It starts as many stories do, with young people ready to embark on an adventure. In Dragon Ball, though, the adventures last for years, encompassing two manga series, multiple anime series, several movies and video games and a lot of other related items. When it comes to comics and animation made in Japan, few titles can rival the success of protagonist Goku's heroic journey. Like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball is part of the wave of manga and anime that made a huge impact when it hit the U.S. in the 1990s.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this mammoth franchise, fans and artists gathered at Q2, a new Little Tokyo gallery space from the folks behind hip boutique QPop. However, Saturday night's party was about more than Dragon Ball. It was a tribute to the series creator, Akira Toriyama, whose popular works go far beyond the action-packed, monster hit.
“We had been planning a show as a tribute to [Toriyama] because he's one of our favorites,” says Christopher Mitchell, an animation artist by day who co-owns QPop and Q2. Plans changed only slightly when the QPop team realized that this year marked the 30th anniversary of Dragon Ball. The show, which features more than 100 pieces of art, is heavy on that series' famed characters, like Goku, Gohan and Bulma. It's also big on characters from Toriyama's other works as well, notably an early 1980s sci-fi comedy manga called Dr. Slump.
Mitchell himself professes that Dr. Slump, about a young, female robot and a cast of eccentric characters, is one of his favorite comics. At this particularly event, the love for Dr. Slump rivals that for Dragon Ball. At the beginning of the night, a small collection of baseball caps adorned with wings and the name of Dr. Slump's protagonist, Arale, were displayed on a table. They sold quickly. There are also Dr. Slump t-shirts and jewelry on hand. Meanwhile, Dr. Slump tribute art— everything from plush, anthropomorphic poop to portraits of Arale— takes up a good amount of wall space in the exhibition.
Sachin Teng painted Arale as she runs. “It's her signature move,” he says, noting that her run is frequently referenced in Japanese pop culture. Teng contrasts Arale to an easily recognizable anime character, Astro Boy. “The difference is that [Arale] wasn't supposed to fight crime,” he says. “She was supposed to be a regular little kid and so she happens to be this little girl who happens to be super strong.” He adds that Arale's adventures sometimes come from her love of television, particularly Ultraman.
Mitchell explains that Toriyama's style changed over the years. Where Dr. Slump, and even the early portion of Dragon Ball, were “cartoon-y” with heavy doses of comedy, he eventually veered more towards big action. “There were more straight-up fights,” says Mitchell of Dragon Ball's progression.
It's Dragon Ball and the follow-up Dragon Ball Z that captured the attention of kids across the globe. Artist Christopher Lee, who designed the show flyer, recalls catching it on local TV in Sacramento before heading to school. Teng saw it on Cartoon Network's Toonami programming block. Artist Maria Vitan saw it in the Philippines, where it aired in Tagalog. “It's really inspiring,” says Vitan, who works for Nickelodeon. “It helped me work in animation.”
With the Dragon Ball franchise, Toriyama essentially created an epic. Goku grows up and has a child of his own as the saga continues. “It's a whole family adventure that goes on and on,” says artist Ji Soo Kim.
Animation and comic artists have been profoundly influenced by Toriyama's work. Ian Jones-Quartey, a supervising producer for the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe, is a long time fan of Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump. “We're all big Toriyama fans on that show, which kind of shows a bit,” he says.
Jones-Quartey still refers to Toriyama's art when he works. “He's really good at drawing vehicles,” says Jones-Quartey. “I'm not, so I always look at the way he drew them to kind of get ideas.”
For the tribute show, Jones-Quartey depicted the character Bulma, from Dragon Ball, in various outfits that the young women wore between 1984 and 1988. “I really like it when fan art feels like a research piece,” he says. He is also pointing to a side of Toriyama's work that may be overshadowed by the high-impact action of the Dragon Ball franchise. Jones-Quartey says that, when people think of Dragon Ball, they might automatically associate the series with “testosterone driven muscular dudes yelling and grunting.” There's more to it than that, though. At Q2, this large group of artists dug deeper into the aesthetics of Dragon Ball and Akira Toriyama.
“Dragon Ball 30th Anniversary/Akira Toriyama Tribute” is on view at Q2 in Little Tokyo's Japan Village through December 6.