Sean Aitchison writes for Bleeding Cool from San Diego Comic-Con.
The full trailer for Dragon Ball Super: Broly was revealed last week at San Diego Comic-Con during a Dragon Ball Super panel. Fans were elated at the brilliant animation, the rebooted characters and epic fights to come.
The next day, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Goku's English voice actor of 20 years, Sean Schemmel. However, we didn't touch upon the upcoming movie or its villain, Broly. Instead, we ended up discussing his convention experience, his other work, his relationship with the character of Goku, and what Dragon Ball as a whole means to him and the rest of the world.
Schemmel talks a mile-a-minute, but underneath the speedy conversation and ever-shifting trains of thought, it was easy to see that he is an intelligent individual, one who is wonderfully humble and thankful for his role as Goku and expresses the honor and pride he feels for being part of the Dragon Ball community in a smart and philosophically endearing manner.
This is the first year that Dragon Ball has had a Hall-H panel, what was it like seeing the whole crowd?
You know when you're in Hall-H you've finally arrived. I will say this though, the hall is great, I've done lots of other panels in similar — well, not that big — but similar-sized, up to 3,000 people; I will say this Comic-Con, if you're going to let people squat all-day and if you're squatting all day to wait for The Walking Dead panel, the least you could do is cheer as loud as our fans would have cheered, had you let our fans in there, that was really frustrating. The panel went good, but I was like, "wait a second," I'm used to Dragon Ball fans going nuts. And I heard the same thing was true for the Spider-Man panel, so I have to address Comic-Con and say, "Look, clear the room and let the actual fans in for the panel, squatting all day is not cool." So that was my comment to them [laughs].
Yeah, they had the passes that let you get into the hall, but only if you're there at 7:30.
Yeah, they need to fix that, that's not fair. It's not fair 'cause here's the deal — the cast of Breaking Bad, they're doing their thing, promoting their thing, the people behind Spider-Man, they're doing their thing, and we [also] rely on that audience reaction and interaction to make our panels fun and entertaining and it's very disconcerting because you start thinking they're not having a good time. So again, if you're squatting for another show, please fake-cheer for Dragon Ball as much as you'd cheer for Walking Dead if you're gonna be squatting and taking a seat from someone who'd like to be there who's a Dragon Ball fan. It's seriously not cool, it bothers me a lot. So, the squatting thing needs to change so that the proper fans are in the room.
While we're at Comic-Con, was there anything you wanted to see or is there anything you're excited about?
I do a lot of Comic-Con-styled conventions every year, and I've done them for so many years and I've bought so many things that, unless there's something I'm really there to see, when I'm working a con, I don't want to deal with crowds. I deal with crowds all the time, so usually if there's something I like, I usually get it at a smaller show, because I can deal with it better, whereas if I'm at Comic-Con or New York Comic Con it's just such a mess when it comes to getting places. And a lot of the times I'm in the green room with the actors I wanna meet anyway, so I just chat with them, it's a nice privilege to have [laughs].
That's one of the benefits of working press too, because I sometimes miss all the panels I want to go to, but I'm in the room with those people — like you, I'm a big fan by the way, I don't know if I said that yet.
Thank you, you don't have to wait in line, just right here, we're doing an interview, boom [laughs].
Forgive me if this sounds a little too serious and deep, but what is your personal relationship with Goku, how do you relate to him and how have you aged with him? Have you related to him more or less as time has gone on?
[laughs] No, I'm down with deep questions, and that's something I think about a lot. Goku, that character, I get that there is the original cast in Japan, and I have total respect for those people, and they are amazing in what they do, but when I am in the character, it's like no one else has ever played it — and I don't think that I don't have respect for people that have [also played the character], but I can't commit to a character fully if other people that have played them are living in my soul as I play the character. And also, being Goku and playing Goku has afforded me things I need in my life to grow myself up and to mature myself, and do the things I wanted to do. So, I always wanted to write a book called "Growing Up Goku," 'cause I really grew up a lot, and I'm still growing, and even this last year I did a bunch of growing.
I believe, after I've looked at it in 20/20 hindsight, it's been my destiny, as it were. Even when I was a kid, my nickname was "Monkey-Boy," and my grandma used to think there was a tail — when I'd run around the shower naked, my grandma was like, "There's dimples at the base of your spine, did you have a tail here?" You know, she'd tease me and play with me, they [my family] really said, "Did they rip a tail off here?" that's what they asked me when I was a kid, when I was like 3 or 4 years old, that totally happened.
I forget that I'm the character a lot, even when I'm watching the trailer, it doesn't dawn on me, I don't make the connection. And I'll be walking on the street and get recognized, like, "Oh yeah, I play that guy," 'cause I live with it all the time, for 20 years, I'm never not Goku. The only time I'm not being Goku, is when I'm playing other characters, which I've played dozens over the past 20 years, and it feels different to play those characters than it does to play Goku.
There's probably a longer answer here, and it's a good question, but it's something I do philosophize about in my own thinking about the character. Greatest gift of my life [playing Goku], it's amazing.
Speaking of other roles, are there any upcoming American animation roles you're excited about or any other work you're excited to share?
I think I can talk about it, I just did an episode I'm really proud of, I don't know if I can talk about the character, but I did an episode of Welcome to the Wayne that I'm really proud of — they just sent me the final mix and I'm playing a guest character on the show, and I'm really proud of that. I was in Willy Wonka Tom and Jerry where I played most of the Oompa Loompas, and I got to sing all those songs, and I played Veruca Salt's dad, Mr. Salt, and I also played [cockney accent] the teacher who's mixin' the chemicals together — I played him, that was really thrilling.
I believe you played the "Truth or Punishment" box from Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, as well.
Yeah, I was the cube! And I got that audition from — I auditioned for The Lion Guard and I was auditioning for a hyena and the crew called me and said, "Hey, we think that hyena audition would be great for the box of truth," so I show up and I do the hyena voice and by the time we're done establishing the voice [of the Box of Truth], it's a completely different voice [laughs]. I'm like "Well, it's not the hyena voice," and they go, "We like this better," and I'm like, "Alright, great!" [laughs]. I loved playing the box of truth, that was a fun part.
You said before that you'd be down to play a live action King Kai, in full movie makeup — have you ever considered having some fun and showing up to a panel or hiding in plain sight dressed in a full King Kai getup?
Oh yeah, that's something I should do, yeah! [King Kai voice] Just walk around, show up. That would be fun, just put a big suit on, paint my face, put a bunch of cotton balls in my mouth [laughs].
How have you been preparing for your Dragon Ball FighterZ rematch with Chris Sabat?
I haven't started preparing yet, but I am gonna start preparing. I bought Dragon Ball FighterZ, because my copy went to my accountant — that really bothered me — and I'm gonna chronicle my training on my Twitch channel, which I'm gonna launch in the coming weeks, so people can see how I'm gonna beat Chris [laughs].
Like a full Rocky training montage.
Oh yeah, it'll just be me on a couch with closeups of my thumbs.
Dragon Ball Super brought a little more humor back to the series, was it nice to be able stretch those comedic muscles instead of just the screaming ones?
Yeah, I'm happy about that. I love it, I'm a big comedy fan, I used to do stand-up and improv many years ago, and I might do it again. My favorite moments in Dragon Ball — I do like the epic moments, the epic moments are great, but I love the comedy moments, especially when Goku is just completely clueless about etiquette.
What's your personal favorite Goku moment of all time?
Well that's really hard, because I have to analyze hundreds of episodes over 20 years in a 30-second time period, but I love when people ask me that question — "Please do an analysis of…" and I'm like, "Okay, hang on a second, uh…"
What have become my favorite moments are Battle of Gods and Resurrection F, best work I've ever done. There's other stuff I've done that I can probably pick on, but I can't think of any way I could have done Battle of Gods and Resurrection F any better for what I was trying to do, I'm very proud of that.
I guess a good way to end is, what's it like being part of a worldwide cultural phenomenon that basically won't quit?
Well it's funny, I analyze this from an entertainment perspective but also an international, political, multicultural perspective. For example, I'm proud to be part of an English cast that is helping to proliferate Japanese culture and art to many English-speaking countries, not just America.
They show our version in Canada — they had a different Canadian version I think, not of [Dragon Ball] Super, but of some of the other shows [Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z] — in the UK, Australia, New Zealand. Millions of kids, possibly billions — according to an Indian man I met last night, [it is also shown] in India, Kuwait, the middle east — so [at least] hundreds of millions [of people].
So, that to me has larger political ramifications because the more we understand each other's cultures and the more we connect through art, the less likely we are to have any kind of future wars and conflicts, you know?
The internet's really helped with that, we know more about other people, so it's really hard to be xenophobic when you can be empathetic to another culture because the barriers get less and less [prevalent], and Dragon Ball is a big part of that. We have great relations with Japan, but I'm saying, just in terms of all over the world, all the different versions of Dragon Ball — there's a French version, there a German version — they're all connecting [the world], and Dragon Ball is usually the gateway drug.
So I look at it from a lot of perspectives. I am honored and privileged to be part of that cultural phenomenon, 'cause I'm a big Japanophile anyway, I love Japanese culture.
That definitely works in the favor of a dubbing VA.
Oh yeah. What I love about anime and Japanese culture, is, when I was a kid, there was a Japanese television block on TV in Iowa of all places — I was living on a farm in Iowa — and there was Speed Racer, Giant Robo, Goldar, Ultra Man… and I'd watch that block, and compared to American Television — which I love, I mean I loved Bugs Bunny, I loved Super Friends, but to me, it [Japanese television] was completely turning my head inside out, it was so incredibly imaginative and creative — at least from my perspective, maybe that's because I didn't grow up in Japan. Maybe to some Japanese people, they're like "ah, that show sucked," but I'm like "But thought it was awesome!" I don't know, Alyssa Milano was big in Japan [laughs]. The point being, is that she's famous pop-singer in Japan, and not here. Every culture and every society has different things that they find [interesting], like David Hasslehoff is huge in Germany singing-wise, [but] he's not here. So, for me, consuming that [Japanese television] really twisted my head inside out.
And that's what Dragon Ball did for a lot of people later on.
Yeah, the whole thing is a fascinating phenomenon. I keep trying to predict where it's [society and humanity] all gonna go, you know genetically and as a species, and as long as we don't destroy the planet — which is likely — we'll have eventually all have interbred to the point where we'll all be one planet, hopefully. You can't attack anybody, we're all friends.
Dragon Ball is bringing the world together [laughs].
I think Dragon Ball brings the world together, is my point, it does. It's one aspect, but it's something you don't realize until after you start really thinking about it, so that's what's really great.
I think it's one of the best gifts of Dragon Ball, and it all comes from one guy, Akira Toriyama, just drawing a comic in the '80s, and look at where we're sitting today. Millions, possibly billions of people — I wonder how he handles it, he's sitting in his house going "ahhh," I don't know how he handles that overwhelming feeling. He seems very proud in his public statements, so I'm honored [to be a part of it].
As an actor, I would have loved to, before I started, go and say "Hey, okay can I have a chat with Akira so I can figure out how exactly to [play Goku]?" Like, really talk to him, 'cause people complain about this dub or that dub, or whatever, they complain about stuff when it's localized.
You know, an American cartoon, usually the creator's there, so you have a very direct line on how to interpret a character. They didn't send over a Japanese crew when we localized it, and understandably so, they didn't know if it was gonna make any money. These are businesses, so they're making business decisions, so they're not thinking necessarily that they've gotta handle it the same way they handle it at home, they trust other companies to do it right, and the problem is, you know, sometimes that doesn't always go right. Luckily for our case, I think we were doing it right.
I read recently that Chris Sabat said you guys got praise from the Japanese production and cast of Dragon Ball.
Yeah, and I don't know if they're being polite, but I trust it as a real compliment. I didn't hear anything about whether or not they liked our dub until we did Resurrection F and one of our guys I work with here, Scott Lonksi, was in Japan, and he was with them [the Japanese Dragon Ball crew] and I was like "What do they think?" He goes, "Oh they love it," and I started crying. I was like "I just want to know that we're doing you right, that's all," 'cause I believe in the art, and I believe in respecting the artist, in respecting the work of Akira Toriyama, and I want him to hear it and go "Yeah, that's a good English version." I would love that, and if I'm not doing it right, I'd like him to tell me how to fix it.
But, I think I'm doing a good job, so… [laughs]. I mean, I'm proud of my work, it's not perfect, but I'm proud of it. I try to bring it all the way.
* * *
Dragon Ball Super: Broly will be heading to theaters in North America in January 2019 and you can hear Sean Schemmel as Goku in dubbed episodes of Dragon Ball Super on Adult Swim's Toonami block as well as the VRV and Funimation streaming services.
Sean Aitchison is a writer and creator with a passion for cartoons, anime, and comics. He graduated from CSUN and now writes for Comic Book Resources and Watch Mojo. He has also written for animation and is currently working on two podcast projects that will be coming soon. For more of his work, check out his website www.seanaitchison.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @Sean8UrSon.