If you ever find yourself in the cast of a Dragon Ball fight scene, Christopher Sabat has some advice. “You can either scream once, and make it really epic, and it really hurts, but you only have to do it one time,” explains the man who voices several cosmic soldiers in the Dragon Ball universe. “Or you can kinda fake it, and we’re gonna have to do it twice. Nobody wants to do the screams twice.”
Surprisingly, Sabat’s speaking intonation is closer to an ASMR artist, or a turtlenecked smooth jazz DJ, when I catch him on the phone from his North Texas recording studio. But clearly, he knows what he’s talking about. In order, he plays the kelly-green hardass Piccolo, the burnout idiot Yamcha, the intergalactic dragon spirit Shenron, and of course, the Saiyan King/emo-kid icon Vegeta. And he’s been doing it a long time. Over the course of 20 years in the booth he has become an expert in the art of the throat-shredding battlecry.
If you’ve never seen Christopher Sabat go into Dragon Ball mode, I highly recommend perusing the many YouTube videos that capture him at his best. You have not lived until you’ve seen the man articulate, in his perfect enunciation, the subtle differences between Yamcha’s drawl and Vegeta’s rasp. “The main difference is that Yamcha sounds stupid all the time,” he laughs, in front of a rapt audience at Taiyou Con 2016. Say what you like about DBZ, the actors have always been wonderfully self-aware.
Right now, Sabat is in the process of dubbing the final batch of episodes of Dragon Ball Super, the fifth time he’s worked on a Dragon Ball anime serial, after Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT, and Dragon Ball Z Kai. There are also the movies (Resurrection ‘F’ and Battle of the Gods), the endless Budokais, and most recently, Arc System Works’ miraculous Dragon Ball FighterZ. He has screamed his head off in all of them. At this point in his career, Sabat’s voice has been thrown through more mountains than he can remember. He has spent a combined eternity trapped on Planet Namek, been turned to stone by Majin Buu, destroyed a planet with his bare hands, and somehow hasn’t lost his voice along the way. Human beings are not meant to scream like Saiyans, and the Dragon Ball mythos requires its actors to up the ante into further thresholds of golden-maned martial arts prowess for the rest of time. Sabat—who is big, bearded, perpetually lowkey, and seldom seen without his newsboy cap—isn’t quite sure how he’s survived.
“I feel like I have been doing vocal calisthenics several times a week for the last 20 years,” he says. “If I could beat someone up with anything, it’d probably be my vocal chords.… My ENT looked into my throat recently, and he was like, ‘I’m surprised, considering what you do, that your voice isn’t completely wrecked.’”
We are in the middle of a Dragon Ball renaissance. In March, fans around the world gathered in city squares to watch the beamed-in, undubbed final episode of Dragon Ball Super. This June, FighterZ will take the main stage at Evo, which was once a place where no Dragon Ball-themed fighting game dared enter. Last summer De’aaron Fox, a young guard for the Sacramento Kings, branded himself as a DBZ obsessive in the NBA draft, which is not the sort of thing that transcendent basketball talents were open about in the past. (His Twitter avi has him dressed in full Saiyan armor. He screamed “KAMEHA” after shooting a three-pointer in Dallas during his rookie season.) All of this has been wonderfully befuddling for me, a lifelong fan of the series who has also learned to keep that allegiance secret. After all, the Dragon Ball I grew up with was a universe of pogs, grotesque silk shirts, and troubling System of a Down-scored Newgrounds tributes, as if all the most embarrassing elements of teenage discontent was both seen and reflected by these large men and their spiky hair.
Clearly, that’s not the case anymore. Dragon Ball Z is cool, now. Or maybe it was always cool, or maybe it’s cool, again. Who knows. What is true is that Jeff Gerstmann, a lifelong skeptic who’s responsible for the iconic “anime is for jerks” retort, now hosts Giant Bomb’s enthusiastic DBZ rewatch podcast, All Systems Goku. That has to mean something.
Chris Sabat, of course, never had to rediscover Dragon Ball. He reckons he’s never been away from Vegeta for longer than six months. This revival delights him. Dubbing this show was thankless work in the ‘90s; he recalls the 500-person anime conventions attended exclusively by puritans who’d bootlegged the original Japanese broadcasts in order to pepper him with dogmatic questions like “Why are you changing this music?” and “Why did you change this line?”
But now, 30 years since the original Japanese Dragon Ball Z manga and two decades since the series finale broadcasted on Cartoon Network, Goku and Vegeta are back in the spotlight with a more formalized sense of belonging. In 2018, they’re as close to Batman and Superman as they’ve ever been. “Right now it feels like it did in the year 2000,” Sabat said. “I feel like it’s never going to end all over again. I feel like I’m going to keep doing this voice until I either can’t do it anymore, or I’m insane. I’ve often compared Dragon Ball Z to a Dragon Ball Z villain. As soon as you think it’s gone, the smoke clears, and sure enough it’s still there, and it’s found a way to power up one more time.”
Sabat has a couple of theories about the DBZ awakening. He points to FighterZ, which is unambiguously fantastic; a loving tribute to the excess of the canon, the sort of thing that makes you want to go back and watch the Frieza fight for yourself. However, that’s likely just a symptom of a more seismic cultural shift. In the conventions that Sabat attends every weekend, he’s noticed a gradual vertical curve of the age of the fans who shake his hand and ask for an autograph. “I hear the same story 90 percent of the time. They’re the same people I met 20 years ago,” he explains. “All of a sudden they’re starting to have kids of their own, and they’re nostalgic about the things that they did when they were kids.”
He’s right. I’ve noticed an accelerated culture of wistfulness for pretty much everything I loved as a teenager in the early 2000s. I live in Brooklyn, where DJs now hold emo throwback nights for bands like My Chemical Romance, All Time Low, and Panic! At The Disco. They serve the same therapeutic purpose as the Dragon Ball resuscitation. The mall-rock bands of the era were critically lampooned by an older generation that had neither the language nor the context to relate. Today, people my age are old enough inherit roles as cultural arbiters and have begun to create their own canon by proclaiming the powers of Fueled By Ramen or a low-bro martial arts cartoon as vital pieces of our global story. The margins of nostalgia have shifted out of the ‘90s and into this watery, hard-to-define blip at the turn of the millennium: built by kids who loved both Gerard Way and Vegeta deep into adulthood, long after they were supposed to outgrow both of them. Finally, they’re not ashamed to admit it.
The duty of creating something good, meaningful, and non-perishable was never lost on the Dragon Ball cast. Sabat tells me that even when the American anime distribution titan Funimation was a startup, the team was always committed to producing a compelling television show. Obviously, his hard work has been recognized by a borderless bulwark of admirers. The week before I called him, he was at a convention in Kuwait. He also mentions that one of the proudest moments of his career came within the past few years, when he finally got to meet some of the Japanese higher-ups who produce the cartoon. “They were extremely complimentary. They had all heard our dub, and they all thought it was great,” remembers Sabat. “All this time we thought, ‘Well, we’ll do the best we can, but we’re just the American version at the end of the day.’ To be finally acknowledged as legitimate Dragon Ball cast members felt really good.”
He never should’ve had a doubt, but I do hope that now, in our moment of extreme DBZ saturation, Sabat can be officially codified as one of the great voice actors of our time. He shaped the callow haughtiness that gave Vegeta his despicable heft, and he took him to the moon, the stars, and whatever comes next. (And something will come next, he says. He can’t imagine Super being the final chapter.) Yes, Sabat is not the most subtle performer in animation history, but Saiyans and Namekians are not subtle creatures. Instead, he’s an everlasting guarantee that the ridiculous Vegeta in our head, the one who shouted epithets at our developing brains through the Toonami box, will always be ready to reprise the role, no matter how the culture is currently appraising Dragon Ball Z.
When he dies, Sabat says he’s thought about being cremated and buried with a headstone engraved with the number 9,000, alongside a “<” symbol. Under 9,000. It’s a hilarious tribute to the role, and proof that Dragon Ball will be eternal. Even in the afterlife, Vegeta’s power level will be a tad lower than Goku’s.
“I try and think about it, but I’m also extremely Zen about the way I handle it.… I’ve been very lucky to be one of the earliest inhabitants of this world,” says Sabat, when I ask him how he considers his own legacy. “I’ve been lucky to be at the right place, at the right time, for 20 years.”
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.