Perspective | Akira Toriyama laid the bedrock of modern action storytelling

Perspective | Akira Toriyama laid the bedrock of modern action storytelling

There is hardly a space in pop culture today that hasn’t been touched by Akira Toriyama’s art.

Watch a Marvel movie and you’ll see action sequences that purposefully echo the climactic, planet-destroying battles of “Dragon Ball Z.” Drop a needle on a hip-hop track and you just may hear a reference to “going Super Saiyan.” Watch sports and you’ll see athletes credit their dedication to Goku, the hero of the “Dragon Ball” series.

Bird Studio, the company Toriyama founded in 1983, announced on Thursday that the author and artist died on March 1 from acute subdural hematoma. He was 68. But the legacy of his work is alive and well all over entertainment. After filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, Toriyama is likely the most influential Japanese artist of modern times. He brought manga and anime into the global mainstream and broke down the walls that had once sealed off Japanese storytelling.

In a statement, Bird asked the public to “follow his wishes for tranquility” by allowing Toriyama’s family to mourn in peace, and to not offer any condolences. “It is our deep regret that he still had several works in the middle of creation with great enthusiasm,” the company said. “However, he has left many manga titles and works of art to this world. Thanks to the support of so many people around the world, he has been able to continue his creative activities for over 45 years.”

Toriyama’s most famous creation is the “Dragon Ball” series, the manga he began in 1984. It was inspired by the classic Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” but adapted with humor and a focus on martial arts. The animated TV show “Dragon Ball Z” made his work a global success. The franchise became so popular that its protagonist, Goku, can even claim Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon status.

A love for ‘Dragon Ball Z’ has infiltrated NFL locker rooms

Beginning in 1996, a Cartoon Network programming block called Toonami introduced “Dragon Ball Z” to millions of U.S. homes. For many outside Japan, this was our first taste of the “shonen” style of narrative. Shonen means young boy, and the stories often place these characters on hero’s journeys that stress perseverance and camaraderie.

There was nothing like the sprawling, slow-building story of “Dragon Ball Z” on American TV at the time. Cartoon shows rarely tried to tell stories even over multiple episodes. But “Dragon Ball Z” acclimated young millennial viewers to serial TV decades before Netflix bingeing became a thing (and even a few years before “Lost”). The show’s arcs would have distinctive names like “The Frieza Saga” and “The Cell Saga.”

Toriyama’s work was so prevalent in Latin America that Goku has long been considered a kind of folk hero. The Los Angeles Times last year published a smart and humorous essay called “In celebration of Goku, a Latino icon.” Latin American countries aired lots of Japanese TV programming because it was cheaper, and the rest is history: Goku slid into the hearts of another audience. “Maybe Goku is something like a saint,” JP Brammer wrote in that essay. “To me, he is the patron saint I call on whenever someone tries to tell me that a story isn’t Latino enough because an abuela doesn’t threaten anyone with ‘la chancla,’ or that stories catering to the Latino community won’t work because Latinos don’t like supporting other Latinos.”

As an artist, Toriyama had a sharp, distinctive way of depicting humans. They followed the classic rules of cartooning: exaggerated expressions that clearly communicate emotions. But Toriyama was louder, more intense than most. His faces were easy to spot, but much of Toriyama’s storytelling occurred in how he drew hands. Toriyama’s most iconic hand gesture is placing Goku’s wrists clamped together, his palms face-open as he shoots out fireballs that destroy mountains. This style of magical martial arts would later inspire the entire genre of fighting video games, notably the fireballs of “Street Fighter 2.” Today, Toriyama’s style of combat is omnipresent in action narratives. (He even inspired the boxing matches of “Creed 3.”)

His inspiration to spiky-haired characters is obvious and everywhere, but he also popularized the external depiction of chi, the spiritual energy that runs through the human body. In the West, “the force” in “Star Wars” was invisible and a matter of faith. Toriyama envisioned spiritual energy bursting and bathing our bodies in light and fire. He envisioned the human spirit as a powerful, visible presence and made it feel real.

Athletes often cite “Dragon Ball” as an inspiration because of Toriyama’s focus on telling stories about determination and grit. Old stories about Spider Man and Batman would focus only on the conflicts, interpersonal and otherwise. The stories of “Dragon Ball,” however, created entire story arcs and multipart sagas specifically about training and self-improvement. What would be a throwaway training montage in other stories, Toriyama would use as an opportunity to build up characters and tension.

Beyond TV, Toriyama lent his art and style to other fields. Just as “Dragon Ball” was starting, he was commissioned by a Japanese software company to draw up a fantasy land. With Enix, Toriyama would help create “Dragon Quest,” one of the most influential video games of all time. He was the lead artist of “Chrono Trigger,” a Super Nintendo role-playing game that’s often cited as one of the best games ever made.

Toriyama made ripples both large and small. It was “Dragon Ball,” for example, that gave us the notion of individual characters having “power levels.” The phrase “it’s over 9,000” became an indelible internet meme.

On Thursday evening, artists and animators from the three industries Toriyama touched shared work that he inspired. A “Spider Man” animator demonstrated a fireball he gave to the character Miles Morales. Many noted that Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog are both inspired by Toriyama characters. And then there’s Eiichiro Oda, creator of the “One Piece” franchise, whose work follows in Toriyama’s footsteps.

“The excitement and emotions felt through the Dragon Ball series will forever take root in the youth of the creators of this industry,” Oda wrote. “His existence is like that of a great tree. … May the heaven he envisioned be a most joyous place for him.”

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