This is the seventh post in a series on the greatest fictional world builders and how they can teach you to write. Our seventh fictional world builder is Akira Toriyama.
Akira Toriyama (鳥山, 明), who was born on April 5th 1955, is a comic book author from Japan responsible for perhaps the most successful adaptation of any Japanese series of all time, Dragon Ball.
We will talk about how this likeable hack brought Japanese comics (Manga) to the West in a big way and why he has such a fanatical following.
The Greatest Fictional World Builders
Number 7 – Akira Toriyama
1. What He Did
Dragon Ball is by far the most successful and well-known. However, Dr Slump reportedly sold well. This gave him the freedom, editorially and financially, to write almost whatever he wanted.
What he chose to write was Dragon Ball which, to this day, is one of the best-selling Manga of all time and it can still probably be found in any major bookstore’s comic section.
Akira Toriyama’s worlds are always a mix of high fantasy and low-brow humour. They are bright, fun, and optimistic.
Toriyama’s worlds are always surreal in nature. They contain a certain inherent logic but not to the detriment of the story.
Physics and science are only used to further the plot. So, we get items like flying cars and whole houses that can collapse into tiny capsules that you can shove into a pocket.
There is also magic and divine power. People die, go to heaven or hell, and interact with gods and devils. There are witches and monks with mystical powers.
There is a heavenly bureaucracy with various pantheons of gods and angels.
Above this there is a multiverse of worlds that are often quite different and which are all controlled by an even greater set of gods.
In short, anything goes and it can all change at any time.
In tone it is light and easy going. People are mostly happy, smiling, and selfish (in humorous ways). In the Manga and Anime, people, and buildings are drawn to invite the reader into the world and make it appealing to children.
Fights are almost solely depicted to look cool. People don’t die of complications. Even if they do die, they can be revived by magic.
It is a world of low stakes and easy-going characters. There is no teen angst or grimdark tones. If there is ever a character that is meant to embody these darker tones they are made fun of relentlessly until their offending tone loses all meaning.
The worlds Toriyama created are not places that you can be miserable in for long. Before you know it something there will make you smile.
Dr Slump is about Arale, a robotic girl and her nonsensical adventures often devolving in to toilet humour. It is for young children, after all.
While Dragon Ball is a martial arts series, at least at first, it was derived from The Journey To The West. The main Character is simply called Son Goku, which is the Japanese name for Son Wukon the main Character from The Journey To The West. Goku also has a monkey tail because Son Wukon is the Monkey King.
[Listen to our podcast: Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West]
The first 100 chapters, or so, are very much made for young boys. It follows Goku, a young boy, as he fights his way through this silly world to find ever stronger foes.
Thereafter, the tone changes. Toriyama ages his protagonist, and darkens the tone. He also slowly introduces the idea that perhaps there is something not quite sane about the protagonist. Gradually, he adds depth to the story making it more compelling for his now teenage audience.
But, while darker it is still light and fun by modern standards.
Explaining His Style
Toriyama’s world lives and dies on a sense of fun and a welling up of adventurous spirit. The artwork feels effortless yet controlled. The story feels like an unfolding mystery that could go on forever.
Toriyama thrives on chaos. His world is so random and colourful. It contains elements of magic science and religion that should not go together. However, the light-hearted nature of that reality allows it all to blend together into a seamless free flowing narrative.
Just for example, some of the story happens in the afterlife when our protagonist dies before being revived by magic. And, we see the souls of robots! We see ‘angels’ that enjoy building vintage cars. We see a blending of Western and Eastern ideas of religion that should not work.
Yet this is what made Toriyama’s worlds so compelling. They are an experience of enjoyable insanity. Absurd and cheerfully so.
So often new authors fail because they are side-tracked and lose control of the plot. This side-track may as well be a highway as far as Toriyama is concerned.
Nothing in his works have ever been about ending up at a satisfying end goal. It really was all about having a fun journey.
Planning The Story
There was no planning on Toriyama’s part. Toriyama is famous for not planning.
If anything, his long time editor Kazuhiki Torishima forced plot points into the story. Toriyama said that Torishima’s blunt nature was the perfect counter to his ‘pantser’ way of writing.
It’s actually amazing how much his editor contributed to the story. In interviews he often says thing like, ‘I made him write this.’ or ‘I decided what should be happening here.’ Really showing how much control he had over Toriyama’s writing.
Planning The World
Toriyama based the world after whatever took his interest at the time.
Initially it was a Chinese inspired satire of The Journey To The West.
This is where the story is mostly a Kung-Fu parody with distinctly Chinese character archetypes. These include Master Roshi, who went by ‘Jackie Chung’ to disguise himself – Toriyama is not subtle. However, Roshi is your typical martial arts grand-old-sage who the hero goes to train with.
We also see the magical wish granting dragon who can be summoned by collecting the seven Dragon Balls – hence the name. This dragon is a nod to characters in The Journey To The West as are Krilin and Oolong who are meant to be analogues of Piggsy and Tripitaka.
Then he took a liking to the Ridley Scott’s Alien movies and so Dragon ball became Dragon Ball Z and took to space. The cast fights alien monsters and the villainous monster Freeza who might as well be drawn by H.R. Giger the artist who designed the alien in Alien.
Then, Terminator came out and time travel and androids started to appear in Toriyama’s story. One even looks like the original Arnold Schwarzenegger terminator. But, well, Trunks is the real rip off of John Conner:
This simply continues with the world becoming increasingly confusing.
Yet it somehow works.
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2. Why He Did It
Unlike other world builders, Toriyama is a comic book artist.
In Japan, where he is from, unlike the West, most if not all comic book artists draw and write their own stories.
While not uncommon in the West most ‘big names’ in the comic industry specialise in only one of these arts. For example, Neil Gaiman did not draw Sandman.
But, Toriyama liked this. He said even though it was hectic to have to do both, he enjoyed the control this gave him.
This even played into the plot at some points. He made some of his characters blond simply so that his assistant wouldn’t have to colour in their hair – the comics are black and white. Even doing this to his protagonist where Goku becomes blond during fights so that they could spend more time on drawing the action.
But, it seems that he did not really have reasons for doing anything.
He loved drawing and took design throughout school and eventually won a drawing contest which landed him a chance to write a ‘Manga’ series. This was Dr Slump.
It was a hit, and he had fun doing it. It made him a good living, so he continued.
Even Dragon Ball was mostly an accident. Again his editor said, why not write something like a Kung-Fu series? So he wrote a short story. It was popular and he decided to make a similar long form version that became Dragon Ball.
He didn’t really have anything to say. Toriyama is a surrealist and playful with his characters. But, he is a silly surrealist liking the mocking nature of surrealism rather than any heavy philosophical aspects.
Most of his works are just about the adventure. They are not meant to be deep or reflective.
Again his editor even said in a 2020 interview that ‘It’s not a lesson in life, it’s useless in our lives; it’s just a funny comic.’
This really angered some people. Because, there are whole identities built around these characters.
But, just because it was meant to be meaningless does not mean that it ended up that way.
Not to delve into Roland Barthes’ Death Of The Author, but Toriyama’s indifference to meaning and story really created a world that people could project their own fantasies onto.
Very much like Star Wars, Dragon Ball is a place that you could see yourself living in. Apart from the various universe ending threats that always seem to get dealt with just in time, it seems almost like a utopia.
Flying cars and clean cities. Magic carpets and pet dinosaurs. This universe has everything anyone could hope for in it.
3. When He Did It
Toriyama wrote or at least co-authored his stories during three major periods.
‘70s & ‘80s
Toriyama wrote the most from 1978 until 1994/5.
During the ’70s and ’80s he would write and draw his most well-known works like Dr Slump and Dragon Ball, with only a short gap between these series.
He also collaborated on projects like Dragon Quest for which he did the art.
I have spoken at length about the publishing industry in Japan, but the ’80s was a great era for printing. There was no Internet to speak of and everything was physical.
In Japan alone, the weekly serial that Dragon Ball was published in, Weekly Jump, sold five million copies per edition. It was available at every drug store, gas station, and newsstand in the country. You were likely to encounter a copy simply left on a bus or train seat on your way to work any given day.
During this time he continued to collaborate on projects, but was mostly just a consultant on projects such as TV adaptations of his series.
He also reportedly took a great interest in developing the story in various online computer games including Dragon Quest.
Of course things have changed since the 90s and even in Japan physical media is not quite as popular as it once was. Although not to the degree that it has fallen out of favour in the West.
But, Japanese animation (anime) has steadily increased in popularity since then. Today it is a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone where it is simply repackaged for western audiences.
In the 90s Toei, the company that made the animation of Dragon Ball, wanted Toriyama to make more but he was exhausted and said no.
So they decided to write their own sequel not based on his work – Dragon Ball GT. It was not received very well and after a relatively short run compared to the original series it marked the end of Dragon Ball for some time.
But, well, then Toriyama got a new cat – Debo.
He thought it looked like a great villain and so in 2013 a new Dragon Ball movie written by Toriyama came out. It was a hit.
This marked a shift for him into the role of executive author and producer.
He would no longer be drawing anything except for the concept art, but would still write the story presumably also with some help, although he is the sole credit on the official script.
Nevertheless, generally it was agreed that with the exception of some missteps this was a good if not perfect sequel to the original and subsequent Dragon Ball Z series.
4. Who He Did It For
Without exception everything Toriyama wrote was for children and perhaps teenagers. If you didn’t encounter Dragon Ball growing up, I think it would be hard to watch or read as an adult.
Certainly, it also has that very slapstick Japanese quality that was prevalent in the ’90s. Perhaps some of that has survived to this day, but nowhere near the level you can find in early Dragon Ball.
It was certainly not high-brow.
And, although people have made careers of talking in length about Toriyama’s intent and philosophies Dragon Ball has never made anybody feel dumb.
To me and my friends it was simply the show we would rush home after school for. Perhaps, someone remembers the iconic opening chords of the introduction song and just how excited it made that young version of you feel?
5. So, What Do I Need To Read/Watch/Play?
Order Of His Works
Dr Slump>Dragon Ball > Dragon Ball Z> (Dragon Ball GT, later made non-canon)>Dragon Ball Super
Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z were just called Dragon Ball and only separated later in the animations and movies.
The most iconic of his works if Dragon Ball Z. It is a testosterone-fuelled romp across the galaxy with a group of likable muscle heads and their gloriously naïve leader.
For many people this is what anime was and will always be.
It is also quite violent and bloody due to it being in a late night time slot.
It has made millions of boys and girls believe that with enough push-ups, sit-ups and plenty of juice they too could be the Legendary Super Saiyan.
Dragon Ball Manga
The Dragon Ball manga covers all of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. While largely the same as the animation it has not been edited, shortened, or censured for a western audience. So it retains the original essence of the story somewhat better.
Dr Slump Manga
Dr Slump is just for children. It’s a story about a robot girl and her silly adventures. But, it does show you where Toriyama was coming from and it is interesting to see how different Dragon Ball ended up being in tone from his original work yet also similar.
If you watched Dragon Ball Z you have watched Dragon Ball Super by now. But, if you haven’t, you should know that it is the continuation of the story of Z, and ignores GT completely, and it has a much softer tone due to it running in a primetime TV slot and not the late night slot of Z.
There is still plenty of fighting – just no blood.
The Last Word
Toriyama is a very important person to tens of millions of fans across the world.
He allowed the magic of childhood to last just that much longer for those that grew up with his stories and brought no end of conversations to children arguing ‘Just what power level (how strong) did Goku have?’
His worlds were positive and futuristic in fantastic ways without seeming too clean or one-dimensional. And, I guess he proved that a story doesn’t need to be just one thing or even just have one tone.
It can be whatever it needs to be as the needs of the author change. So long as your audience trusts you and are willing to go along for the ride.
Read the other posts in the series:
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Terry Pratchett
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Robin Hobb
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: J.K. Rowling
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: George Lucas
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Frank Herbert
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders: Akira Toriyama
Image is scanned from Dragon Ball Daizenshuu Vol. 4 World Guide, pages 74-75., Fair use
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