The Prince of All Shonen: A Tribute to Akira Toriyama

On March 1st, 2024, manga artist and character designer Akira Toriyama passed away at the age of 68. To say this is a tremendous loss is an understatement. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you know his work. Toriyama had a large repertoire of projects under his belt, but none held a candle to his most famous series: Dragon Ball.

Dragon Ball’s success is legendary. Across the 519 chapters of the manga, four anime series, twenty films, over forty video games, and numerous other projects, Dragon Ball became one of the most well-known animated properties in the world. It was one of the forerunners to bring Western audiences, namely Americans, into anime as a medium alongside shows like the original Pokemon series and Sailor Moon. A generation of kids grew up watching Son Goku’s ever-escalating adventures in Dragon Ball Z on Toonami, Cartoon Network’s late-night action block for anime. I should know, I was one of those kids. In an age of Spongebob Squarepants, Ed, Edd, and Eddy, and even Pokemon, it was Dragon Ball Z that truly unveiled to me the sheer intensity of action possible within the realm of animation. To be clear, I don’t have a particularly deep insight into Dragon Ball or Mr. Toriyama’s work as a whole, this is just going to be a bit of waxing poetic as a casual fan since he is, in part, the reason I got into this medium at all.

While Dragon Ball Z wasn’t my first anime, that title goes to Pokemon, it was one of my favorites as a kid. Lots of kids loved it for the bombastic action, larger-than-life characters, and incredible superhero-like powers that Goku and his friends could pull off. I loved it for all of those same reasons. In those days, there was at least one kid at the playground who tried going super-saiyan or quoted one of the most famous lines in dubbing: “It’s over 9000!” I was in the camp of trying to throw ki blasts and fire energy beams from my hands. I never did manage to master the Kamehameha. There was also the invasion of Goku into the classic who-can-beat-who-in-a-fight conversations. This led to the inexorable and infamous debate of Superman vs Goku. A topic so hotly debated that the YouTube show Death Battle, a show generally well-liked and trusted in their research, got endlessly flamed online for their take on the subject. A take that so many of their fans had been asking for. They even did it a second time with a similar result. Speaking of online creations, I’d be remiss not to mention the wildly popular Dragon Ball Z Abridged by Team Four Star. The series is a comedic takedown of the absurdity inherent in the original show, but it was also clear that Team Four Star loved the things they were mocking. This idea was so popular that dozens of other online creators made abridged versions of other anime like Hellsing Ultimate, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Sword Art Online. Heck, there was even a Goku balloon introduced into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2018, and has stayed in the lineup ever since.

It’s an odd experience for me. Even by the time I was in high school, I wasn’t keeping up with Dragon Ball anymore. I chatted about it with friends, I never stopped liking it, but I didn’t follow it. I went to see one of the movies that got a limited release in the U.S., Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F, but that was about it. I liked the film but didn’t like it enough to go back to the series. My buddies told me that Super wasn’t really worth watching and GT had pretty mixed opinions for years. It didn’t help that the best way to watch these shows was via streaming services that require a subscription. That was just another level of motivation needed, and I just wasn’t interested enough. Since getting the Shonen Jump app a few years ago I’ve been meaning to give the manga a read, but that’s a fairly recent development and admittedly, the series has stagnated in my backlog. For a lot of my late teens and early twenties, Dragon Ball as a franchise was something that I referred to in jokes and memes, only occasionally hearing about an actual episode from a friend. And yet, I never lost my fondness for the series. No matter how much we, and the online community in general, mocked Goku’s perpetually increasing power level and the narrative nonsense that kept him in the fight, I couldn’t quite bring myself to dislike the franchise. There’s some primal joy in watching Goku hit his 5th or 6th new level of Super Saiyan and fight a god of destruction with a smile on his face. It’s not always high art, but it’s often fun.

While Dragon Ball is my only personal experience with Toriyama’s work, I’ve been looking into some of his other work in the wake of this news. Outside of Goku’s adventures, one of his most well-known exploits was doing character design work for the Dragon Quest games as well as Chrono Trigger and Blue Dragon. Of course, he’s also written dozens of one-shots and short series, not all of which received English translations, but the ones that have sound pretty interesting. Sand Land in particular has made my “to read” list, and at least one volume of Akira Toriyama’s Manga Theater is on the Jump app so I’m going to check that out as well.

Needless to say, this passing is a genuine loss for the art and entertainment communities. Toriyama genuinely loved creating and a lot of his work is beloved by many around the world. Even in his sixties he was still working on new projects, including a video game adaptation of Sand Land. There’s something inspiring about someone so successful still making things just because they love to. That’s the kind of artist I’d like to be. I’m going to be spending some time going through some of his other manga, and finally giving Dragon Ball a read. Rest in peace, Mr. Toriyama. You sparked the imagination of millions, and your distinct brand of creativity will be sorely missed.

If you’re interested, much of Toriyama’s manga can be read via the Shonen Jump app and almost every Dragon Ball series is streaming on Crunchyroll.