Toriyama Akira: beyond Dragon Ball

September 14th, 2014 by

Toriyama Akira is most well-known for Dr. Slump and of course Dragon Ball, the latter of which is one of the biggest manga hits the world has ever seen, leading to the creation of three anime series, dozens of anime movies, a (terrible) Hollywood live-action adaptation, a ton of videogames and a gazillion units of merchandise. What is lesser known about Toriyama is that he is one of the most productive mangaka out there, creating dozens of new stories.

Dr. Slump is among the most well-known creations of Toriyama, selling over 35 million units in Japan alone. Granted, one can’t talk about the old master and not mention Dragon Ball, the worldwide hit manga series about the implausibly strong alien and number one Earth defender Goku, that ran in Weekly Shōnen Jump from 1984 to 1995, ultimately selling a gigantic 156 million copies in Japan as of February 2012.

This manga super stardom has only been surpassed by One Piece by a whopping 117 million copies (273 million in total, again as of 2012). Coincidentally enough, the creator of One Piece, Oda Eiichiro, has been heavily influenced by Toriyama. Other artists influenced by Dragon Ball include Kubo Tite (Bleach) and Masashi Kishimoto (Naruto). Toriyama himself stated Disney as an influence, and he’s also a big fan of Star Wars.

In my teens I’ve personally bought dozens of Dragon Ball manga books, which I read in the cantine of the supermarket I was working at. Naturally I’ve also seen the censored English sub of Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network. I practically became an adult while consuming Dragon Ball. As a 29-year old, it’s hard for me to be anything but nostalgic about the franchise. Yes, the stories of Dragon Ball are funny and the fights are insanely long and epic, making you feel like a hyperactive toddler while watching them. In that regard Dragon Ball is definitely a product of a consumerist society, giving you a big shot of forgettable entertainment.

I’d say Toriyama’s biggest strength is not creating plots driven by mega-long powerups, but rather his talent to create lots and lots of comical and light-hearted stories, with plenty of barely concealed innuendo. His characters are definitely likable albeit rather one-dimensional, actually serving the plot and the delivery of humor. His stories are seemingly designed to make readers happy (and succeeding most of the time).

Nearly all of his works feature anthropomorphism, meaning the human like form and behaviour from and by non-humans. Unsurprisingly, in real life Toriyama loves animals. In his stories, some of the anthropomorphic animals confusingly living besides “real” animals are cats, dogs, crocodiles, ostriches, bears, pigs, etc. The good guys are usually “real” humans though.

The amount of works Toriyama has produced is staggering. Between 1977 and 2013, he’s published manga as part of dozens of different titles and series literally every year. During these highly productive five (!!!) decades, he’s also been involved in doing character designs and artwork for videogames such as Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, anime films and series (mostly Dr. Slump and Dragon Ball, but still) as well as commisioned illustrative work and even designing a car. All in all, Toriyama has a very distinct and iconic art style which is instantly recognized by millions of people worldwide.

Toriyama’s career did have a bumpy and uneven start however, as he was trying to make readers like his comical and slightly bizarre works: it’s a true artist’s evolution. He’s produced several short stories like Tomato, Girl Detective, Today’s Highlight Island and Wonder Island before he had big hits like Dr. Slump and of course Dragon Ball.

It’s clear Toriyama has been experimenting in his early works, testing reader reactions. His first titles weren’t really well received, but he gradually got better at it. In the end that’s a very important aspect of his style: to please audiences. Toriyami himself said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun that “the role of my manga is to be a work of entertainment through and through. I dare say I don’t care even if (my works) have left nothing behind, as long as they have entertained their readers.”

In a recent interview with the Japanese magazine V-Jump, about the upcoming Dragon Ball Z movie Battle of the Gods, you can read, among other things, more about Toriyama’s thoughts on his creation process.

Toriyama has been drawing frantically ever since he was a kid, and by the time he was twenty, he was designing posters for a living at an advertising agency. Obviously this wasn’t his true calling. He then applied to an amateur manga contest to win the prize money, with the series Mysterious Rain Jack as his submission.

He didn’t win the prize, but he immediately made a fan out of Torishima Kazuhiko, editor at Shueisha, the publisher of several Jump magazines, who’d encourage him to try again. This resulted in Toriyama’s debut publication in Weekly Shōnen Jump: Wonder Island. Torishima ended up becoming Toriyama’s editor. Not long after Wonder Island, Toriyama scored a huge hit with Dr. Slump, about a professor who made an incredible powerful robot girl named Arale, and the rest is as they say, history.

Ennio Wolsink is a Dutch ICT-entrepreneur, avid manga reader, anime watcher, Karate black belt and Japanese in spirit. He dreams of his own manga/anime productions.

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