Dragon Ball Super Actors Reflect on the Anime’s Legacy, and Tease Its Future

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To call Dragon Ball a phenomenon would be an epic understatement. Sean Schemmel has been at the head of this franchise for the better part of two decades here, playing the dauntless hero Goku, while Jason Douglas has only recently joined it as the nigh-invincible god, Beerus. In a sprawling discussion below, the two actors dish on the vibe in an anime recording studio, explain some charged-up in-jokes, reflect on how fandom has changed over the years, tease what’s to come in Dragon Ball Super, and even ruminate on the existential philosophy of aliens.

Dragon Ball has had a few finales over the years, but it just keeps coming back due to popular demand, doesn’t it?

Sean Schemmel: I don’t know if the show came back due to popular demand as much as it came back due to Akira Toriyama kind-of coming out of retirement. Or maybe Toei prompted him. I don’t know the true story. I guess, in respect to “finales,” we finished Z, then we did Kai, which was the same series. And now we have the movies coming out, and the games. I think it started out as a niche cult following that has become extremely mainstream, and hooky, and meme-like.

What do you think makes the show’s appeal so enduring?

Sean: It’s just a freaking great show, and it has a lot of elements that people really like. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it, but it represents this primal spirit of not giving up. And I know a lot of lot of people feel repressed, or oppressed. We heard the story of this kid beating 400 bees that were attacking him because he charged up like Vegeta, and it saved his life apparently. So, I think there’s a spirit inside that I just makes it this… gift that keeps on giving.

Everybody wants to talk to the guy who’s done it forever, but I think Jason’s perspective might be more interesting than mine…

Jason Douglas: As an actor, when I started out in 1997 or 98, I didn’t know whole lot about anime. I was a stage actor end and I got recruited into work with a company at the time called ADV Films, based out of Houston. That’s how I got introduced to anime.At the same time, while we were just doing a lot of different titles that had varying degrees of popularity, these guys were up in North Texas doing Dragon Ball. I like to think that we, on both of our sides of the world, were helping in our own small way to build the fandom that we now see at something like Anime Expo, which is one of the biggest cons in the country, of any kind. And that just wasn’t happening 15 years ago.

So, anime is measurably more mainstream than it was in, say, 2000?

Jason: It’s been built up over the years, in no small part, because of the fan base based on Dragon Ball. That’s probably the single biggest point of this cultural reference. Now, even people outside of anime fandom may still, in fact, have knowledge of Dragon Ball. They maybe even grew up watching it, not realizing they were watching something called “anime.” To them, it was just a great story with great characters.

So, for me to go to come in now, after all this time, into a really great show – it’s not just another episode of a long-running, well-loved anime, it’s a rebirth. It’s a re-conception of what Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z were all about. I agree with Sean. I think that these episodes are among the best. They capture all the best of what I think Dragon Ball was all about.

You mention things changing over 15 years. Have you noticed changes in fandom, too? Maybe older audiences appreciating the show?

Sean: Dude, I have had 70 and 80-year-old people come up and get my autograph with glee. People who didn’t watch with their grandkids. Old couples coming up. They’re giddy, and youthful, and love the shit of DBZ. People who started watching it in, I guess, their sixties or seventies without prompting from their grandchildren.Then, of course, the vast majority of grandparents were prompted by their grandchildren. And there’s the inter-generational experience I’ve had, where people have asked to me to sign birth certificates because they named their daughter Videl. And I’m like, “I’m not legally qualified to sign that.” It’s its own thing, now.

Sounds like it’s evolved in directions which the creator couldn’t even have expected.

Sean: There’s that old adage when an artist creates, and the work takes on a life of its own, and so little art really does that in a genuine way. Toriyama has to sit with this fact of his magical creation.

So, you haven’t met Toriyama?

Sean: I haven’t. Chris Sabat has met him once, and was instructed not to look at him. He’s very shy and agoraphobic. I don’t know if Chris even shook his hand. He’s kind of an absentminded professor. I mean, he was asked about what happened to this character Launch on a panel with Chris, and he sheepishly says, “Oh… um… I forgot about her.” He totally forgot.

And when he’s been working on Super, his staff members are reminding him that, like, Trunk’s hair color is wrong, and other things. I think he’s a genius. I don’t think he has dementia, but the guy’s so intelligent, and has these often-associated-with-genius social issues. Especially for artists. I’ve met a lot of comic artists. They tend to be more introverted. They’re not gregarious actors. Though, I’ve met some introverted actors. I’m not trying to make a stereotype here. You know, Sunny Straits is very gregarious, and he’s a very good artist. It’s not a rule. But I wonder if Toriyama is this absentminded professor who just does his genius, and other people help and support him. I think it’s beautiful, really.

Toriyama, of course, has made no secret of basing Dragon Ball on the old Chinese epic, Journey to the West.

Sean: Yeah. The other thing that makes the show deep is that Greek myths, the art of theater, is our first form of psychology. It’s a way we could look at ourselves, and analyze ourselves, before we had psychologists. And we can still do that – see ourselves in story. The reason ancient Greek tales get told over and over in new clothes is because they speak to us as humans at our very core, no matter what language you speak or where you’re from. It’s the trials and tribulations of being a human.

That set of Greek tales is from a part of the world which has bled into our culture very heavily. But now you have the similar thing in Asia with the tale of the Monkey King – part of an ancient mythos which I think might predate Greece’s mythos. And because it’s good, it’ll resonate with us and our unconscious, because it is as valuable and as valid to the human experience as the Greek stuff is, it just happens to be this other way humanity has expressed trials and tribulations.

There’s literally something primal to its appeal then.

One reason I think Dragon Ball stands on is because it’s the story of the hero on the great journey West, which Joseph Campbell talks about. And it resonates because its underpinnings take inspiration from a tale that’s been told for thousands of years. And that’s got some staying power for some deep reason I’m trying to articulate… ha ha.

Jason: I love it.

You talk about theater traditions. Dragon Ball can switch from the comedy mask to the drama mask quite sharply, and that’s really embodied in both these characters. For instance, Goku is a bit of a Pollyanna, but he has a mean streak if you threaten his friends.

Sean: Goku’s a Pollyana, but Pollyanism generally comes from a different source. Goku was hit on the head by a large rock! He should have been an evil Saiyan, just like all the Saiyans who were terraforming everything, but he acts like a child with a head injury. All that Saiyan power had to get channeled somewhere, but Goku discovered love and good morals as a small child with his grandfather instead.

He grabbed Bulma’s crotch when he first met her, because he didn’t know what a girl was! He wasn’t being a pervert. He was just like, “What are you?!” That’s how clueless he was. He doesn’t even understand gender – at least as a little boy.  Which is humorous, and some people might say a little pervy, but it was really an innocent scene, because he simply doesn’t get it. That’s what Goku is. He’s supposed to be a hick – because he grew up where he grew up in Japan – that is still a freaking genius fighter. That’s the way it’s been explained to me.

Oddly enough, since he debuted as the villain in Battle of Gods, Beerus has had a similar duality. He’s this fearsome destroyer of worlds, but he takes cat naps and gets distracted by desserts.

Sean: Jason has described as Beerus, not as malevolent, but as a force of nature. I’ve also noticed when he talks about different moods – I think it’s written – but he’s picked up on it. Beerus is a cat, and there are cat-like behaviors – I’m hungry! I’m moody! – yet he’s still an intelligent god. Versus Frieza, who’s trying to get you for a reason. He’s just a force of nature. A thing that just  does what he does. I never would’ve picked up on it.

Jason: I love the way that he’s driven by those forces. What we experience as Beerus is really a personification of those cosmic forces. A black hole, or a comet that’s going to level a planet. Even Beerus is trapped inside that framework. I mean, he has to be what he is. So, all those moments that we laugh at are somewhat ironic moments – they’re moments where he’s essentially being the person he is in spite of what he has to do. He is going to destroy. He might not utterly destroy – and he might not destroy, right now – but he’s going to destroy something, and it’s going to be terrible for some one.

Of course, in Super, Goku is a family man with years of experience under his belt. His outlook might not change, but the situation he’s in keeps evolving certainly.

Sean: Now, he’s training with gods of creation and destruction! I have a theory that Beerus and Whis are grooming him. Beerus may be  the god of destruction for another universe. Or Beerus  might ascend to another level we don’t know about. Vegeta may be being groomed to be the new god of destruction, and Goku may be being groomed to be the new god of creation. Or vice versa? I don’t know.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens, because there’s this multi-universe tournament happening. I haven’t paid attention to it yet, but I know there’s a tournament of all the universes. And the plot line is – spoiler alert! – that whichever guy loses, his universes goes away, until there’s one universe left. So, who do we want to win? Goku’s universe! Because that’s the universe we’re in as viewers.

You’re not sure where this tournament plot is heading, even as the series lead. In a long-running show like this, how do you handle a scene setting up a subplot if you’re not really sure what it’ll build to? Do you get any advance information?

Sean: It depends. There’ve been times when we didn’t have enough Japanese data, and we needed it, and it led somewhere we didn’t expect. That’s rare, but it does happen. But then there are times where you don’t know, and it’s OK that you don’t know because you, as an actor, are growing with the character. It’s how you take it as it is.

But then there’s my Goku Black situation, for example. I’ve gotten some flak for the voice, I’ve gotten some praise for the voice. I’m not really worried about that as much, because I just don’t consider acting a collaborative art with my audience. I am thinking about tweaking it, though – not necessarily because of the response – but because, understandably, Toei and the video game developers in Japan wouldn’t tell us more about Goku Black other than “he’s just an evil Goku.”

And he was a special, pre-order bonus fighter in this Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 game.

Sean: We didn’t know then – he’s actually a Zamasu from another universe trapped inside Goku’s body. We didn’t know any of that, so my only my only acting cue was “it’s evil Goku.” So, vocally what’s the opposite of that? I’ve done the lower voice of Super Saiyan 2 or 3, but I wanted to make something really gravely, and evil, and sinister, and guttural.

Now, I’m copying the actor we cast to play Zamasu –  I can’t tell you who it is yet – because he is in the body. So, when he finally becomes “final Zamasu,” no longer in that Goku body from the other universe, the glory of that voice lies fully in the actor who’s playing him. You can hear the evolution of it.  So, I’m thinking I might do a similar thing – this is just a hint – with a quasi-British accent. Because otherwise, it’s too stark of a change. That actor does this British type of accent. And the language is written that way, so it makes sense he would pick that. The actor who plays him is very good.

So, you’re rethinking your approach, not because of fan reaction, but because of these revelations from Japan about the character’s secrets.

Sean: Chris Sabat and I are going to look at the storyline when we get there, sometime next year. We’ll be analyzing it. We’ll try some voices out. We’re not going to pay attention, sadly, to what the fans want – because I can’t have 80,000 directors in my head. That’s too many cooks in the kitchen. So, I’m trying  serve the piece, but also do what I want as an artist. Sure, I want to make the fans happy but, at that same time, I can’t worry about that.

So, that’s an instance where we didn’t have enough data. And they just wouldn’t tell us, because they just couldn’t trust anybody to not reveal what was going to happen on the show, and this character was coming out in the game beforehand.

A number of these Dragon Ball games have you two reenacting scenes from the show, and Super also retells the most recent movies’ stories.  When you’re revisiting material you’ve already played out, do you approach it differently?

Sean: Some things are different obviously. Like, Bulma’s birthday party taking place on a cruise ship versus the land. And a couple other things are different angles of Battle of Gods. Or Goku being boxed underwater – which didn’t happen in Battle of Gods. There are other angles, but it’s still fundamentally the same story.

Jason: With Super, there’s more room for Beerus to stretch. In the films, the storytelling is so compacted that each moment has a kind-of a heightened sense of importance. Whereas in Super, Beerus gets to be a little more accessible to the audience. We get to see more of his petulance. More of his curmudgeonly moments. Quiet moments. Fussy moments. A wider range. I’m tempted to say more of his humanity, but there’s certainly more of his personality.

Sean: What I’m curious about is… will Beerus evolve to be nicer? He’s already at one  of the highest levels of power in the universe. Where does he go as an evolution, in his power level, as well as his personality?

Jason: Bad morals or bad ethics for Beerus would be an imbalance of some sort. He doesn’t care about our sense of ethic. He’s got this cosmic sense that maybe he doesn’t even understand why he is what he is. He’s lived for so long, maybe millions or even billions of years – these are tear drops in the ocean. It’s almost as if the forces of the universe became sentient. Even with all those added dimensions, though, I still don’t see Battle of Gods or Resurrection F as being in conflict at all with Super. It’s telling the same story, but it explores it from different angles.

Speaking of potential conflict between different Dragon Ball iterations, Super is, of course, Toriyama’s take on Goku’s adventures after DBZ, even though that was previously covered in Dragon Ball GT. Do you see Goku as the same character in both, or do you approach him differently?

Sean: Oh, not at all. Only in the sense that I feel the history of what Goku’s gone through. But Goku is not a very evolving character. He’s fundamentally stayed the same. I’ve decided that part of that, he’s the embodiment of the Zen “beginner’s mind.” Metaphorically, that’s what he represents in the story.

So, he doesn’t grow or change much, but the side I see of him – the side we didn’t get to see a lot – is Goku dealing with a state of life beyond all these constant enemies. Because he’s powerful enough to take on anybody… except the god of destruction.

My take on Goku is just like… life’s going on, but as far as he’s concerned it’s “time for more training!” He’s not like, “Oy. We’re getting older.” He’s not getting nostalgic in any way. He’s just like, “A new adventure! How can I do this?” He’s beginner’s mind, the whole time, while everyone else is getting older, having kids. We don’t even know how long Saiyans live naturally. He could live for 1000 years!

That was especially stressed when he was first training with King Kai. Even when he’s racing through the afterlife, trying to get back to save Earth in time, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Sean: Yeah, because once he gets stronger he’s like, “Cool. I’m stronger! Now, how do I get stronger?” There’s never an end to it. It’s like, “Hey – what’s next?!” I don’t know Toriyama, so I can’t tell if that’s his way of seeing life. Because everybody has a way of seeing life. “Life is short. Life is wonderful. Life is beautiful. Enjoy every moment.” I wonder if the way he lives his life is to say, “It’s always fresh! What’s the next level? How do we get beyond? How do we keep going?” Or is that part of Japanese culture? I don’t know.

Speaking of outlooks, the series does seem to have a bit of whimsy about its own absurdities, especially when it comes to these ever-escalating power levels

Jason: I have noticed moments where it seems like there’s an ironic arc, where the show seems to be… I wouldn’t say making fun of itself… but it seems to be self-aware of its own mythos. Especially now, when they have these last 18 or so years to look back on, and they know exactly what the fans expect and want. They’re able to find moments for a little wink.

Sean: And yet, it’s such a simple show in a lot of ways, especially with Z. There’s just fighting, building up power. Super‘s getting a little more complicated. Especially where we’re going to have an alternate timeline with Trunks, which I’m excited about.

I always joke with Eric Vale that Trunks as character should just evolve into a person who’s lost his mind, because he’s dealing with all these timelines, bumping into himself – going psychotic. I wish they’d evolve him that way. He has to bare the burden of all this tragedy, and everybody’s like, “Oh, we’ll just wish them back to life. We’re good.”

In FUNimation’s dubs, there’s often an extra layer of entertainment, since you can tell the cast is having fun with the material, and winking at the audience sometimes. Can you describe the vibe in the recording studio?

Jason: There are some shows that you go in and it’s just like, “We’ve got to get it done. We’ve got a deadline.” Whereas with Dragon Ball, there’s a lot more room for us to ask questions – even stop and pull up the translation to see what the original Japanese says. I take advantage of that a lot, because they know these characters are so important to us, and that we care about the show. There’s a lot of trust that Chris Sabat has – and Raleigh his engineer has – to actually collaborate with us, and allow us to have that input.

Sean: We owe it to Chris. I can be a pain-in-the-ass to work with when I’m working on this show, in particular. I think it’s because it’s something I care so much about. I think I get away with more because Chris is my friend. I certainly wouldn’t do that at any other studio.

Chris’ natural modus operandi is playfulness, and improvisation, and mischievousness. And every once in a while, I’ll come up with an outtake and ask if we can leave it in, and he’ll just go, “Yeah. Go ahead.” Sometimes we have to get approval. He’ll analyze it. Does it violate the story? Does it violate the mechanics, or the power levels? Does it violate the translation – which I’m pickier about than he is. So much so, I remember spending an hour on one line because I didn’t trust it. I ended up being right, but Chris was like, “I’m so glad you did that, but you also spent way too much money to do it!”

So, you have some freedom to riff on the anime?

Sean: But it’s gotta be right, because I do care about the fan’s think. I can’t care about their direction to me, but I can care about wanting to make them happy, and doing a great job, and serving the piece especially. So, the vibe – especially when Chris is directing – is just fun. He sets it up, gets you warmed up. Maybe a little chatting, goofing around, showing you a funny video. And when you get in the booth, he’s very supportive. “You want to do another take? It’s fine. You want to go crazy? It’s fine.” He just keeps the creative juices flowing, and he’s the one that directs all of us, since we can’t act together.

I can’t play off Jason’s incredible improvisation skills, because we’re not there, so Chris is open to ideas, and suggestions. We try not to violate the mechanics of the show, or the spirit of the show, but sometimes we need to augment humor. Especially because Japanese humor doesn’t always translate. The goal is to make the audience have the same emotional experience, not to be totally literal.

There might not be more than one cast member at a recording, even though multiple characters are at play, and the scenes featuring King Kai and Goku may be most remarkable in that regard, since Sean is playing both mentor and trainee there. How do you keep a scene straight when you’re acting out two sides of the same conversation?

Sean: It’s weird because it feels like Goku is in King Kai, and King Kai is in Goku – like they’re two sides of the same coin. Goku’s dippiness and sense of humor is really similar to King Kai’s, except that King Kai is so wise and aware, he gets to have all the anxiety and fear and nervousness that Goku doesn’t. So, it’s easy for me to keep the head space clear, because by the time I get to do King Kai, I am dying to do something different. While I love playing Goku, there’s just such a different flavor in what King Kai does.

Also, I love King Kai’s relationship with Bubbles and Gregory. I always try to put some subtext in there, to make it seem like they were just up to some type of debaucherous party. I always do a wink in my voice and hope the audience picks up on it.

Getting back to what you said about augmenting humor, it seems like that’s especially the case with King Kai. His voice almost sounds like it’d fit in with the Loony Toons.

Sean: King Kai’s voice just came from the original actor who, to me, sounded like Buddy Hackett. So, after I took over from the Canadian cast in 99, I went to a Buddy’s website – I don’t think he’s alive anymore – and I listened to his comedy routines. It sounded like King Kai telling dirty jokes!

A lot of people don’t know who Buddy is because they’re too young, but I was a big fan of his. I love playing those scenes, even though people know now that I’m also playing King Kai. My favorite thing as a voice actor – ’cause I love Mel Blanc, and Rich Little, and Robin Williams – is I don’t want you to know it’s me, unless it’s my natural speaking voice. Because I want you to be suspending disbelief, so you’re just thinking about the characters.

We did a whole Beerus/Goku/Kai scene, and I got to play all that comedy against Beerus’ stoicism. That was the first time I actually got nervous about it, because this is actually going to be in theaters, and I’ve got to make sure they don’t sound alike. I don’t want you to think, “Oh, Kai sounds a little like Goku.”

As you said, the audience is a bit more informed these days.

Sean: Of course,  because of the internet.

Was it easier to keep secret that you were playing both Goku and King Kai before?

Sean: Early on, yeah. A lot of people didn’t know for years – even though it’s there in the credits.

You mentioned your “wish” for Trunks’ future in Super before.  For our last note here, can you give some teases on what longtime fans can look forward to in the new series – even if they’ve kept up on Dragon Ball news?

Sean: It’s funny you ask that. Most fans I know have already watched through episode 98 in Japanese, so I don’t know if I would be saying anything new to them.  But there are fans who exclusively watch our dub – which many more are doing – and we’re very proud of that.

No offense to the original Japanese cast. They’re amazing. But, the fact that we’ve got so many people turned on to our dub, and they appreciate it so much that they’ll wait for ours… that’s the highest compliment anyone can pay us, other than saying, “You’re my childhood.” Which we hear all the time, but it never gets old.

I would love to elucidate the question more, but I also don’t know, because I haven’t watched ahead. I do know there’s some fun stuff coming up. And there’s definitely some exciting stuff on the Dragon Ball video game front coming out – so look forward to that!

Will you never look at Dragon Ball the same way after reading this epic interview? Share all in the comments.

Image Credits: FUNimation

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