," he laughs. "I'm especially envious of animation's ability to use sound effects and music. Plus, I like animation's ability to make mecha move. Especially complex movements. There's a limit to that in manga, so I envy it."

With such limitations of manga in mind, does Toriyama ever feel that he wants to work not on manga but on animation? "You have more potential in animation. I always house ideas about coming up with a story idea for animation and getting that animated."

Dragon Ball Z fans agree — the strength of the later story is in its extensive fight scenes between its ever-more-powerful characters. The challenge to the artist of such a story is to maintain suspense, even for fights that are sometimes carried out for volumes at a time (which can translate to weeks upon weeks of TV episodes in the animation).

"You can't have the same fight every time," Toriyama confirms. "In earlier times, Goku was still small, so it was all right, but in the latter half [of the story], the fighting escalated. I had to come up with more powerful attacks." Thus, the "Super Saiyan" mode of leveling-up a character's power came about. "Personally, I feel there's a limit to how strong one can be, so [power-ups] are usually out of desperation." The distinctive Super Saiyan "look"— spiky blond hair reaching for the sky, sharp-edged muscles, power crackling like a live wire—had its own inspiration. "I wasn't planning on Goku becoming a Super Saiyan, so when I came up with the Super Saiyan idea, I thought that his appearance should also change to show his power-up. In terms of design, his expression looks more like an enemy, doesn't it? I had doubts if that's what he should become, but since he'd transform [into a Super Saiyan] out of anger, I decided that it was acceptable. It was a pretty bold idea. As for enemies, they transform if my editor says he doesn't like them," he laughs.

A later power-up form, Fusion — the process of two warriors combining into an even tougher form, such as Trunks' and Goten's Fusion power-up, Gotenks—had this origin: "I was having a conversation that there's nothing stronger than a Super Saiyan," laughs Toriyama. "Usually, Masakazu Katsura (Video Girl Ai) and I only talk about silly things, but he said, 'You can always fuse them together.' I told him he said something useful for the first time." The concept of Fusion increased the humor of certain fighting scenes, but Toriyama doesn't see a problem with having more laughs than lacerations in his manga. "If the story got too serious, my own blood pressure would get high, and personally, I don't like that. I always think that manga is completely for entertainment." On the other hand, when Toriyama is asked to pick out his favorite original story for the Dragon Ball animation, he passes over the lighter tales and selects the story with Goku's father, Bardock. "It's a pretty dramatic story that I'd never draw myself. I got to see a different kind of Dragon Ball in a good way."

Speaking of entertainment, how about the Kame Sen'nin's (Turtle master) signature attack, the Kamehameha? Where did that idea come from? "I don't really like giving names to attacks," Toriyama says. "I don't think the characters would be yelling out the names of their attacks in life-or-death situations. You'd get killed while yelling the name of your attack," he laughs. "But my editor said I'm better off giving attacks names. Kamehameha is my wife's invention. I was agonizing, 'It's Kame's attack, called something-ha! Something-ha!' She just suggested ‘Kame-hame-ha.' It was great. It was so silly that it fit Kame Sen'nin's image so well."

when worlds collide

The world as it shows up in Dragon Ball is like Earth, yet not exactly like Earth. A place of vast desert landscapes like something out of a Road Runner cartoon; palm-studded tropical islands; huge, bustling cities like Windsor McCay's turn of the century futurescapes; villages like the homes of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Ubiquitous push buttons and expanding "Capsule Corporation" gadgets straight out of The Jetsons, both cute and high-tech; Bulma's air scooter in an early story looks like an Electrolux vacuum cleaner wired for speed—'50s kitsch for a lush cartoon world.

"All the worlds I’ve drawn in manga are different from the real world, from the very first manga on," Toriyama says. "You can't tell where Penguin Village is... Kishman looked a little more realistic, but you can't place that on the map either. It's easier, after all — my standard for choosing something is for the ease. If something's based on the real world, I have to use references for buildings and vehicles. This way, I can decide on any setting I want and draw it freely."

Dragon Ball, however, did use some real-life places as a basis. "My wife was infatuated with China back then, so I used some photo books she had bought. Also, before the serial had started, I'd gone to Bali with my family and assistants. Papaya Island, where the Tenka-Ichi tournament is held, is completely modeled after Bali." Other instances where

Toriyama was forced to pull out real-life references were the location of a buried spaceship ("I used an African photo collection for that") and various barren wastelands. "The latter stories all took place in barren wastelands, so it was tough to depict them differently. I change the scenery each time. I'd change the shape of the rocks or the faraway mountains. I'd have to let the readers know it's a different place from last time — it would be boring to use the same location."

"It's been a habit of mine since childhood to always be looking around," he continues. "When I go shopping, I have more fun observing the town than shopping. For my work, the town scenery, small things, and people's clothes all are useful — also, the sundries I had to draw back when I was an employee. I would complain that I had to draw a hundred pairs of socks," he laughs. "In retrospect, that was a useful exercise." Instead of sketching what he sees, he says that "I burn it into my vision, so I usually fail when I try to draw it later. 'Was it like this?' But I retain the general image of things. I'll rely on that not-so-fully accurate memory to draw things. I can probably draw most anything that way."

Movies are another source for his ideas, albeit an even more subliminal one than his on-the-street observations. Toriyama doesn't watch movies as much as let them play in the background while he works ("Subtitles aren't good for me — I can't work!"), but sometimes, little inspirations shine through. "In terms of story they're of no use," Toriyama says. "But how to show things, like explosions, where something doesn't just blow up — it might flash first, and then the sound might follow a little afterwards. Also, Jackie Chan's movies might be a reference for the rhythm of battle.

"The only other time I might use references for my art would be in drawing cars and planes," Toriyama continues. "Plastic models are useful. You can examine them from every angle when you're drawing cars." This need for detail, apparently, is part of what led to Toriyama's cute, cartoony style of drawing machines and other gadgetry. "If you want to depict something exactly the way it is, it takes a tremendous amount of time. If you don't get the details right, the inaccuracies will accumulate somewhere. But it's no problem if it's caricatured. I try to get done as quickly as possible.

"I probably have the most fun thinking up original vehicles," he continues. "I usually consider details such as how to get into them and where their engines are. When you draw a real-world car, you have to obtain some references. I'd hate to have someone point out that I'm wrong," he laughs. "But if it's something I invented, I can have it my way." In fact, this caricatured style is truly essential to the Dragon Ball world as a whole. "My manga is in the slapstick style, so if the characters are caricatured humans, then it'd be strange for everything else not to be caricatured."

Besides Dragon Ball's version of Earth, the series indulges in many adventures "off world" — on the planet Nameck, searching for the more powerful grade-up version of Earth's Dragon Balls. "I came up with the Nameck architecture and spaceships based on Piccolo [Daimao’s] throne. I really only gave thought to making the setting coherent when they went to Nameck," Toriyama claims. Another unique setting is Dragon Ball's very Asian heaven and hell, where Goku spends more than a little of the series, trying to get back to Earth. Toriyama's take, however, is far from the typical one. "God's shrine looked rather mystical, so I thought it might work to make the other place look conversely worldly. So Enma [king of the Spirit World, city of Hades] and the ogres show up wearing suits like businessmen." The Afterlife, in Toriyama's vision, is filled with references to Earthly routine—from street-cleaning trucks on Snake Way to ogres wearing T-shirts and jogging gear and souls traveling to heaven on an airplane. In explanation, Toriyama refers to a world map in the Dragon Ball illustration collection.

"This map was something I originally drew at the request of an animator, but I used this opportunity to make [the world] complete. I usually come up with the story first and then set up the world. A real manga artist would probably draw the map first and then think up the story. This might make me sound like I work without thinking, but that's not true. I do have a vague notion before coming up with the story."

playing god

In the same vain, Toriyama's approach to character design is to create characters to fit his story. In Dragon Ball, even the premise that the characters were aliens was something Toriyama just came up with at the time. "I didn't have in mind that Goku would be an alien when he had a tail or turned into a giant ape. The same for Piccolo. I came up with that when God showed up. I usually come up with some retrofitted explanation."

Likewise, Toriyama begins his character designs with the personality, filling in details as he goes. "I start with the face, and as I think up the face, I come up with the physique. After the head and body, I get a notion of a costume that would be suitable for the world he lives in, or for a fighting character, something he'd be comfortable wearing in combat. Basically, I think in monochrome — after I come up with characters, their color schemes are roughly set in my mind. Of course, they come up differently when I actually color them in on paper."

Dragon Ball aside, nowadays Toriyama is possibly even better known as a video game character designer, especially in America, where Japanese animation and comics are still only really beginning to catch on. Toriyama's characters for popular video games such as Chrono Trigger and Tobal No.1 are instantly recognizable, almost to the point of being characters that could just as easily have appeared in Dragon Ball (we know of one DBZ fan who managed to use the "customizing" feature in Tobal 2 to replicate Gotenks). Toriyama says of his adventures designing for video games that it was probably first suggested to him by his editor. "I didn't want to at first," he says, "but it did expand my horizons." On the difference between designing characters for video games and designing characters for manga or animation, Toriyama admits that "It's different," and notes that although video game characters are tiny, it's still possible to draw intricate designs.

"In manga or animation, detailed designs make for hard work, but: you don't have those restrictions with video games. You have to give them distinguishing characteristics, even when they get reduced to a few pixels. It might be the same for animation. You'd have a dark character, a brown character, or even a purple character. For my own manga, I like to avoid the effort of using screen tones, but in animation, the very same thing has to be done to distinguish the characters. In video games, they might have costumes that I'd have a hard time keeping up with in manga. For animation, I have to come up with a compromise that won't tax the animators while still resembling the video game.