Dragon Ball Super is airing its final episode later this month, bringing with it, at least for the foreseeable future, an end to Akira Toriyama's reign over the world of anime. The dubbed version will be continuing on Adult Swim, but new, subtitled episodes are already available, simulcast on Crunchyroll. Toei Animation, the company behind Dragon Ball Super, has promised it will be releasing more information on the future of the franchise at the end of March, including a new movie tentatively set to release next winter.
It's not the first time of uncertainty for Toriyama despite his status as a superstar in the world of manga and anime. The Dragon Ball franchise alone is estimated to have sold billions of dollars of merchandise worldwide. Toriyama's designs have been seen in universally beloved video games like Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, and he's often cited as an influence by artists, from Eiichiro Oda (One Piece) and Masashi Kishimoto (Naruto, Boruto) to several creatives on Steven Universe.
Yet, he's famously dubious of his own success, chafing against his own fans' clamor for new Dragon Ball episodes and ultimately stopping the series to work on his own projects. He took a back seat on both 1996's critically panned Dragon Ball GT and the more recent Dragon Ball Super, where he provided only character designs and the occasional script for Toei's staff to flesh out and adapt. Even the Super manga is made by artist Toyotarō (nee Toyble) who'd gotten his start making the fan comic Dragon Ball AF. Toriyama's contributions, like Space Patrolman Jaco and the parody Neko Majin Z, have all been cutesy, comedy manga first, and parts of his longer saga a distant second.
To understand Toriyama's relationship with his own success, it's good to look at his first big hit, Dr. Slump, which ran in Weekly Shōnen Jump from 1980 to 1984. In fact, when it hit TV screens in 1981, the series was one of Toei's first collaborations with Jump and far from the last. The Dr. Slump time slot (Wednesdays at 7 p.m.) ended up getting handed off to Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and, finally, Dragon Ball GT, which ultimately passed the baton to a second Dr. Slump cartoon in 1997, meaning Toriyama ruled the same half-hour on TV every week for almost 20 years.
The titular character of Dr. Slump is Senbei Norimaki, a 28-year-old bachelor who builds everything from X-ray glasses to time machines without a second of trouble. But he can barely make ends meet, let alone function enough to find a girlfriend. In the first chapter, he builds a perfectly lifelike robot daughter, Arale, more for company than anything else.
Arale has two problems: She's nearsighted and — maybe more importantly — she's an idiot. Although she's never in any danger (she's bulletproof and regularly punches the entire earth in two as a show of strength), Arale never quite understands how to blend in, and Senbei has endless trouble keeping the town from realizing she's a robot.
Slump is very much a gag manga first and foremost despite Toriyama's reputation for power-up sequences and musclemen scowling with grit and determination. In fact, there's a lot in Dr. Slump that makes fun of the very cliches Toriyama later became famous for, including Ultraman visual parodies and "Suppaman," a squat version of Superman who travels everywhere lying stomach-down on a skateboard.
The manga is a great showcase for Toriyama's style, which tends toward the goofy and childlike. Every week, Toriyama introduced some bizarre new idea, like metal-eating baby angels created by God Himself to prevent humans from advancing technologically. It's this sense of invention that everyone enjoys in Dragon Ball, as well, with the unfortunate drawback that when he introduced magic beans that could heal any injury there, he quickly had to write in rules to keep them from ruining the entire plot.
Dr. Slump was a bonafide phenomenon. It spawned the two aforementioned anime series, as well as the movies, five of which were recently subtitled and released by Discotek media. Since then, Arale has appeared in the strangest places — as a mascot costume in the Jackie Chan film My Lucky Stars and in a live-action 2016 ad for the clothing brand G.U.
Artificial humans have always been understood as a way to provide contrast to what is artificial in humanity. Arale, a synthetic human, is innocent to the concept of sex and even age: she complains about having no belly button, no breasts, no penis. But her complaints are in the gently euphemistic yet immediately obvious way we let slip by in comedy and children's media in a way that would be either taboo or overly didactic in drama. Arale is, by sheer volume of merchandise, the most popular transgender character in fiction.
And this isn't to call Slump a revolutionary feminist text. It only grapples with life as a performance of adjectives, rebuking essentialism in the same way all good comedy does, from Shaw's Pygmalion to Wayans's White Chicks. Internationally, comedy understands the complex roles humans are assigned to play in a way that would only later be articulated in seminal Western scholarships like Dr. Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto or Dr. Susan Stryker's My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.
The '80s were an unusual time, heralding a global turn to neoliberal, capitalist economic policies in many countries for the first time since women got the vote. Margaret Thatcher had taken over from England's previous Labor government in 1978. People were encouraged to buy and consume on an unprecedented scale, particularly in Japan, which grew so much in the '80s that it inspired a kind of techno-nationalism in the U.S. Flawed heroes and cooperation through hardship were out. People had enough stress to deal with in their real lives, with crowded job markets and competitive schools. Some have suggested that Slump appealed to Japanese readers as a story about invincible people in a laid-back, small-town setting.
So why is Slump an obscurity outside of Japan? The robot girl getting into trouble was hardly a new concept. Sitcoms in the '60s brought us My Living Doll, which had the same premise — a man tries to keep people from realizing the woman living with him is a robot. We weren't unfamiliar with powerful women, with comic books like Red Sonja and TV shows like The Bionic Woman. And the '80s would later bring United States viewers Small Wonder, a four-season sitcom that basically asked the question, "What if Arale was boring?"
It seems Slump just missed its chance, and now, decades later, Arale's biggest claim to international fame is having appeared in an admittedly pretty good episode of Dragon Ball Super. Neither anime has ever received an official U.S. release. But check out the manga, published by Viz Media. Toriyama's talent for page layouts and design is a must-see, whether you're learning how to make comics or just want to enjoy some off-the-wall silliness.