A yellow cloud, drawn in the style of classical Chinese paintings, extends across a starry blue sky.

Fly Away (Fly Away)

Remembering how I learned to love Akira Toriyama’s work.

Growing up in 1990s New York, the anime boom wasn’t quite where is today. Sure, there were animated shows that were imported from Japan and repackaged for the U.S. market, but the concept of “anime” as a selling point had yet to blossom. Hell, many a video store still called it “Japanimation,” and the available selections catered specifically to adult audiences.

What a tease. Every cartoon I’d ever seen had been aimed at children, so naturally I assumed that all animation was for children. Besides, those characters looked so cool! Or pretty! Or cool and pretty! But no, there was no Akira or Ghost in the Shell in the cards for me.

One early weekday morning, however, I caught a peek of an animated show radically different from anything else on network TV (we didn’t have cable), a show that completely allowed me to peek into the world of anime! And that show… was Sailor Moon!

Wait, is this any way to commemorate Akira Toriyama? It’ll make sense in a little bit.

Sailor Moon seemed like a cheat: I got to see beautiful heroines fighting evil, just like those featured on the boxes of Project A-Ko and Bubblegum Crisis that teased me from that Japanimation rack in the video store. Yet Sailor Moon was a kids’ show! It was the perfect loophole, and as soon as I’d learned how to program the VCR, I taped every episode of Sailor Moon that I could, mostly because it aired just as I was supposed to be leaving for school.

My family took note and some months later informed me that there was another Japanese animation show airing early in the morning. They’d taped an episode of that show: a show called… Dragon Ball! Fighting! Fantasy! An oddly catchy theme song! You’d think I’d be hooked!

I was not. You see, I was under the impression that “real” anime featured beautiful, well-proportioned characters with glittery eyes and heroic, chiseled features:  Sailor Moon fit this bill. Son Goku did not. No, Goku was short and rounded, his tiny pupils lacking any sort of sparkle. It was a difficult visual style for me to accept at the time, to the point that my preteen self doubted whether it counted as anime at all.

…I swear that this is an Akira Toriyama appreciation piece.

If Dragon Ball had one thing going for it, it was that its story was easier to follow than Sailor Moon’s, and crucially, it was funny. So despite my misgivings I took in the first thirteen episodes of Dragon Ball through television broadcast, and even watched the Curse of the Blood Rubies movie on VHS. And then, for a while, there was nothing.

I don’t remember how, exactly – probably some Godzilla-related excursion – but at some point in 1996 my family visited a specialty shop in New Jersey. There were superhero statues, mecha model kits, and some boxes of Dragon Ball figures. Some older kids were fawning over the figures, but I couldn’t understand why. I didn’t recognize the characters; it was just a bunch of evil-looking men with blond hair burning like fire. I was skeptical that these characters were in Dragon Ball at all: their designs seemed completely at odds with the bouncy designs from the show. The shop’s staff pointed out that these were characters from Dragon Ball Z, a sequel series to Dragon Ball. The staff explained that Dragon Ball had failed in the U.S., but that Z would be airing in the fall. In the meantime, we settled into the first of two *ahem* “imported” VHS tapes covering the story from further down the Dragon Ball storyline.

As the show’s intro rolled along, there were lots of unfamiliar faces, but the weirdest part was seeing an adult Goku who was far more muscular than before. Things didn’t become any clearer when the episode recap began, because the apparently heroic purple and white alien couldn’t lay a finger on one of those evil-looking blond guys. It was confusing, to say the least, but it looked cool. We decided to table that episode until we could get more context, and instead dived into the second tape, the new series Dragon Ball GT. It didn’t get much clearer going into that series, though the final episode preview on the tape showed little kid Goku transforming into one of those evil blond guys.

What the hell just happened?

A lot of my subsequent Dragon Ball obsession stemmed from trying to link these events together. Through internet web pages, bootleg VHS tapes, music albums, television broadcasts, and original manga volumes and supplementary books, I eventually had most of the Dragon Ball (well, DBZ)story down pat. I’d even caught a few translated interviews online: one featured Toriyama claiming that an editor encouraged him to take a more angular style later in Dragon Ball in order to appeal more to boys.

Well, it’d worked on me. By that point, I was completely obsessed with the angular art style, and spent many hours copying Toriyama’s artwork, using it as a springboard into creating original characters that would look like a cross between Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. It’s funny, because I thought that I’d witnessed Toriyama mature as an artist: he’d gone from the soft lines and forms in the early parts of Dragon Ball to the economic angular designs by the end of the series.

How wrong that turned out to be. In recent years, I decided to read more of Toriyama’s other works to understand why he’d been given the green light for Dragon Ball, and what he’d been up to since ending the series in 1995. I’d already known through supplementary material like the Daizenshuu that Toriyama’s interests were varied: he dreamt up plenty of convincing fantasy creatures and designed imaginative vehicles that I just hadn’t noticed because I was more obsessed with the human characters. I’d also never noticed that his skills had been solid for a very long time.

Reading through Toriyama’s early work, as showcased in compilation volumes like Akira Toriyama’s Manga Theater and his first successful ongoing series Dr. Slump, it’s a revelation seeing just how good Toriyama was at comedic timing, pose selection, and facial expressions. Whether his characters are dopey-looking animals, heroic manly men, femme fatales, or mischievous children, all are equally expressive: a slovenly man can become a movie star within the space of one panel, and an adorable girl can distort her face into a fearful scowl when she’s upset.

The characters themselves always have some real heft to them, a sense of volume that is somehow uncommon in popular manga. Despite their exaggerated proportions, the underlying anatomy of a character’s body can be — and occasionally is — reduced to a cartoonish skeleton. Toriyama also drew plenty of vehicles, and those that weren’t caricatures of real-life machines seemed plausible enough to have a real-world counterpart somewhere. (Sure enough, some engineers have since made at least one of his designs a reality.)

After the end of Dragon Ball in 1995, Toriyama’s style seemed to revert to the more rounded shapes of his earlier work. Titles like Cowa!, Neko Majin, Sand Land and Jaco the Galactic Patrolman feature characters whose features are ever-so-slightly softened compared to the cast of the Dragon Ball finale. To my own surprise, my adult self likes this style more than the angular style that I fell in love with as a boy. Changing tastes, perhaps, but with the memory of that interview in my mind – boys love those angles! — I also like to think I was watching an artist returning to his natural tendencies.

More than anything, I think that what I appreciate most about Toriyama’s work is that the love that he put into it is evident. Ironically, I think it’s least obvious in an action-heavy series like Dragon Ball, especially after Goku grows up: the fights drag longer and longer, and in turn it cuts out a lot of the humor and characterization. These days, it turns out that my favorite parts of the series are the sequences in between fights: story-wise, these are the scenes of Goku and co. relaxing or healing; visually, they’re the one-shot illustrations of characters in vehicles, riding fantasy animals, or just posing in alternate costumes. Creating such sequences and images aren’t unique to Toriyama, but they are much more indicative of the simple fun of drawing: free from the constraints of a panel layout, free from the proportions and physics of reality, free from the continuity of a story. It’s just an empty sheet of paper and the freedom to do whatever you want, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Surely, if we need a reminder of anything, it’s that it’s indeed possible to enjoy ourselves at work for at least a little while, and maybe even make someone else smile in the process.

Akira Toriyama passed away at the age of 68 on March 1, 2024.

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