Thank You, Toriyama Sensei

When news broke a few days ago that legendary mangaka and creator of one of the most globally recognizable IPs in Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama, had passed away at the spry age of 68, my heart sank. Toriyama sensei meant more to me than the next couple thousand words could possibly explain. Dragon Ball, especially Dragon Ball Z, was my childhood. A show whose characters have stayed with me throughout some of the most pivotal moments of my adolescence, and continues to bring me joy to this very day. An IP that I still revisit from time-to-time either via the show, the manga, the video games, or the movies. I even made watching the most recent film, Dragon Ball Super: Super Heroes, a part of my 30th birthday schedule a couple months ago; much to the perplexity of my non-anime-watching wife who, though was happy to oblige in joining me as I reverted back to my childhood, watched with visible confusion at the cast of quirky characters whom she knew nothing about (at least she liked Bulma). 

Though Dragon Ball tried airing in North America in the late 80s, it wouldn’t be until the late 90s and the official release of the Funimation dub of Dragon Ball Z where the show would really take off. I can’t pinpoint when I first started watching the show, though remember being mesmerized by its opening and the wonderfully campy theme from the Canadian intro on YTV. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. To be moved by these characters as they continued to push themselves physically and mentally each episode, to laugh mischievously at the at-times sexually charged crass humour. And, of course, to gawk in awe at the fantastically frenetic action sequences. It wouldn’t take long before my childhood bedroom was adorned with action figures, posters, and video games from the Dragon Ball universe. 

However, what intrigues me is that the IP still resonates with me all these years later. Sure, its quality with Super may have dipped, the manga has struggled to meet the bar in storytelling and paneling that Toriyama sensei had set, and the games haven’t really struck with me since the Budokai days, but I still enjoy engaging with the IP. You could chalk this up to simple nostalgia, however I would argue that there are other shows for which I am almost as equally nostalgic for, but rarely ever think about. So allow me to dive into (some of) the different mediums Dragon Ball exists in, and explain why Toriyama’s world stands out amongst other anime properties; doing so as a thank you to one of the industry’s greatest.  

The Show

Dragon Ball
Remember Krillin with hair?!

Though the blisteringly fast action sequences coupled with the oh-so-slick transformations are what’s most widely known about Dragon Ball Z, the narrative weight that propels those moments are what make them all the more memorable. From Piccolo’s heroic sacrifice to save a whimpering Gohan, the child of his former nemesis that he’d begrudgingly took under his wing to mentor, to Majin Vegeta sacrificing his body to save Earth, irrespective of his supposedly evil heart resurfacing; doing so only after taking a heartfelt moment to hug his son. These are just a couple examples of moments within Dragon Ball Z that showcase the genuinely beautiful character writing the show and Toriyama were capable of. Not to mention the countless comedic moments that brilliantly strides in tandem to the drama, bringing a charming levity to almost every episode without fail. These moments are punctuated by the show’s cast of incredibly talented voice actors. Whether you’re listening to Christopher Sabat running through octaves to lend his vocal chords to quite literally half the cast in the English dub, or Masako Nozawa screaming at the top of her lungs for her Goku to reach Super Saiyan 3 in Japanese, every actor plays such a huge role in bringing these characters to life. Their voices will forever be iconized as these roles, and I’m glad the show hasn’t had the need to do much recasting throughout the decades it’s been on the air.

One of the more contentious elements of the Funimation airing that I will forever defend, is the soundtrack by Bruce Faulconer. Many fans take issue with Mr. Faulconer’s work, particularly with how it stumbles the pacing of critical moments at times due to its lack of restraint (a decision made less by Faulconer, and more by Funimation executives to keep kids engaged; as if literal godlike entities fighting aliens wasn’t enough). Tonally speaking, however, I can’t imagine watching this show without his music, and is one of the biggest omissions from the otherwise incredibly abridged version of the series, Dragon Ball Z Kai. Faulconer’s use of subtle electro-synth beats integrated with some classical elements blended with Funimation’s story-boarding perfectly. It added to every tense moment this eerie suspense that felt aptly futuristic, but at the same time otherworldly.

I mentioned Kai, a relatively recent reworking of the original Z series that cut much of the fat and stayed truer to the manga. This was done mainly because of the original show’s horrendous pacing. It isn’t hard to find memes within anime spheres taking jabs at Z taking multiple episodes for a character to finish a transformation, filling each episode with a barrage of soap opera-esque cutaway close-ups of characters gritting their teeth and reacting in awe at the seemingly unbelievable thing taking place. The Dragon Ball Z anime is definitely dated, in more ways than one. Whether it’s the pacing, or the animation quality during the chaotic fight scenes that leave a lot of information to the imagination, the show had to go through a learning process. But through this process they created the blueprint that paved the way for future battle anime behemoths like One Piece and Naruto. What we also have to understand is that the anime itself is an adaptation. An adaptation that has had to, at times, be at the mercy of the schedules of its manga releases, which in turn creates filler that leads to the aforementioned pacing issues. Because when it comes to the manga, the source material that Akira Toriyama himself wrote and drew, there is frankly no comparison.

The Manga

Dragon Ball Manga
Image: Weekly Shonen Jump

If you didn’t notice, I didn’t mention the original Dragon Ball in the previous segment. This is because the show aired only after Z had made its debut in Canada. By the time I came around to it, I was put off by its older animation style and lack of Super Saiyan transformations (I was a child, cut me some slack). As the years passed, I would get a general idea of Goku’s early years through snippets on the internet, but wouldn’t ever watch the show proper. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I stumbled across the first few volumes collated together in the VizBig edition at my local bookstore, and actually experienced those early stories of Goku and the gang. I went on to read the entirety of those early stories, all the way up to the Saiyan Saga, and came away from the experience being thoroughly blown away. 

I had read my fair share of manga up until this point, but no series had impressed me as much as Dragon Ball did. Not because of the story being told, which was charming but simple. Or because the characters had incredible depth with interesting arcs. But because of Toriyama’s ability to tell his story through remarkably efficient paneling. This was the first time I understood how a manga story can make you feel, not through its words or its artwork, but through the actual way in which its author utilizes the medium. Toriyama was a master of pacing through paneling. Understanding perfectly the importance of both positive and negative space, size, points of interest, and character silhouettes. He used all of these techniques in such a manner that reading his work felt active in the best way, while also being a breeze to get through. The action never overstayed its welcome, with every punch feeling appropriately weighted. Every transformation was given its necessary time to build tension, yet never felt overindulgent. Though the overly exaggerated pauses in the anime has its nostalgic place, I cannot understate just how impressively efficient Toriyama is in telling the story of Dragon Ball through the manga.

The Video Games 

Dbz Budokai 3
Still the G.O.A.T, in my opinion. Image: Atari

The Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series is what made me a fan of video games. There was a time in my life where I would look forward to the next generation of game consoles solely for wanting to see what the next generation of Dragon BalI games were going to look like on the systems. To say that I’ve played a lot of games with Dragon Ball in its title would be an understatement. Whether it was Legacy of Goku II for the Gameboy Advance, or the horrendous Ultimate Battle 22 for the PS1, I’ve played practically every major release between the fifth and eighth generation of consoles. That’s a lot of games. Some may say even too many, to which I would likely agree. 

The video games under this IP, though mostly better than its contemporaries like One Piece and Naruto, are still usually a hit or miss. There was a stretch during the PS2 era where we had a few years of consistently good to very good releases, namely the Budokai and Budokai Tenkaichi trilogies. But aside from those, and the more recently released FighterZ, most Dragon Ball games hover around Metacritic scores of 70, which I think is fair. Though most of the games do at least a passable job of recreating the high-flying action of the manga and anime, capturing the heart of the story in a new and authentic way that utilizes the medium of video games has proved more of a challenge. With that said, I would love to see what CyberConnect2, the developers of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, could do if allowed to continue their style of an open world RPG within Dragon Ball Super. Replaying the story through that lens in Kakarot was a dream come true in many ways, and so I’d love to see them continue with more recent material.    

Lifelong Friends

I will never not get emotional whenever I see Piccolo having a special moment with Gohan. Or shake my head whenever Goku abandons his family for the umpteenth time to go train. Or passionate whenever Vegeta finds a way to battle against the odds. Or chuckle whenever Bulma puts a God of Destruction in their place. Akira Toriyama introduced me to characters that have been with me for over two decades. Characters that I’ve seen grow, falter, and rise up again. Who’ve made me laugh, cry, and be awestruck by. He’s invented powers and transformations that every fan across the globe have at least once tried to do as a child (don’t lie, you’ve sat cross-legged with your palms facing each other in front of you, fully believing you’d be able to conjure up a Ki blast). His world is one that I will continue to revisit, in one way or another, until I, too, go off to see King Yemma in the other world. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to gather the dragon balls and ask Shenron to bring you back, so the least I can do is say: Arigato, Toriyama Sensei.  

Shaz Mohsin

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