If someone were to ask you what the current state of anime’s international popularity is right now, you’d need only show them a clip from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last year. There you’d see Son Goku, the hero and protagonist of Akira Toriyama’s magnum opus Dragon Ball, blown up as a gigantic 56-feet-tall, 36-feet wide,70-feet-long parade balloon, sporting his Super Saiyan Blue hair and a smirk of confident determination. You might even show them a clip of Al Roker hilariously mispronouncing the word “Saiyan” just to allow the uncanny weirdness of that situation to sink in.
Over 30 years after its premiere on Japanese Television and just 22 years after the series first aired in the United States, Dragon Ball continues to reign as one of the most ubiquitous anime properties in the world. Nearly 10,000 fans showed up to watch a public live-stream of Dragon Ball Supers’s two-part series finale in Mexico last March; Toei Animation in 2017 earned over 9288 million yen, just shy of $86 million in USD revenue, from profits off the series along; and Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the latest feature film in the series, became the 5th highest earning anime theatrical opening of all time with a box office of over seven million dollars in its opening night alone. With numbers like that, I’d say the state of anime’s worldwide popularity is more than healthy.
Just before the film’s debut, Paste had the chance to talk with Christopher Sabat, the voice of Dragon Ball’s deuteragonist Vegeta, to talk about his role in producing Broly’s English-dubbed version, his storied career voicing some of the most iconic characters in contemporary anime, and his favorite moment in Dragon Ball Super: Broly is.
Paste: Chris, you’ve been the voice actor of Vegeta, along with a number of other notable Dragon Ball characters, for over 20 years now. How does it feel to have been a part of such an enduring franchise in anime history for over two decades? Does it feel that long?
Chris Sabat: Well it doesn’t, honestly. It does in retrospect, but it’s something where I’ve never had the chance to sit back and stop and really think about how long I’ve been working on this series. Every now and then, I’ll ponder it, but we’re still so busy working on it and have been consistently for all these years that it just felt like this job that I got when I was straight out of college and kind-of never lost it. I’ve been so lucky. When I first signed on to Funimation in 1998, it had a handful of employees and was in this beat-up old bank building in a crappy part of Fort Worth. No one knew what they were doing. I just thought it was going to be this kind of summer job. There was no internet back then—I couldn’t check and had no idea how successful Dragon Ball Z was all over the world because I had never been to an anime convention or anything like that. I just thought, hey, I’m going to help them do this dub, make a tiny bit of money—they weren’t really paying much back then—and I’ll go back to my house and buy some nice things for my roommates, all four of them in our little house in Denton, Texas.
Paste: I understand that you were the ADR director on Dragon Ball Super: Broly. You even referred to the casting process for the film as “assembling a crew of highly trained mercenaries who know their characters inside and out.” What were some moments or aspects recording and directing this film’s dub that were especially memorable to you?
Sabat: The whole first half of the film really meant the most to me of anything in the whole film. I think a lot of fans have wanted to see a little bit more of a deeper look into what the Saiyan history was. They could’ve spent the entire movie there (although it would’ve alienated half of the viewers), but I would’ve been perfectly happy. Getting to see King Vegeta, Vegeta’s father, doting over his son-to-be, you can kind of see where all that pride and all of that ego comes from in Vegeta. The first half just meant so much to me. I was joking it should be called, “Three Men and Three Babies,” because it’s all about three dudes arguing over their children and what they’ll become. It’s between Goku and his father [Bardock]—man, that scene! Probably my favorite scene in the whole film is the scene between Bardock and Gine, Goku’s father and mother. It’s probably the best scene in any Dragon Ball feature ever. There’s something remarkable about it.
Paste: How so?
Sabat: In recent versions of this show, we never really knew what Bardock’s intentions were in sending his child to Earth. We always assumed that Saiyans were just these rough, brutal heartless warriors who just took over planets and ate their victims, stuff like that. There was a whole movie based on Bardock’s history (Bardock: The Father of Goku), which a lot of this movie covers, but in that particular movie, Bardock’s having these weird visions of the future and wanting to stop his race from being destroyed. In this case, you actually get to see him say something profound when his wife asks him, for instance, “Why are you doing this, Bardock? It’s unlike a Saiyan to care about his children.” And he goes, “I spent my entire life destroying. I just want to save something for once.” Many of us, myself included, have up until this point made the joke that Goku is just a good guy because he fell on his head as a child—instead of being a fully evil guy, he’s a nice guy. But maybe there was some fate that was destined—maybe his father in this last-minute effort to push him somewhere safe, that one little weird act of kindness set Goku in motion to be this hero.
Paste: One of the most interesting aspects of Dragon Ball Super is how much this series has added new dimensions to characters fans had already grown to know and love over decades: Piccolo learning to drive, Krillin getting a job, Goku re-examining his role as a father, etc. Vegeta has seen some significant change as well, growing into his life as a father and husband. How do you feel you’ve grown, as a voice actor and as a person, through voicing Vegeta?
Sabat: I’d say the best gift I could have ever been given was to have been the voice director on the show. When they plucked me out of University in North Texas, I didn’t have a whole lot of experience. Nor could they really hire anyone who had a lot of experience at that time. And it was through casting all of these talented people over the years, people like Laura Bailey, the voice of Kid Trunks; and Colleen Clinkenbeard, the voice of Kid Goku; and Eric Vale, the voice of Adult Trunks; and Kent Williams, the voice of Android 20. Getting to work with these super talented actors, I actually got to absorb a lot of their talent over the years. I’ve had a pretty nice voice my entire life—that’s one thing I was lucky enough to have been gifted with—however, I didn’t have a ton of acting experience. I didn’t have a theater degree or anything like that. I had a Radio, Television and Film degree. So being allowed to direct this thing let me watch all of these professionals at work, and I [saw] their techniques and, in a way, trained with them. As I guidied them through what the story was, they were teaching me valuable things about how to be a better voice actor, as well. That really helped to hone my skills. Another thing about doing the same character for twenty years, especially one that grates on your vocal chords as much as Vegeta does, is that it really ironclads your throat. I can’t express to you how lucky I was that I did not lose my voice much while recording the show. Like any other muscle in your body, when you work your voice like eight hours-a-day for so long, it just becomes a powerful machine. So in that way, I’ve been pretty lucky as well.
Paste: You and Vic Mignogna, the voice of Broly, have worked together before on the Fullmetal Alchemist series, voicing Major Alex Louis Armstrong and Edward Elric, respectively. I know the two of you recorded your sessions separately, but what was it like working with Mignogna again? Have you two established something of a rapport with one another?
Sabat: Vic is a really powerful force in the anime industry. He’s one of the old guard of voice actors like I am. And so with Vic, it was really unfortunate that we really couldn’t spend the sessions recording him together because of the brutal timeline we had. Also, this character he had to scream for—it was going to be brutal on his voice and I wanted him to have the full flexibility of being able to come in and record, then take a day, two days, or even a week off if he needed. So it made more sense to record him somewhere else, but Vic is definitely in the upper echelons of voice actors and an insanely brilliant talent. I was really happy to see Broly change a bit in this movie, because in previous iterations of the character, all Broly did was scream “Kakarot” over and over again. He had no real dialogue, no real character arc other than this monster trapped in a teenager’s body. But in this movie you get to see a much different version of Broly, and there couldn’t have been a better person to portray that kind of frightened, innocent sheltered type of character that Vic is actually known for playing in all sorts of other roles. And yet Vic still brought the power to be able to scream for what would probably amount to a solid hour’s worth of screaming if you strung together all the screams he had to do back-to-back.
Paste: Speaking as a fan of the series yourself, not as a voice actor, what would you like to see the character of Vegeta experience or do in the future?
Sabat: My ultimate dream for this show—and I wish I could just inject this into Akira Toriyama’s brain—I want Goku to smack his head again and I want Goku, not Goku Black but the actual Goku, to lose his mind and become purely evil again. And I want Vegeta to have to convince Goku that he doesn’t have to be evil. I would also like to see Vegeta apologize for a few things. We kind of accept Vegeta as this tough-as-nails kind of dude, this “he doesn’t apologize” kind of guy. That machismo is cool in a character, but it’s amazing how people will argue that Vegeta is a better father than Goku (which is true by the way). We love Vegeta so much now that we’ve forgotten that he was the kind of guy who would kill his best friend, Nappa, because he wasn’t cutting the mustard during a fight. This is a really, really brutal dude who never really made full amends with everybody. So I’d like to see him apologize for all his previous behavior. He may have accepted he’s not as good as Goku sometimes, but he’s never fully apologized.
Paste: If Vegeta were to ever defeat Goku, how do you think he would react? Would he be ecstatic, or secretly disappointed?
Sabat: Well, Vegeta and Goku are like yin and yang. They’re like Scully and Mulder; you can’t let one outdo the other or else the show will be over. I joke that Akira Toriyama is so mean in terms of never letting Vegeta get a full win, like his own personal hell is never getting to be the guy who wins. If Vegeta ever won, actually won and beat Goku, the universe would explode spontaneously and the show would be over. [laughs] Vegeta wouldn’t even have a moment to relish in that victory.
Paste: During one of Dragon Ball Super’s earlier arcs, you and Brian Drummond, the voice actor of Vegeta in the Ocean Group dub of Dragon Ball Z, portrayed Vegeta and his sadistic doppelgänger, respectively, facing off with one another. What was it like playing off of Drummond’s performance? Did you catch a sense of déjà vu at all?
Sabat: It’s the reason I called him in to do it. Brian Drummond was one of the guys who I based my voice on—back in 1998, I was cast because of my ability to kind of be able to match his voice. I quickly changed it because I didn’t want to mimic someone else’s voice as a character for an entire show. But, at the same time, he is the original guy I based my voice on. So when we were getting to this scene, this little tiny arc where we had this copy Vegeta character, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly one of the most much-beloved scenes in the subtitled version. People were just like, “This is a waste,” a filler moment in the series. At that point, I was already a bit disappointed that they didn’t do anything too fascinating with it, so I thought I wanted to bring some other layer, something interesting. I thought about changing my voice, but then I listened back to the original in Japanese, and they didn’t change his voice much, so I thought, what could we do? It was a couple days before I was supposed to record it when it hit me: “Holy crap. It’s copy Vegeta, and I had to copy Vegeta back in ’98, and who did I copy? Brian Drummond! Let’s get Brian to do it! I’m friends with him on twitter. I could reach out!” I asked him if he was interested in doing it, he said, “Hell yes,” and I said, “Um, can we do it like, tomorrow?,” and he said, “I’ll make it happen.” So we recorded him remotely from Canada, and just hearing his voice for the first time gave me just a tiny taste of what it was going to be like for those kids who grew up watching the show—that’s the voice they heard too. I got some of the most positive feedback for that casting of anything I’ve ever done, and I’m extremely proud of it.
Paste: Which Dragon Ball character that you haven’t voice acted, would you like the chance to voice act?
Sabat: Granted you’re asking the wrong guy because I’ve played just about everyone on the show, but in an alternate universe, the one guy I would love to play is Hercule. I love Mr. Satan—he’s such a funny character. You could argue he has a pretty decent story arc. He has almost the greatest change of any of the characters, because he did kind of have a lot of pride at the beginning. He still likes to secretly hide things from people and give Goku money on occasion, but he’s a much better person than when we first met him.
Paste: In your career as a voice actor, you’ve voiced dozens of notable characters across many anime series, films and games. One of your most recent roles was that of All Might, the once-greatest hero of My Hero Academia. In a purely speculative match-up, no holds barred, with all their powers, who do you think would win in a fight? Vegeta or All-Might?
Sabat: Wow, that’s a tough one. All Might is probably one of the best characters I’ve ever played, especially at the age I’m at now. I have two kids, and he’s such a fatherly type of figure I can really relate to him. So if I were asked to say which one I like more, I can’t answer that because one, it’s impossible to choose, and two, I’d get in a lot of trouble. [laughs] But, I’d say that Vegeta is cunning enough to figure out that All Might has a limited amount of time where he’s at the peak of his powers. I think he would be cunning enough to wait until that time limit ran out so he could make his final blow. However, I will say this, the only way All Might could win would be if Vegeta’s pride were so big, he wouldn’t want to fight All Might if he was in his weakened form. If he let him power up into his true form, then we would have a true match on our hands.
Paste: What do you hope fans will take away from watching Dragon Ball Super: Broly?
Sabat: The cool thing about this movie is, whether you’re a long-time Dragon Ball fan or not, anyone could technically go see it and still take enjoyment out of it. Even if you aren’t a fan of Dragon Ball, you could still experience what Dragon Ball is like and walk away with a pretty decent understanding of it. Fans are going to get two things: an incredible, new look and history lesson on what was happening in the early Saiyan life when Frieza first took over after his father retired. And they’re also going to get the most mind-blowing, close to nauseating, fight you’ve seen in the Dragon Ball series. It is overwhelming. There’s this moment where it goes to a psychedelic crazy place—it’s one of the most breathtaking moments, one of the most dizzying fight scenes you’ve ever seen. Strap in, because by the end of it, you’ll be exhausted.