The legend of Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball

Introducing the little-known, and surprising circumstances behind Akira Toriyama’s debut and career!

When you think of world-famous manga artists, Akira Toriyama has to be one of the first to come to mind. His popular series “Dragon Ball,” serialized in “Weekly Shonen Jump” in 1984, sold an astonishing number of volumes; with more than 260 million copies sold worldwide. It is still wildly popular all over the world, even now, 26 years after the serialization ended.

Toriyama also famously worked on the character design for RPG game “Dragon Quest”, and his characters undeniably contributed to the game’s popularity, allowing it sell 83 million copies worldwide.

Let’s take a closer look at the legend that is Akira Toriyama!

● Overwhelming artistic talent

A lot of the charm behind Toriyama’s work comes from his pure artistic talent. His drawing is considered outstanding, even by other professionals. Many other popular manga artists cite him as one of their main influences for starting out as a manga-ka.

You would think that such a talented artist had been honing his abilities since he was a small child… but in reality, he only started drawing manga at 23 years old! He never dreamt of becoming a manga-ka; he was more interested in becoming an illustrator, and joined a design company straight after graduating high school.

So where did that insane drawing ability come from?

Toriyama’s editor at “Weekly Shounen Jump” claims that some of the the power behind Toriyama’s work comes from the excellent sense of balance he learnt from his design work, and that studying in this way rather than jumping straight in to manga illustration really helped him grow. Since technical skill and a good eye for balance are so very important to illustration, it makes sense that this kind of training would make for a great manga-ka!

Even Osamu Tezuka, the “god” of manga, who created huge hits like Astro Boy, is quoted as saying “I’m no match for Toriyama, his art is too excellent. He’s my successor.”

● A career born of poverty

So how did Toriyama end up with a career in manga? It was actually out of necessity rather than anything else. Leaving his job at the design company left him poor, and in need of money. He heard about a “new manga artist” contest offering a prize of 100,000 yen, and decided to give it a shot.

He didn’t get the prize at that time, but it was that failure that proved to be the catalyst for his career as a manga-ka. Stubborn young Toriyama decided he wouldn’t stop drawing until that prize was his!

After three years of hard work, we saw the start of his first serialisation, “Dr. Slump”. He even got an anime deal for the series, and Dr. Slump became a cultural phenomenon in Japan, with main character Arale’s catchphrases coming into regular conversational use. 

At 23 years old, Toriyama’s start as a manga artist may have been late, but his popularity snowballed from there, and he rocketed to manga stardom in a matter of years!

The unique colouring used in the early colour illustrations for Dr. Slump became super popular too… but did you know this style was also born of his lack of money at the time?

Because he couldn’t afford many colours of ink, he bought a cheap pack of 24 felt-tip pens and dissolved the colours in water to make ink for his colouring!

● Dragon Ball was the only way out?!

Because Dr. Slump was so popular, when Toriyama talked to his publisher about ending the series, he was told he’d only be allowed to do so if he came up with a new series to launch within the next three months.

He worked with his editor on several unsuccessful one-shots, before finally came up with the idea for Dragon Ball, a “kung fu style” shounen manga. A series he and the publisher thought worthy to take over from Dr. Slump as his next serial.

It’s hard to believe, considering how popular it is today, but Dragon Ball was actually somewhat of a flop at the time of launch. It didn’t enjoy the same popularity as its predecessor, and was teetering at the bottom of the ratings for quite some time. 

However, once the series started focusing more on the battles, its popularity instantly boomed, until the “Tenkaichi Budokai” arc brought Toriyama back up to his number one spot in the ratings, for the first time since Slump. Once it climbed up to that number one spot, the series never came back down – breaking all records by consistently holding on to its number one position until the series ended.

And it didn’t stop there – with anime and game adaptations, and endless merchandise, Dragon Ball became a monster hit, all over the world!

● With great talent comes great responsibility…

So popular was the Dragon Ball franchise, Toriyama was unable to end the series, even when he wanted to. Too many businesses and jobs were depending on it, and it was said that abruptly ending the series could disrupt Japan’s entire economy!

It was only after a long series of meetings and discussions with important company mangers, that the series was finally allowed to come to a close.

● What’s next for Toriyama-sensei?

2023 will be Toriyama’s 45th anniversary… what new exciting works can we expect from this legendary creator?? We’re excited to see what he has in store for us next. 

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