An Ode to Akira Toriyama and the Enduring Global Legacy of DRAGON BALL

To understand the philosophy of the late Akira Toriyama (who died at age 68 on March 1, 2024) and why his work resonates across languages, borders, and cultural experiences, there’s one thing from his beloved Dragon Ball anime that must be defined: The Spirit Bomb.

It lives up to its name as a weapon of last resort. However, it’s the Spirit Bomb’s construction that’s revealing of Toriyama’s humane vision. Introduced in an early storyline of Dragon Ball Z, the Spirit Bomb is a martial arts technique where Son Goku—an alien warrior with an infectiously upbeat demeanor and the entire saga’s main protagonist—harnesses the life energy flowing in all living things, from the fauna to the people, into a single powerful blast. 

Goku says goodbye Dragon Ball GT
Toei Company

To reiterate, yes it’s a bomb of the exploding variety. Violence is intrinsic to Dragon Ball and about the only form of diplomacy its characters know. Toriyama’s carnage could be both exquisite and horrific in their mesmerizing detail (he was truly an artist like no other). However, he wasn’t concerned with annihilation but instead an assured belief in the unstoppable goodness resting within us all. The Spirit Bomb isn’t made by splitting atoms. It’s created through people and the Earth itself lending their collective spirit, confidence, and faith into a common cause. It is in essence “sending good vibes” made manifest. What a romantic idea—to hold incredible power cultivated just by being alive.

Toriyama’s imagination was as intricate as his layouts. But beyond the masculine intensity of his kinetic action and his unusual, arresting pastiche of Chinese wuxia and American sci-fi, there’s a deceptive simplicity in his storytelling. Dragon Ball is an inspiring epic that testifies the virtues of perseverance and consistency. (Go count the number of Dragon Ball Z tank tops at any commercial gym.) It affirms that the greatest strengths are the personal bonds forged in fire. The franchise is an epic where death is not even the end of someone’s story, but merely a respite from mortality. 

Goku isn’t a hero because of a few cosmic deities or the more nebulous notion of fate arbitrarily choosing him. Goku is a hero because he was raised to do the right thing. He invests fully in his training to be at his best to protect his friends and family. Fantastical Saiyan powers aside, Goku—and all of Dragon Ball and Akira Toriyama’s imagination—inspires us to all, in our own way, be like Goku. 

To Toriyama, whose artistry was also felt in gaming through Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, the iron durability of the human spirit comes from believing that “I can” is stronger than “I can’t.” This is not only translatable, it’s relatable. Adversity and danger lurks in all corners of the world. It is in dictatorships, in persecution of the oppressed, in unchecked greed that exterminates through poverty. (In a 1995 interview, Toriyama explained that he modeled one of his most feared villains, Freiza, after real estate speculators.) Thus explains Dragon Ball’s vise grip on its worldwide fans who speak different tongues but understand the same crushing mode of living, threatening to obliterate all our remaining willpower. 

Dragon Ball is as lore dense as other fictional epics like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, both influential sagas that are as loved by its audience as they are formative in their genre spaces. Goku has little in common with Luke or Frodo. But all their optimistic outlooks balanced by daunting evil conjures strikingly similar tonal vibes. But what ultimately separates Dragon Ball from the rest is its singular assertion that growth and victory are achievable through sheer grit and positive self-assurance. 

An Ode to Akira Toriyama and the Enduring Global Legacy of DRAGON BALL_1
Toei Animation

Anyone who grew up with Dragon Ball will recall this universal memory. We were all standing in our mirrors, fists clenched, yelling with relentless determination to unlock something hidden in our bones and our blood: the ability to breach our limits and go “Super Saiyan.” Toriyama’s storytelling was so impactful, we strove to defy physics. This wasn’t because we were detached from reality, but because our imaginations felt stronger. Children everywhere performed this ritual because we all need a little mystery and wonder to make life an adventure.

It is still nothing short of a miracle that a Japanese mangaka like Toriyama made art—profoundly influenced by ancient Chinese folklore, no less—and still enraptured audiences across color lines and continents, across Europe and the Americas and especially in Latin territories. A mercenary answer as to why is this happened is rooted in economics. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, American media was too expensive to import and localize to markets with booming TV audiences who demanded (pardon the word choice here) content. 

This compelled networks to scoop up anything they could afford. It was in this same period that anime was, at large, at a creative zenith. Alongside Sailor Moon, Cowboy Bebop, Gundam Wing, Saint Seiya, and Pokémon—and surging popularity in Studio Ghibli as an analog/contrast to Disney—Dragon Ball was among a wave of anime that introduced the medium to eager audiences outside Asia. With Japanese studios keenly interested in breaking into the US, anime made itself available to markets like France, Brazil, Mexico, and more as a testing ground for the products.

Dragon Ball Z Kai Goku image of him in the sky
Toei Animation

Little did anyone realize how much that Dragon Ball would burrow deep into these faraway places. The medium’s unbridled creativity and familiar themes about the powers of friendship and inner strength and of death as another phase in the grand scheme than a conclusive end clearly meant so much to audiences living in places still fresh from political upheavals. With Toriyama’s passing, many see just how much power and influence Dragon Ball holds in Latin-speaking regions. But it was evident years ago. For example, in March 2018, Mexican citizens flocked to government-sponsored screenings for episode 130 of Dragon Ball Super. These were illegal exhibitions that ignited tensions between Mexican and Japanese governments. But the astonishing attendance still illustrated Dragon Ball’s irresistible attraction.

Dragon Ball is one of the most influential fictional sagas of the 20th century and that is not an exaggeration. Its themes about personal growth and improvement as well as death/rebirth are as universally instructive as the Bible. It’s provocative but not completely incorrect to argue that Toriyama and Dragon Ball have done more to achieve worldwide harmony than organized religion. 

Look at the thousands who gathered in Buenos Aires to mourn the death of Toriyama. Their hands were raised to the sky in mimicry of the Spirit Bomb. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mao Ning, expressed condolences at a UN press conference. And El Salvador even declared a day of national mourning to this sad news. People of rival religions have waged war in the name of their gods. But maybe if people learned they share a love for Dragon Ball, a love that comes from within, they might embrace in the name of Goku.

Eric Francisco is a pop culture journalist specializing in all things superhero, sci-fi, gaming, and beyond. His work has appeared at Inverse, Esquire, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Men’s Health, IGN, Observer, and Nerdist. His entire personality was shaped by watching Dragon Ball Z and Cowboy Bebop on Toonami at a very impressionable age.

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