To celebrate the 15th anniversary of its English-language debut, Dragon Ball Z is coming to Blu-ray for the first time in America. The November release of Dragon Ball Z Level 1.1 contains the first 17 episodes of the anime series that dominated Japan’s pop culture scene in the 1990s and later, the rest of the world. This newly remastered collection restores the original, director-approved color scheme and 4:3 aspect ratio in stunning 1080p HD, and each volume will include rare never-before-seen special features.
In this exclusive interview conducted at New York Comic Con/Anime Festival, I spoke with three of the English dub cast members: Christopher Sabat (Vegeta/Piccolo/Yamcha/voice director), Justin Cook (Raditz/Super Buu/ADR engineer), and Sean Schemmel (Goku/King Kai/Nail) about the release, their favorite Dragon Ball memories, and the proper context for discussing one’s favorite cartoon crush.
Regarding your approach to the characters’ voices, how much of the original Japanese voice work did you watch? For the voices you replaced, how much of that did you take into consideration?
Chris: At the start, a lot of consideration was taken to the original voices, and when I say original voices, I mean the Canadian cast [whose English dub work aired from 1996-98], because at the time [Dragon Ball’s North American producers] FUNimation had decided for a multitude of reasons that it was just physically impossible for them to record in Canada any longer. It was difficult to keep the actors consistent on the roles, because a lot of the Canadian actors were cast in other things, and sometimes it would make their job difficult. In fact, they had to recast Goku several times in Canada; they didn’t want to do that anymore. And it also made more sense to be closer to the parent company, so they moved it all down to Fort Worth.
We tried to take a lot of care at the beginning to match the Canadian cast, only because we didn’t want it to be too much of a shock, and when I say “we” I guess I mean the people who hired me—they didn’t want it to be too much of a shock to the American culture when they changed out these voices. And to be honest, when we first started recording this, we didn’t really have access to the Japanese versions of the show; we were dubbing off the Spanish version of Dragon Ball Z. So if we ever listened to the original language on the tape, it was like (speaks in a rapid mock Spanish): “Goku! Dragon Ball Zeta!” [Goku’s wife] Chi-Chi’s name was Milk.
We were just trying to keep it consistent to the first 68 episodes, and it wasn’t until later that we were redubbing the show that we actually started getting in the real Japanese versions of the show and had the technology to be able to quickly preview the Japanese files. We didn’t even have digital files yet, and sometimes we didn’t even get all the original materials that had the Japanese track on it; sometimes we were lucky if it had any sound on the tape at all…the [original] Japanese wasn’t an option.
Have you been to Japan before? If not, what would you want to do there?
Sean: I have plenty ideas about what I want to do in Japan. I have not been to Japan; I really want to go. My goal is to become a background character in an anime, so I can say this (with mock surprise): “Nani?!” (what) and that’s it. I want it to be one line, to be a Japanese seiyū [voice actor]. Give me something longer than that (in a gruff voice): “Ware ware…” (we) something, but just one line; that’s my goal. And, to meet Masako Nozawa [the original voice of Goku] and maybe, if I were lucky, [Dragon Ball creator] Akira Toriyama, but that’s probably never going to happen.
If you met Toriyama-sensei, what would you ask him?
Sean: I would just thank him, because when you think about it, here’s this guy that draws this comic book, there’s this massive explosion—that I’m on the periphery of, if you think about it—[that] radically changed my life forever. So I’d be extraordinarily grateful to that guy.
Who are your favorite characters from Dragon Ball?
Chris: Hercule and Vegeta. Hercule is hysterical to me; just a dude. He probably was the most powerful fighter on the Earth, but it was funny to see him go through his little trauma; he’s a very real character. And I liked Vegeta, only because I got to go with him through the path of his ascension, so to speak. I’m very close to that character.
Justin: Future Trunks is by far my favorite character in the Dragon Ball Z universe, hands down. Second to that is Bardock. I love the character’s story, and I also loved Sonny [Strait]’s portrayal of the character; it was something that I’d never heard from Sonny quite like that before—I’d never heard him that gruff or that tough. It was voiced very well.
If you could voice another character on the series, who would you pick and why?
Justin: I don’t think that I would. Using Trunks as an example, I’d like to be able to say that I had voiced that character, but after having heard and recorded Eric [Vale] on so many episodes of it, he is that character, he is that voice, and I wouldn’t want to hear it with any other voice. So I wouldn’t want to change anything, really.
Chris: I have to admit, it would be weird for me to ever imagine doing somebody else’s voice, because it would mean them not doing it anymore. Now I can speak [as] being a guy who’s played multiple characters and then given them to somebody else just to give somebody else an opportunity to try it. I wouldn’t have done that to the original Dragon Ball Z series, but since the Kai series started up, I did have an opportunity at the time to recast people if I felt that it was necessary or if there were reasons, important or otherwise, that we couldn’t use the original voice.
But there were a lot of voices I did at the beginning of Dragon Ball that I did just out of necessity—because we didn’t have enough actors to fill all the roles—that I finally let go a little bit to give other people a shot. I’ve met so many amazing actors in the last 10 years that I just wanted some of them to be able to experience the Dragon Ball world. Chris Ayres played Frieza in the Dragon Ball Z Kai series, and that guy is unbelievably good. Linda Chambers did her own thing and it was great, but I just wanted to see what it would be like if Frieza had a man’s voice for a change, and there was also for Jeice somebody else I wanted to try. I loved playing that role; it was really hard for me to give up, but I thought Jason Liebrecht has been one of the crazy superstars that has joined the FUNimation cast, and I wanted to hear what he would do with that.
So as far as wanting to do someone else’s voice, I wouldn’t event want to try because I have to say I probably did it my fair share.
Have you ever received any fan letters or reactions from someone that really touched you?
Sean: Yeah, several different times. A lot of stuff around “missing father” and “I projected this kind of father image that you played” or “I used to watch this with my brother and he was killed in the war.” I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but I’ve had a lot of touching e-mails around “this is such a huge part of my life” and “this is who I used to share it with and now they’re gone, and this means so much to me.” Or, “I was real depressed in high school, and my only escape was to hear your voice doing this”—that kind of thing.
I have my own artists that I like that were there for me when I was bummed out in high school; a lot of music people, a lot of TV shows. It’s a cyclical thing, you know? We’ve all got our own escapes and solaces that we use to deal with life, and if I can be a part of that as an actor, that’s the best job in the world.
Talking about other animated series, is there any character you wish you could play, past or present?
Justin: There’s a show I wish I could go back and completely dub again. I’d love to put a new dub to Star Blazers.
Justin: Right? That was an unedited version of the show. That’s the first anime I think I ever saw as a kid; I used to watch it every morning in kindergarten before class would start—we’d get to watch Star Blazers. So that would be the one. Now I can say that Cowboy Bebop is probably one of my favorite shows, and I don’t know that I would ever have wanted to take away one of the voices that were there, but if I even could have voiced a bit part…that would have been an honor.
Chris: For me, I play a lot of video games, and if I could play the role of [Metal Gear’s] Solid Snake, I’d be happy. That’s the one part I always kind of lust after.
You mentioned earlier that you’re now dubbing the final 10 episodes of Dragon Ball Z Kai. What’s the mood like knowing this ride is finally going to come to an end, at least for now?
Chris (incredulously): I don’t know.
I have to say “for now,” because it always comes back.
Justin: I think that we’ve gotten to that point, too. I mean, every time—never say Dragon Ball Z is going to end, because it seems like it will never end.
Chris: We are as unbalanced as [Goku’s son] Gohan probably would be….Gohan, I imagine, had a really weird adulthood, when he actually had to deal with people dying for real, because everybody he loved, they were always brought back with the Dragon Balls, again and again. For him to actually have to deal with true death, that would be a real shocking thing. So a lot of us are kind of living in this sort of place where we don’t ever expect Dragon Ball Z to go away. Because you can say that Kai might be over, but in May when people start making video games again, I could bet you five bucks that Namco Bandai’s going to be having another Dragon Ball Z release, something like that. I couldn’t tell you for sure, but there’s a good chance; they’ve done it every year.
Favorite part of the series?
Justin: Just like with my favorite character, the Trunks/Android/Cell part; I think that saga is probably my favorite as far as the storyline is concerned.
Chris: I think Dragon Ball Z got the strongest, as far as all the actors are concerned, around the Babidi/Great Saiyaman/World Tournament section, where Goku and Vegeta are finally duking it out; Vegeta’s all Majin’ed out. Originally I would have copied what [Justin] said, actually, because I love the Android saga—that’s probably my favorite of all the storytelling…
Justin: But I got to answer first (laughs).
Chris: Yeah. That’s kind of the neatest part of the story. But I think Dragon Ball Z got the strongest when that epic fight probably happened, you know?
Do you have a favorite cartoon babe?
Chris: Fujiko from Lupin III.
Justin (dejectedly): Man…
Chris: I’m sorry, I already had that one planned.
Justin: Fan-tastic. I guess I’ll say [Cowboy Bebop’s] Faye [Valentine].
Sean: I don’t really idolize—um, for some reason I don’t get turned on by cartoon women (laughs). But if it were a personality… (Pauses.) Gosh, I’d have to think about it. I always thought Samus in Metroid was kind of hot for some reason, because it was cool that she wore a mech suit. I never got into that whole—you know what I’m saying? It doesn’t do anything for me.
These guys were very quick to answer.
Chris (dryly): It doesn’t do anything for me, either (blows raspberry). Weird.
Sean: I guess if I was a kid, let’s see…
Chris: No, it can’t be when you were a kid.
Justin: No, definitely.
Chris: Oh, as an adult?
Justin: It has to be as an adult.
(Laughs.) We’re adding context to a “what’s your favorite cartoon babe?” question.
Sean: Absolutely, let’s get deep.
Chris: Sean told me once it was Ash from Pokémon, actually.
Sean: Ash?! Ash is a boy.
Chris: I know, it’s weird.
Worst making-of story or voice flub. Any tapes erased?
Justin: I was archiving episodes of DBZ and backing up the episodes, and at that point in time, you would back up episodes for a Mac. And the choice when you were doing these backups was to back it up for a Mac or back it up as a PC file. In PC files, it will rename all audio files or any files only using eight [input] characters, and so there would be characters like “Spopovich” or these characters with really long names, like “Young Gohan” or “The Great Saiyaman.”
So I accidentally took five episodes and archived them as PC files, so instead of them being able to list that this was the fourth take, third cut, all of those numbers were erased, so I literally had thousands of audio files that I had to singlehandedly go through and listen to and redo; it was absolutely horrible. So that was my big screw-up, and I’m happy I still work at FUNimation.
Final comments on the Blu-ray?
Sean: Buy it? No, I’m excited about the Blu-ray because of all the extras on it, and that’s what’s really going to be cool about it. And that it’s Blu-ray.
Justin: I think that everybody should buy one that they can open, and one that they can keep sealed for a later date.
Sean: That is an incredible marketing strategy.
Justin (laughs): That’s right.
Sean: That’s why you’re the producer.
Chris: Justin is not telling anything to anyone that he wouldn’t have done himself with any other show.
Sean: True. Don’t you have all the James Bond?
Chris: He has two copies of everything.
Sean: One that you’re not opening, and one that’s going to put your kid through college (laughs).
Chris: With the extra features that we’re trying to throw into it, I hope people can find some interesting stuff in that. There’s some amazing interviews that are going to be—I mean, not as good as this one, but…
Sean: Probably better. No (laughs).
Chris: Some amazing interviews that they’ve been getting from lots of people from the cast and a lot of people that were part of the original.
Sean: You know, I’m a little terrified of what you’re going to dig up. I’m afraid of what I’ve said in the booth, I really am (laughs).
You don’t know what’s going to be on this?
Sean: It’s been 10 years. The producers know, but I, as an actor, don’t know anything.
Chris: We’re not talking just voice clips. There’s going to be photographs, like old items, things like that.
Sean: I have a photograph from one of the first cast parties at my house; I’ll have to scan it and send it to you. It’s a really good one.
Justin: We need it.
Chris: They’re still putting it all together.
Dragon Ball Z Level 1.1 is available Nov. 8. For more information, visit www.dragonballz.com and www.funimation.com/dragon-ball-z.
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