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'Dragon Ball's' voice of Goku speaks for himself

'Dragon Ball's' voice of Goku speaks for himself
Sean Schemmel has voiced Goku in the English dub of "Dragon Ball" for 18 years, and he's got the toys to show for it. How does he cope with the yelling? "It's all about breath support," he says. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The name "Dragon Ball" may mean little to people over 30, but younger generations know it as one of the most popular franchises in animation history. A fantasy-adventure focused on martial arts, friendship and slugfests, Akira Toriyama's manga has sold more than 200 million books and $5 billion worth of character merchandise worldwide.

Americans have bought more than 30 million Blu-rays and DVDs of the 15 theatrical features and the first three TV shows. The fourth series, "Dragon Ball Super," has been earning good ratings on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim; it debuts on disc at the end of July.

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The hero of the "Dragon Ball" saga is Goku, a "Saiyan" from the planet Vegeta who flies, shoots bolts of energy and pounds the wasabi out of evil aliens, including the sniggering Frieza and Buu, who look like something molded out of old bubblegum. Goku, meanwhile, is as clean cut and straightforward a hero as anyone could hope to be rescued by.

Sean Schemmel, who's provided Goku's cheerful baritone in the English dub for 18 years, will speak at this week's Anime Expo at the L.A. Convention Center, along with fellow cast members Christopher Sabat, Ryo Horikawa and Jason Douglas, at 7:30 p.m. July 3.

Schemmel never planned on becoming a voice actor: He trained to be a classical French horn player. When a friend persuaded him to audition for "Dragon Ball," he tried out for a minor character who was killed off in the first season. Schemmel said he had been recording for two weeks before he was told he was going to be the lead. "It was a very Goku-like thing for me to do; he tends to be pretty clueless," Schemmel said.

From his home in the Valley, Schemmel talked about the character, his voice work and what's required to play Goku.

You've voiced scores of animated characters, Japanese and Western, but Goku is by far the most popular. As you said, he's not the sharpest sword in the armory.

He's a brilliant fighter. A lot of people note that he was hit on the head as a child by a large rock. He was supposed to come to Earth to destroy it, but he got hit on the head, then Grandpa Gohan adopted and raised him. He became Earth's greatest champion.

Given his intellectual limits and unfailingly cheerful nature, is it a challenge to get into him as a character?

Goku prepares to unleash his Kamehameha blast.
Goku prepares to unleash his Kamehameha blast. (Toei Animation Inc.)

Goku's a very difficult character to play over a long period of time. Most actors, myself included, want a character who grows and evolves. Goku grows as a fighter, but you don't really have a lot of emotional growth. Getting into his character is about removing all busy thought and getting into a happy, pure place where you're giddy about just being awake. In the 18 years I've been recording Goku, I went through a divorce and 9/11. During the terrible stuff, I'd lose myself in the character, just being happy-go-lucky, and it really was a blessing.

You've been playing Goku for almost two decades: How do you keep the performance fresh for so long?

I attribute it to my classical music training. I probably played the four Mozart horn concerti a thousand times apiece. But one of the first things I learned as a young musician was no matter how many times you play a piece, you have to make it sound as fresh as the first time you played it.

Legendary voice actor Mel Blanc used to complain that doing the Tasmanian Devil's snarls was hard on his throat. Goku hollers at his enemies and yells when he ramps up his power to Super Saiyan levels. Doesn't that take a toll on your vocal cords?

I've always been a loud talker and a bit of a yeller when I get upset. Having played a brass instrument for 20 years, as well as being a vocal minor and a singer, I've spent a lot of time focusing on breath and breathing techniques. It's all about breath support.

Goku is a very physical character: He kicks, he punches, he hurls blasts of energy, he gets blown through walls of solid rock. How do you suggest that kind of action when you're performing in a small booth, staying focused on the microphone?

I don't move a lot in the booth, but when Goku is powering up, I find I rise up on my toes. I don't even realize I'm doing it, but when I'm doing a very serious power-up, I just feel this energy come through me. I'm a scientific man by nature, but I think there's a spiritual element to it, channeling an enormous amount of energy. It feels almost like "Highlander" when they're getting the quickening: There's this power vibrating through you.

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You also voice the worrisome, would-be comic god King Kai. He's completely unlike the eager, naïve Goku.

I love playing King Kai. I do him as a sort of Buddy Hackett impression: His voice is pitched up in my nose, and he sounds fat and jowly. I like playing him because he thinks he's funny and he's not, which people have accused me of. Even if I've blown my voice out doing Goku all day, I can always do King Kai. In a session, we'll record Goku first, do all the fighting at the end, then we'll throw in King Kai.

As Goku and King Kai spend a lot of time together, you have to play their scenes with yourself. How do you play both sides of a conversation?

I hyper-focus when I'm recording. There's an episode of "Super" where Goku is powering up in an arc and King Kai running across the planet, screaming in an arc: One character is powering up and one's freaking out — there's a dichotomy.

When they play it back, I'm a very hard critic on myself. If I don't sell it in a real way, the kids won't buy it. I want them to feel as excited as the kids in Japan did when they first saw "Dragon Ball."

You often appear at conventions like Anime Expo — there's a clip of you on YouTube ordering a pizza as Goku in response to an audience member's request. Are you ever puzzled by the fans' questions?

Once a guy said to me, "When you were fighting Freeza and you elbowed him in the gut, what did it feel like?" The separation between animation and reality gets blurred sometimes. I don't know if that's a testament to the show or to my acting ability. I like to think it's the latter.

OVERTIME

What have you been listening to lately?

Joe Satriani, Jeff Beck, Rush, Yes, Björk — and (classical horn virtuoso) Dennis Brain. I'm practicing horn again, hoping to do a recital next year.

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Anime Expo

When: Through July 4

Where: Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St.

Price: Registration prices vary.

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