Toriyama, Akira

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Akira Toriyama

Born April 5, 1955 (Kiyosu, Aichi Prefecture, Japan)
Japanese author, illustrator, game designer

Akira Toriyama is one of Japan's most celebrated manga artists and writers. His stories, which primarily appeal to children, usually spotlight classic struggles between good and evil. His characters are classic heroes and villains, with no middle ground between them, and are endowed with tremendous superpowers. Additionally, Toriyama places his characters in expertly devised fantasy worlds, with storylines that blend action and comedy.

Toriyama's artwork is appealingly goofy and exaggerated, and is characterized by crisp, clean lines and a strong design style. His male characters are generally small, but are muscular and resilient; his female characters are cute and charming. In reviewing the 2005 release of Dr. Slump, Vol. 1 on The Comics Reporter Web site, Tom Spurgeon observed that "most of the charm (of the series) bubbles up from Toriyama's art, the large heads atop squat, solid bodies, rounded lines communicating a happy-to-be-right-here vibrancy broken only occasionally by exaggeration of expression or motion. Everything is adorable, and everything is sort of dependable, if that makes sense."

An attraction to drawing

Akira Toriyama was born on April 5, 1955, in Kiyosu, located in Japan's Aichi region. His interest in art dates from his early childhood. "I've always liked to draw," he explained in an interview on the Stormpages Web site. "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 or animation characters and showing them to each other."

"I have always drawn my manga … with the desire to create something unique to comics, something that can only be expressed in the form of comics."

Unlike other children, for whom art is a temporary pastime, Toriyama found that he loved creating images on paper. He began drawing portraits of schoolmates and attended a neighborhood drawing class. His favorite animated television program was Tetsuwan Atom (known in English as Astro Boy), which was popular among Japanese youngsters during the early 1960s, and he was fascinated with horror films, action-adventure television shows, and various Walt Disney animated features. In his drawing class, he earned a prize for copying images from one of his favorite childhood films: Disney's 101 Dalmatians, released in 1961.

Early manga

Toriyama studied graphic design at the Prefectural Industrial High School and began his career working for a graphic design company. Initially, he resented having to sketch and re-sketch everyday objects, as per the order of his superiors. "'Ugghh … Why do I have to draw one hundred pairs of socks?!,' I would complain," he recalled, in an interview on the Buu's Dragon Ball Pages Web site. "In retrospect, those things may have helped me."

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels (in English translation)

Dragon Ball 16 vols. (2000–).

Dragon Ball Z 23 vols. (2001–).

Sand Land (2003).

Dr. Slump 4 vols. (2005).

Toriyama's Dragon Ball stories, though completed in Japan, are serialized in the English version of Shonen Jump.

In 1977, Toriyama entered a contest for amateur artists sponsored by Shonen Jump, a weekly magazine put out by Shueisha, a major manga publisher. The story he submitted grabbed the attention of Kazuhiko Torishima, one of the editors, who hired him as a cartoonist. Previously, while in school or in his spare time, Toriyama only had sketched characters; now, he began drawing manga with plotlines.

The following year, Toriyama created his first manga for Shonen Jump: Wonder Island, set in an outlandish universe inhabited by airborne fish and skateboarding monkeys. Wonder Island was only modestly successful, but it did not deter Toriyama from conjuring up other manga. Next, he created Highlight Island, which debuted in 1979 and charted the antics of a young schoolboy named Kanta. Another early credit was Tomato Girl Detective, which was unusual for its time in that its hero was a girl, instead of a brawny, courageous male.

As he came of age, manga artist Akira Toriyama realized that artists, in order to be successful, must constantly observe and ponder their surroundings. "It's been a habit of mine since childhood to always be looking around," he noted, in the Stormpages interview. "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."

Toriyama, meanwhile, acknowledged the advantages of inventing or creatively distorting objects, rather than attempting to duplicate reality. "I probably have the most fun thinking up original vehicles," he added. "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. But if it's something I invented, I can have it my way.… 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."

As he creates his characters, Toriyama first envisions their personas. He matches the nature of their personalities first with faces, and then with body types. Once this is accomplished, he decides upon costumes that are appropriate for the environments they inhabit. If the characters are to be depicted in combat, he devises outfits that would be realistically comfortable while they battle their enemies.

Initial achievement

Toriyama's first great success was Dr. Slump, which debuted in 1980. Dr. Slump is the cheery, comic tale of Dr. Senbei Norimaki (whose name translates to "little rice cracker"), a zany scientist who constructs Arale ("even littler cracker"), a robot that resembles a young adolescent girl. Arale is a less-than-perfect creation—she is nearsighted and must wear glasses—but she also has superhuman strength.

Originally, Dr. Slump was published in Shonen Jump, where it was serialized weekly for five years. It also was adapted into an animated television series, or anime. In 2005, Publishers Weekly described the series as "Toriyama's twisted Sesame Street, a slapstick romp with an endearingly oddball cast of characters.… Toriyama has created his own demented sitcom, and his fantastic imagination and comic invention never let up. Simple ideas—Arale trying to rescue a bear from the zoo, Slump inventing a 'Future camera'—spin off into unexpected comic directions, and Toriyama never stints on visual humor."

Searching for a new project

Once Dr. Slump became an established hit in Japan, Toriyama began pondering the subject of his next Shonen Jump serial. He was a fan of actor and martial artist Jackie Chan's Jui kuen (Drunken Master), a 1978 feature film about a playfully bratty boy who learns discipline when his uncle, a kung fu master, teaches him the complex "drunken monkey" or "drunken boxing" fighting style. Jui kuen became the inspiration for Dragon Boy, a character who debuted in Shonen Jump in 1983. Dragon Boy was a precursor to Toriyama's most successful manga—and what become one of the most famous manga ever—Dragon Ball (also spelled Dragonball), which debuted in 1985.

Dragon Ball is a fantasy-adventure centering on Son Gokû, a character based on the mythological Chinese "Monkey King," a popular children's fable that is the model of the adventure story in which a hero sets out on a perilous mission. The tale details the struggle of Son Gokû and his allies against the Saiyans, a dishonorable band who are racing across and destroying the universe and wishing to take over Earth. In order to stay alive, Son Gokû and his pals must search for the Seven Dragon Balls. Anyone who holds them may conjure up a great dragon, who will grant any request.

Originally, Toriyama planned to draw his main character as an ape. "That would have been the Monkey King exactly," he explained on the Stormpages Web site. "That wouldn't show any creativity, so I decided to make the main character human. I wanted a normal human boy.…" However, Toriyama chose to endow Son Gokû with a tail. "That way, he could hide behind a rock, but if his tail showed, the readers could tell he's right there." In keeping with the spirit of the "Monkey King" fable, Toriyama added an array of colorful supporting characters to accompany Son Gokû on his quest.

Unparalleled accomplishment

Dragon Ball was a major international phenomenon. Foreign editions were published across Asia and Europe. It became a highly rated 153-episode animated television series, which aired from 1986 through 1989; in the United States, the show was broadcast on the Cartoon Network. It was the basis for a video game series, and spawned several made-for-television movies and a toy franchise. In 2001, Lycos, the Internet search engine, released a list of names and words that were most frequently looked for on its site. "Dragon Ball" ranked number two, just behind Britney Spears and ahead of Pokemon.

Toriyama created his final Dragon Ball manga in 1989. He immediately followed up with a sequel: Dragon Ball Z (for Zen). Here, the adult Gokû links up with his friends, from whom he has been separated for several years. With him is Gohan, his four-year-old son. Dragon Ball Z, which includes less comedy and more combat and action than its predecessor, features martial artists who hail from assorted worlds and possess astonishing superpowers. As they vie for control of the Dragon Balls, they become airborne, toss energy blasts, and alter themselves to increase their abilities.

More success

Like its predecessor, Dragon Ball Z became a highly rated animated TV series, which premiered in Japan in 1989. During the next seven years, 291 episodes were produced. The series also spawned a string of successful made-for-television movies and video games. Dragon Ball Z episodes began running in the United States on the Cartoon Network in 1998 and eventually became the channel's most popular show.

Despite creating the characters who inspired and populated the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z animes, Toriyama maintained a creative distance from the artists who produced the series. "I don't tend to interfere with the animators' process," he explained on the Stormpages Web site. "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." Ultimately, the animes impacted Toriyama's creative process as he wrote and drew his 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," he added. "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."

The Dragon Ball animes also impacted the manner in which Toriyama viewed his creations. "I thought, 'So, this what Gokû sounds like'," he recalled in an interview on Buu's Dragon Ball Pages. "Thereafter, every time I sat down to draw the manga, his voice would come to mind." He expressed his admiration for animators by adding, "They have to draw the steps between one movement and another, so I'm impressed that they can get the timing down so well. That's something that I can't imitate. Also, I am jealous of the way anime can render sudden movement so well.… I am very envious of the fact that they can use 'light.' In anime, a scene with an explosion can be rendered with a brilliant flash of light and sound, but with manga, the only thing I can do is to put in an onomatopoeia (a word, such as purr, hiss, hush, clang, or kerplunk that sounds like a sound) for an explosion."

Easing up

Despite his respect for animators, Toriyama has no interest in joining their ranks. "The method of producing comics in Japan is very hectic, but it's also rewarding because it's possible to do both the story and art all by yourself," he explained in a 2003 interview published in Shonen Jump. "In this way, it's possible to bring out one's individuality." Nonetheless, Toriyama abruptly ceased producing his Dragon Ball manga in 1995, reportedly because he wanted to work at a more unhurried pace and wished to spend more time with his wife and two children. During their decade-plus run, he turned out 519 separate Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z stories on a weekly basis, totaling just less than nine thousand pages.

After he left Dragon Ball Z in 1995, Toriyama signed with TOEI Animation to oversee the development of an anime series titled Dragon Ball GT (Grand Tour). This series spotlights the further adventures of Son Gokû, who is portrayed as a child. Here, he sets out in search of a new set of Dragon Balls. The anime of Dragon Ball GT, consisting of sixty-four episodes, was broadcast on Japanese television in 1996–97, but was not as popular as its predecessors. As Dragon Ball GT premiered, Toriyama undertook the writing of a new TV series, based on Dr. Slump. Seventy-four episodes eventually were produced.

Multifaceted, multitalented

In addition to creating characters and devising storylines, Toriyama designed costumes for and served as art director on Japanese television series, starting in 1989 with Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the United States). His art direction-costume designer credits through the 1990s and 2000s include various Dragon Quest, Torneko, and Tobal video games. Toriyama's character designs have been featured in the Dragon Quest and Tobal video game series, and in Chrono Trigger.

Dr. Slump and the Dragon Ball series are not Toriyama's only manga creations. Others include Sand Land, the futuristic chronicle of Rao, a sheriff, and Beelzebub and Thief, a pair of demons who search for water on a dry, treacherous desert; Kajika, the saga of a boy who is transformed into a fox-human; and Cowa!, the tale of two comical monster-creatures who reside in a fantastical world. However, only Sand Land has been translated into English as of 2005.

For More Information


Akira Toriyama interview. Shonen Jump (January 2003).

"Dr. Slump, Vol. 1." Publishers Weekly (May 9, 2005).

Gardner, Chris. "Fox Draws Deal for 'Dragonball' Live-action Pics." Hollywood Reporter (March 12, 2002).

Web Sites

Akira Toriyama Interview. (interview with Toriyama) (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Da Man." Buu's Dragon Ball Pages. (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Dr. Slump, Volume 1." Comics Reporter. (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Toriyama's World. (accessed on May 3, 2006).