A uniquely American day of celebration is about to have a Japanese icon disrupt the festivities. Goku, the ridiculously ripped hero of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball franchise, is making his parade balloon debut at this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a pop culture tradition going back to 1924.
Goku will be flying in the parade to mark Dragon Ball’s 35th anniversary (coinciding with the first Dragon Ball manga in a 1984 edition of Weekly Shōnen Jump) and to promote the release of Dragon Ball Super: Broly in January. His inclusion also marks a dramatic shift for the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, according to Jordan Dabby, Vice President of Partnership Marketing for Macy’s Parade Group.
“Everything about him is different from the average character you see in the parade,” Dabby tells Inverse. “We’re entrenched in some of the most iconic characters around the world, be it Peanuts or Olaf. And we’ve had strong characters. But Goku is distinct. His hair is distinct.”
To ensure that this 70-foot long, 35-foot wide, and 55-foot tall Saiyan warrior can fly through two and a half miles of Manhattan, the artists inside Macy’s Parade Studio — a 72,000 square foot facility in Moonachie, New Jersey — had to rethink a process they’ve mastered for decades. Goku’s humanoid shape (a rarity in parade history) and the aerodynamics of his spiked hair were the biggest challenges the studio had to overcome.
“The biggest difference in Goku than any other character is that it’s rare for us to feature a human likeness in the form of a balloon,” Dabby explains. “It’s very challenging to take a balloon and make it human. If you think about characters we’ve featured over the years, there are very few human characters.”
There have been “humans” in the parade’s 94-year history, including Uncle Sam, Spider-Man, the Red Power Ranger, and Goku’s rival, Superman. In theory, Goku has everything it takes to become a Macy’s regular.
Goku’s a major figure from animation, equivalent to Mickey Mouse in terms of worldwide popularity. He’s also just character from the world of Japanese anime to get the Macy’s balloon treatment after Nintendo’s Pikachu.
But Goku isn’t cute and round. “He is fearless, he is agile. He is a ripped character,” says Dabby. “He has this body definition that few characters have.”
Everything about Goku is almost the opposite of what Macy’s balloon-makers were used to. His hair was an especially difficult problem to solve, as the 300,000 cubic feet of helium needed for the balloons would be incompatible inside the sharp shape required. Yet Goku’s Super Saiyan hair (colored blue based on his appearance from Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’) had to remain as sharp as possible. Otherwise, he’s just not Goku. It’s like making Big Bird and not including his beak.
“When you get to aerodynamics, inflatable likes to be round,” Dabby says. “If we were to round out the spikes of his hair it wouldn’t look like Goku. A lot went into to making sure his hair was as pointed as we can possibly get away with while making sure it still flies the way it should.” The end result for Goku’s hair is a “mass” of shape equal to the size of four New York City apartments, big enough for the helium gas to make it float.
Macy’s also worked closely with Funimation, owners of the Dragon Ball franchise in the U.S., to make sure Goku could be “ballooned” without losing his edge.
Production for all new parade balloons — which costs a whopping $190,000, paid for by the sponsors introducing their mascots ($90,000 for returning characters) — begins with clay models, where shapes are determined based on engineering logistics.
For Goku, at least three poses were molded in clay, with “five or six” tweaks applied until Funimation and Macy’s agreed on the final pose: A “flying” Goku, soaring at a curved 30-degree angle. He looks fierce, like he’s about to spear the daylights out of Charlie Brown.
Dabby, who grew up watching Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network like many millennials, says Goku brings an element of the “unexpected.”
“When you think about the parade, there are characters that are natural fits,” he says. “Paw Patrol, Sesame Workshop, characters I like to think the population expects to see every year. Goku is unexpected. His core fan is a little older than something we’re accustomed to seeing.”
After Macy’s and Funimation announced Goku’s balloon debut on social media, Dabby noted that the Thanksgiving parade, mainstream as it is, is welcoming an influx of viewers it doesn’t often attract.
“The fervor around Goku is something we don’t see very often,” Dabby says. “Everyone was excited last year when we had Olaf. Everyone knows Disney. But this is different. Goku [has] a fanbase that has come out of the woodwork, we have people that are actually saying they’re looking forward to seeing the parade for the first time to see Goku.”
Related video: Watch the action-packed trailer for ‘Dragon Ball Super: Broly.’