It shouldn’t surprise anyone that “Dragon Ball Z” creator Akira Toriyama is a fan of kung-fu movies. Following his previous “Dr.Slump” series that he published for Shonen Jump magazine, Toriyama went on to create “Dragon Ball” partly because of his love for kung-fu action flicks. You can’t blame the mangaka, as Toriyama’s original “Dragon Ball” manga series sought to replicate the balance of action and levity that films like Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” had achieved upon its initial release.
When it comes to the second manga series in the “Dragon Ball” universe, titled “Dragon Ball Z,” Toriyama would again look to kung-fu cinema for inspiration. Son Goku would experience his first (of many) transformations fighting Frieza, with his hair changing into that now-distinct blonde color as the legendary Super Saiyan. What’s more, Goku’s eyes would change in the transformation, harkening back to an actor that is even more legendary in his fighting prowess than Goku himself: actor Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee’s characteristics, specifically his eyes, would directly inspire Goku’s new transformation when Toriyama first illustrated the manga.
It’s all in the eyes
Akira Toriyama spoke about how Bruce Lee’s forceful stare inspired Goku’s look in an interview for Dragon Ball Z guide book translated by Kanzenshuu:
“His eyes from right after he transforms for the first time and looks up at Freeza… I based those off of Bruce Lee.”
Akira Toriyama, like any good mangaka, is a stickler for detail. At the time of the manga’s original publication, Goku’s first ever transformation was a big deal. The phrase “Super Saiyan” hadn’t yet become the historic Shonen moment that it is today. So when it came to first designing Goku’s new form that he would use to defeat Frieza in a decisive battle, he had to make it perfect. That includes the look in Goku’s eyes.
“Since that look of his [Bruce Lee’s] where he glares right at you is paralyzing! That’s what I wanted to do in the Frieza arc… Once Goku gave that look, as far as I was concerned the story arc was over.”
Akira Toriyama took inspiration from only the best. There’s something poetic about one of the most iconic fighters in cinema being a direct inspiration for one of the most popular Shonen protagonists. The inspiration is a testament to Lee as a timeless figure whose on-screen presence continues to inspire creatives to this day.
Dragon Ball’s history with kung-fu movies
“Dragon Ball” has a history of finding inspiration in kung-fu movies, with Toriyama realizing that he would have to pull from the greats to tell a compelling action story. In the same translated interview, Toriyama discussed one of the concepts he adored:
“If you take fairly ordinary, everyday stuff and add in one guy with extraordinary strength, then he becomes the center of attention, right? And I guess I like when some dumb, goofy guy turns out to be crazy strong. Like in kung-fu movies where the scrawny old geezer turns out to be a martial arts master; I love stuff like that.”
“Dragon Ball Z” would have various fighters whose unassuming stature would starkly contrast with their incredible power. A prime example is Master Roshi, Goku’s first teacher who is more powerful than his small stature would suggest. Toriyama’s fundamental understanding of how to make the action enjoyable in a Shonen, paired with inspiration from the classic films from his upbringing, helped to make “Dragon Ball Z” the classic manga and anime it is today.