‘Dragon Ball’ was THE manga that Japanese youth of either gender read in the Eighties and Nineties. Today it is once again repeating this feat, thanks to the release in movie theatres of ‘Dragon Ball Z Battle of Gods’, the first new film in the franchise in seventeen years and which features story and character design by original writer Akira Toriyama. Seiyu Masako Nozawa, who provides the voice for some of the main characters, has said that the film’s characters and story won’t disappoint previous fans of the series, which begs the question: How can ‘Dragon Ball’, which is over twenty years old, still be so popular with audiences?
Well, a look at the original artwork and anime suggests that the sophisticated art and the design of the world that crosses over eras and borders is surely a major part of this. This essence has also then carried on by such shonen manga as ‘Naruto’.
Akira Toriyama’s ‘Dragon Ball’ started to be serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1984, concluding in 1995. It was one of the manga series that helped Jump to shift a circulation of six million copies. The story revolves around the search for the eponymous Dragon Balls, mythological treasure that can make any wish come true. The protagonist is Son Goku. When it started off the manga was more comedic in tone, before evolving into a “shonen battle manga” with numerous powerful enemies for the main characters to fight.
Held to commemorate the release of the new film, the ‘Akira Toriyama: The World of Dragon Ball’ exhibition has been pulling in crowds to admire some 200 examples of nostalgic original comic book artwork. The exhibition was in Tokyo and Osaka in April, and will tour to Nagoya in July. The artwork is immediately evocative of scenes from the world of ‘Dragon Ball’, from Son Goku’s first appearance to battles with Freeza — simply irresistible to fans!
Taking in the artwork panels and translations in Tokyo, we could spot some reasons why ‘Dragon Ball’ has proved such an enduring hit around the globe.
First of all, the design for the world is not limited to a single country. While it is inspired by the ‘Saiyuki (Journey to The West)’, the famed Chinese tale, the world in which ‘Dragon Ball’ takes place is broad, including seas, deserts and cities, and not specified to one country. This was particularly the case when the series was first serialized. The house where Son Goku lived was in the Chinese style. However, when the scene shifted to near the sea, there would be western-style houses. The art overflows in this cross-cultural mix, with expansive landscapes, idiosyncratically mechanical cities and more. It’s thanks to this quality that readers all over the world have been able to accept ‘Dragon Ball’ not as a story about another land, but one about a place that is quite possibly near their own homeland.
The appeal of the characters is also a major point. The faces of the characters are for the most part drawn with single, minimal lines. Single lines mean you draw with all sorts of meaning, and it is actually a more complex technique than using multiple lines. Toriyama’s use of lines in this way was the genesis for his style of characters, which had not been seen in other manga till that point. It is said that the new Jump mangaka like Toriyama created work that was completely different to those featured in Weekly Shonen Magazine, both the narrative style and also the artwork itself.
Here we can also see Toriyama’s influence as a designer. A designer friend commented that he draws characters from the point of view of their form. Toriyama was once a graphic designer, and seems to have a graphical awareness when it comes to the manga onomatopoeia for representing character’s emotions and sounds. “I did a lot of dessin,” Toriyama says in an interview in ‘Manga nou no kitaekata’ (How to Train a Manga Mind). Mangaka till then had trained their drawing skills while studying manga and paintings. Toriyama, though, possesses the qualities more of a graphic designer, so when he would draw something, the result would be a manga picture of a wholly different lineage.
And this artistic skill is part of the reason why ‘Dragon Ball’ is also so easy to read. Toriyama practises the belief that “the gods reside in the details”. Note how we can see each and every groove in the tires of cars, the individual scales on the body of Shenron, and even the creases in clothes. Toriyama includes all of this in the artwork. All of the clothing, vehicles and airplanes and other machines that appear in ‘Dragon Ball’ are so intricately rendered that they make you believe they actually exist. Likewise, in the scenes in the Tenkaichi Budokai we can see each member of the audience, a level of detail which raises the sense of the atmosphere of the bouts. But even so, the amount of information in each frame is not overloaded. Perhaps this is why ‘Dragon Ball’ has been so embraced, since, more than fixating on the artwork, there is just the right amount of information, resulting in a manga that you can read quickly.
The arrangement of the frames is also another component to the pacing of the manga. “I would make the frames slanted, large or small”, Toriyama says in ‘Manga nou no kitaekata’. With four or five frames per page, each episode ends with a dramatic frame that makes you want to read the next. If shojo manga frame is static, then Toriyama’s is dynamic. And overall, between the frames, there is also a sense of time flowing along quickly.
Manga critic Shinbo Nobunaga says that Akira Toriyama is a “visual revolutionary”-style mangaka. “He adds the chic artwork of anime comics to Osamu Tezuka-esque manga expression.” Toriyama influences everyone who writes fantasy adventure stories. As proof of this, his characters may be twenty years old but they still compare favorably with those from the most recent of mangas. To commemorate the new film, an anime was broadcast where characters from other Weekly Shonen Jump series manga like ‘Toriko’ and ‘One Piece’ all appeared together with the ‘Dragon Ball’ cast. There seemed nothing glaring or strange about this. By contrast, when other older manga and anime have been remade, such as ‘Space Battleship Yamato’, the characters were also re-designed.
Polished character design, pure and innocent protagonists, pet-like supporting roles, a balance of comedic and serious scenes, and a vibrant use of color: Thinking of all the elements that ‘Dragon Ball’ is composed of, you see how the format that it established has been inherited by today’s manga like ‘One Piece’ and ‘Naruto’. This is Akira Toriyama’s bequest to manga culture.
In the first twenty-three days after ‘Dragon Ball Z Battle of Gods’ premiered in late March, it sold two million tickets. In just fifteen days its box office takings were two billion yen, making it as of April the fastest film to achieve that. And the audiences weren’t just made up of the generation who had enjoyed the original serialized manga back in its day, but there were also many kids, singing the famous theme song ‘Cha-La Head-Cha-La’ from the ‘Dragon Ball Z’ anime. Just as it thrilled the young twenty years ago, so too does ‘Dragon Ball’ still continue today to excite a new generation of fans.