The Universal Joy of Akira Toriyama

Remembering the late Akira Toriyama, and how his work ties us together all around the world.

On March 22nd, 2014, I felt like the luckiest person on Earth.

There I was, at the concert in Anime Boston; and Hironobu Kageyama was on a stage in front of me, singing the iconic first opening to Dragon Ball Z. Every person there was on their feet. I had one of my best friends next to me, and we were screaming, “CHA-LA! HEAD CHA-LA!” at the top of our lungs. The energy of the crowd was so powerful, I thought we might bring down the whole building. I thought to myself how amazing it was to get to witness a beloved anime classic performed live, and how teenage me would have never believed I’d get to see it for myself. Happy tears stung my eyes. It’s a treasured memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

And none of it would have happened without the work of Akira Toriyama.

Dragon Ball didn’t used to be the mainstream global phenomenon that it is today.

When I was growing up, it was still hard to get your hands on anything Dragon Ball. But even more difficult for me at first was finding other fans to talk to about it. If you got into Dragon Ball in the last 10 or 15 years, you might think this sounds ridiculous. But similarly to early Sailor Moon fandom, social media wasn’t a thing yet (hell, the internet as we know it was just barely a thing then), and you really needed to work to find fellow fans. So when I met other fellow Dragon Ball fans around my age who loved the series as much as I did, we’d become fast friends. In fact, I still know a handful of people I met way back in the early 90s through our shared love of anime & manga, and of course Dragon Ball. If it wasn’t for Akira Toriyama’s amazing creations, I would have never met these dear friends of mine, who I’ve known for decades now. I know I can’t be the only one out there. For some people, his work was truly life-changing. A catalyst for many who met friends, best friends, and in some cases even their spouses! (If you don’t believe me, just google “Dragon Ball Wedding”. There’s been MANY.)

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already read a lot about Akira Toriyama at this point.

Likewise, chances are that you, too, have fond memories of something that he was a part of throughout his amazing career. From his beloved comedy Dr Slump, his video game work with Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, and onto the iconic Dragon Ball franchise, his fans all across the world have beloved memories woven into their childhood and beyond that are connected to one or more of his creations. Whether you have collectively spent years of your life playing various Dragon Quest games, or where just playing Chrono Trigger over and over again. Maybe you grew up rushing home as fast as you could after school, desperate to see the next episode of Dragon Ball Z on Toonami, and poring over every issue of Viz’s Shonen Jump magazine you could find. Outside of the US and Japan, you can easily find people with similar stories who grew up reading Dr Slump or Dragon Ball with just as much enthusiasm. That’s the thing that ties us all together: Akira Toriyama’s work just radiated FUN.

It’s not very difficult to see why. From the moment Toriyama started making manga, it felt like first and foremost, he wanted to inject everything he worked on with a sense of adventure and playfulness. You couldn’t help but smile when Arale met some ridiculous new character in Penguin Village. Who didn’t want to jump on their own Flying Nimbus cloud and travel the world searching for Dragon Balls? And no matter how many Dragon Quest games came out, the most recognizable character will always and forever be one of the best little guys to ever be drawn–a smiling Slime. Even in the most serious moments of Dragon Ball, eventually there will always be some jokes or slapstick to bring us back to Toriyama’s gag manga roots. As the years passed and Goku grew, he still had that heart of a kid who just wanted to eat lots of good food, hang out with his friends, and grow stronger. It’s easy to understand how both children and adults could love Goku: in that sense, he was relatable, regardless of what age you were.

It’s partially that kind of relatable-ness that makes Toriyama’s manga so appealing.

It feels like no matter what country you live in, or what language you speak, there’s a good chance that something in his manga will speak to you. It could be that childlike sense of wonder and adventure. Or maybe it’s the drive to grow stronger. It could even be something as simple as the unique way he drew his manga, and was such a nerd about tanks, cars, and other vehicles. When you put it all together, no matter what Toriyama was writing about, it all seemed to boil down to him wanting to enjoy whatever it was he was creating. That shines through absolutely in everything he ever made: all the gags and the fourth-wall-breaking, but also just as important, the hero’s journey and the power of friendship. These characters and stories became so special and cherished by us that they, in turn, inspired generations of people all around the world to create stories and adventures of their own–be it through art, comics, writing, or creating video games. During a time in Japan where there were many who believed that reading manga would “make you stupid”, Toriyama dared to blaze a trail to show that you could absolutely make amazingly fun and enjoyable stories that touched lives all over the world…and still include some poop jokes.

When my partner and I moved into our first apartment together, I was a little nervous. We had moved to a whole new city, in an area neither of us were familiar with, to start a new chapter of our lives. I noticed that when we got our keys from the building manager, he had a tiny little charm hanging from his own set of keys. Looking at it closer, it was a little Super Saiyan Vegeta, his tiny arms crossed and his face set into a knowing smirk. I commented on it, and we then spent a few minutes talking to each other about who our favorite Dragon Ball characters were. He apparently had watched the entire series in Spanish growing up, but even though we’d seen the series at different times and in different languages, it didn’t matter–our love for Dragon Ball was the same. It felt like it was a sign that everything was going to be alright. Because what could be more comforting than the familiarity of some of my favorite characters of all time? It was, ironically, like coming home.

No matter where in the world we are, no matter what our first exposure to Dragon Ball or Dr Slump or Chrono Trigger was, we all share the same love of his work.

We can all yell “Kame-hame-ha!” and know exactly what it means, no matter what country we come from or language we speak. With that powerful joy we feel over how much Akira Toriyama’s work has meant to us over the years, we share an equally powerful sorrow together over having lost him. But truly, he gave us all such amazing gifts–creations that will keep on giving, to people all over the world, for generations to come. And I think that’s something we can all agree is worth celebrating.

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About the Author

Dawn H

Dawn is the producer/editor/host of The Anime Nostalgia Podcast, a mix of waxing nostalgic with fellow older fans while introducing younger fans to older titles! The podcast also serves as an oral history from before things like streaming & social media were commonplace, and how anime & manga fandom has always been diverse. She's used her knowledge to write for outlets like Anime News Network, Anime Herald, Crunchyroll, & has helped on multiple anime releases from AnimEigo & Discotek Media.

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