Akira Toriyama–first known as the creator of the gonzo comedy Dr. Slump, which is about an inventor who makes himself a robot daughter named Arale-chan–combined a love for Hong Kong favorite Jackie Chan‘s incredible and often silly martial arts movies with America’s greatest superhero, “the man of steel” himself, into one of the wildest stories ever told. Rocketed from the doomed planet Vegeta comes the one and only Son Gokû, star of the super popular adventure Dragon Ball!
The best-selling manga series brings together fights and fantasy in a way that no other comic has done before. Coming to an end after over ten years of unflappable popularity, Dragon Ball sets a benchmark that’s hard to beat. Add in two long-running anime series–plus a third one that takes it beyond the manga–and more movies that [sic] you can shake a stick at, and it’s no wonder this manga outsells even the Bible.
The series started as a gonzo martial arts adventure inspired by the Chinese tale Hsiyuchi, a.k.a. Journey to the West, by the 16th-Century author Wu Cheng En. The story chronicles the Buddhist priest Reverend Xuanzang‘s journey with his bodyguard, Sun Wu Kong, the roguish Monkey King, to India to bring Buddhist scrolls back to China. In Japan the tale is known as Saiyûki. Toriyama adapted several characters into his story, the mischievous Monkey King becoming the innocent boy we know as Son Gokû.
Son Gokû is a young, innocent orphan boy with a tail who was raised by his “grandfather,” Son Gohan, in the mountains. Unfortunately for those around him, whenever the moon is full, he turns into a giant berzerker [sic] monkey. Gokû is not burdened by a vast intellect, but is very quick at learning new martial arts techniques. Thanks to his good nature, most of his rival and enemies end up as best friends and allies. Year later, we learn that Gokû is actually an alien called a Saiyajin (Saiyaman)1 who was whisked to Earth before his people and planet were destroyed by a despot. When his mentor dies, he is left alone until the coming of Bulma.
The meeting is a bizarre one, since Gokû has never met a girl before encountering her. He thinks that she is a monster at first, but little does he know that she is more than that she is Bulma! Bulma is a very young inventor, daughter of Dr. Brief, who is head of the multinational company Capsule Corporation. This company manufactures a variety of devices and machines, from motorcycles to ocean liners, that can be shrunk down into little capsules for easy storage. Bulma has inherited quite a bit of her father’s genius. In her spare time, she has invented the Dragon Radar, a device that can locate the legendary Dragon Balls.
Dragon Balls are seven mystic spheres which, when they are all brought together, can summon up the dragon god Shen-Ron. When he appears, he will grant whatever wish the summoner wants. (Note: There are Japanese and Chinese myths about pearls guarded by dragons that grant wishes.) Not only does Bulma gain a bodyguard by inviting Gokû along on her quest, but she also discovers that Gokû has one of the Dragon Balls, which he inherited from his grandfather.
Along the way they meet a sea turtle who introduces them to Kame Sennin (the Turtle Hermit, a.k.a. Master Roshi), a wise but lecherous old man who is a superb martial artist. Kame Sennin gives his cloud Kinto-un to Gokû, since the young hero is innocent enough to ride it. He later trains Gokû in martial arts by teaching him to take one’s inner energy, or ki. Gokû quickly learns the Kame-hame-ha, an energy blast that took the old coot decades to learn.
Next, Gokû and Bulma meet Oolong, a cynical shape-shifting pig with a taste for women’s underwear. Gokû stops him from terrorizing a village in order to marry a pretty girl. Oolong is basically a weak-spirited character, but his metamorphosing comes in handy. He joins our hero in search of adventure and panties.
In the desert, they encounter Yamcha, a handsome highwayman that, unfortunately for him, tries to rob our heroes. Gokû foils his plans, but it is Bulma who sends the terminally shy Yamcha running, for his sole weakness is girls. Yamcha is not sure what to make of Bulma’s advances at first. His loyal friend Puar is a cat who sadly knew Oolong from shape-changing school.
As our heroes search for the Dragon Balls, evil but incompetent forces also seek to get the wish from the dragon god. It’s a good thing that Emperor Pilaf and his henchies, a woman named Mai and the anthropomorph [sic] Shû, are not very good are their livelihood.
Along the way, Gokû meets a young girl named Chi-Chi from Frypan Mountain. He helps the girl and her father Gyûmaô (King Beef, or Ox King in the English version) with domestic problems. Chi-Chi is smitten with the young Gokû, and there’s a vague promise of marriage that slips right over his head. Gokû and his friends move on.
After a hair-raising tale (hare raising tail?) with a mafia rabbit, the party is captured by Pilaf, who summons the Dragon God himself. Unfortunately for Bulma and company, Gokû looks at the full moon and goes ape (literally). Oolong saves the day by interrupting Pilaf’s wish for world domination by shouting out his desire for women’s panties. As his wish was spoken first, the underwear appears, but they’re not just any panties, they’re magical panties. By the end of the episode, Pilaf is not happy, Gokû is tailless, and Oolong is running around with panties on his head.
Krillin is a young man of Buddhist faith who trains with Gokû under the Turtle Hermit in preparation for the Tenkaichi Budôkai (Best Martial Artist Tournament). The final fight is between Gokû and Jackie Chun, who is really Kame Sennin in disguise. From here on, the Budôkai is to become a recurring theme in the series.
Next on Gokû’s busy schedule, he meets and defeats the criminal organization known as Red Ribbon. During this storyline, Gokû humiliates the inept Murasaki ninja, makes friends with their android #8 (who looks like Frankenstein’s monster but has a heart of gold), and finally wreaks total chaos on the Red Ribbon’s color-coded command staff. Tao Pai Pai, an evil henchie for Red Ribbon, is defeated by Gokû and later comes back as a cyborg.
The next bit involves a three-eyed monster name Tenshin-han and his best friend Chaozu, who were trained together by Kame Sennin’s rival, Tsuru Sennin (a.k.a. the Crane Hermit). The next Budôkai ends up in a match between Gokû and Tenshin-han. Thanks to Gokû’s good nature, both of these new characters join him in a fight against a greater enemy after the Budôkai.
Here enters a character that Dragon Ball followers know very well. Here’s a hint: He’s big, green and bald. Give up? It’s Piccolo! Piccolo is really an evil incarnation of Kami-sama (God). He kills Krillin and leaves a “calling card” for the Turtle Hermit. It was the Turtle Hermit’s mentor Mutaitô who locked Piccolo in a jar while both the Turtle and Crane Hermits were students, though Mutaitô died trapping the demon. To make matters worse, Piccolo calls upon Shen-Ron, wishes back his youth and great strength, then kills the mighty dragon god. After a great and long fight, Gokû kills Piccolo, but not before the demon spits up an egg that hatches into a baby Piccolo. They conclude this adventure by bringing Krillin back with the wish given to them a year early after Kami-sama revives Shen-Ron, but little do they know what is to come.
Gokû goes to Earth’s “god” Kami-sama (a dead ringer for Piccolo), keeper of the dragon god. After finding out that Kami-sama purged all the evil that was in him (creating what had become Piccolo) to get his lofty position, he watches the god and his assistant Mister Popo piece the dragon god back together again like a model kit. Kami-sama cannot exist without his evil alter ego, so Gokû fights the new Piccolo at the next Budôkai. The results prove once again that Gokû is a great people person; even Piccolo succumbs to his charms and eventually joins the party.
As a side plot, Gokû and Chi-Chi fly off for a brief adventure before getting married. They have a son whom they name Son Gohan, after Gokû’s beloved “grandfather.”
At this point, the series is renamed Dragon Ball Z to take on a new direction as Gokû and Piccolo team up to take on greater enemies. Gokû’s unknown brother, Radits (from “radish”), shows up on Earth and kidnaps Gokû’s son. We learn that Gokû is really Kakarrot (from “carrot”), a Saiyaman. Saiyamen are super-powered warriors who can accidentally blow up planets at a clip. (Imagine an evil Kryptonian and you could get a Saiyaman.) Piccolo kills Radits, but Gokû dies in the same attack and goes to Heaven. Now, normally this would stop someone–or at least slow them down–but noooo, not Gokû. He gets trained by yet another god name Kaiô-sama, watcher of the northern universe. Meanwhile, Piccolo becomes a teacher and foster parent to poor little Gohan, and as time passes, comes to Gohan’s aid whenever he is needed.
Now it gets complicated. Vegeta, the prince of the planet Vegeta, home of the Saiyamen, comes to Earth because Radits was killed there. Gokû’s friends, calling themselves the Z Warriors, set out with the goal of fighting Vegeta and his ally Nappa. Gokû is called back to life with the Dragon Balls to stop Vegeta, but other members of his team die, including Piccolo, Yamcha and Tenshin-han. Gokû lets a wounded Vegeta live to flee back to space, where a greater threat lies.
With Piccolo dead, Kami-sama has vanished, which means that they cannot use the Dragon Balls. Gohan, Krillin and Bulma go to Piccolo’s homeworld Namek, for Mister Popo tells them that the planet has its own dragon god and set of mystic balls. There they encounter Freezer, their worst nightmare. He has been gathering up the Namekian Dragon Balls, which summon their dragon god Porunga. This upsets Vegeta, who arrives and makes a temporary truce with the heroes so they can join forces against Freezer, though Vegeta actually wants to beat Freezer to the Dragon Balls. After Gokû finally arrives on the scene, Freezer kills Krillin and threatens the Earth. This pushes Gokû over the edge and he becomes a Super Saiyaman; his hair turns blond, he develops a golden aura and his power increases tremendously. Super Saiyamen are supposed to be the stuff of legends, with only one appearing every thousand years. One was now due. Freezer, who killed Gokû’s father and home world, is defeated and dead friends are brought back to life via the two dragon gods. But Gokû is missing, and no one knows where he is.
The next major storyline involves Trunks, a boy that comes back from the future, first to kill Freezer and the despot’s father King Cold, then to await Gokû’s imminent return. When Gokû arrives back on Earth via a space capsule, Trunks warns him that Red Ribbon’s androids will kill his friends. He then gives Gokû medication to prevent his death. (Isn’t time travel confusing?) Trunks is a Super Saiyaman, which really makes Vegeta made, because no matter how hard he tries, the arrogant prince hasn’t become one himself, nor has he been able to beat Kakarrot/Gokû. Vegeta’s pride and ego are so huge it’s amazing he can fit on the planet Earth and still leave room for others. Trunks turns out to be the son of Vegeta and Bulma, which shocks Gokû. Together they battle androids numbering 16 through 20.
Now we meet Cell. Red Ribbon mad scientist Doctor Gero created the current batch of androids/cyborgs mentioned above, as well as a doomsday being called Cell, who can gain power by absorbing people. Cell’s goal is to absorb 17 and 18, then destroy everything and everybody. Cell is not a nice chap. The Cell Games are set up by the villain, who wants to be the most powerful creature on Earth and make humans tremble in fear. Mister Satan, winner of the last Budôkai (the Z Warriors were too busy to enter it) challenges Cell, only to be thrown into a mountain. Our heroes show up, and after a typically long fight Cell is obliterated. Gokû dies trying to save everyone, and this time decides to stay in Heaven. After the heroes depart, Mister Satan is the only one left, so everyone thinks he saved the Earth. This becomes a running gag through the next storyline.
Seven years pass, and Gohan goes to high school, where he meets Mister Satan’s daughter Videl. To hide his identity as a superhero, he has Bulma make him a costume so he can become Great Saiyaman, complete with silly sentai poses. It doesn’t take Videl long to figure out who Great Saiyaman is, though, so Gohan teacher her how to fly by tapping into her ki.
Krillin now has hair and is married to former Red Ribbon android #18. They now have a child called Maron. Gohan has a new younger brother named Goten, conceived before Gokû’s death.
Gokû, complete with a halo, gets permission to attend the next martial arts tournament. However, the next Budôkai is interrupted when the next villain, Babidi, creates the ultimate evil, Majin Buu. (“Majin” is something akin to “devil,” by the by.) Mister Satan almost saves the Earth for real when he befriends Buu and gives him a pet dog, thereby also giving him a reason not [sic] turn people into candy and eat them. Unfortunately, when someone tries to kill Mister Satan, Buu totally blows steam for real, and a more evil Buu is formed. Trunks and Goten fuse together into one being to fight Buu, trying new fighting tactics like the Kamikaze Exploding Ghost Attack, but Buu kills almost everyone.
Now armed with the concept of two characters fusing together, Gokû and Vegeta become one, but even that isn’t enough. Through teamwork, Buu is eventually defeated, and the manga comes to an end, but the plot goes on. The TV series just finished its run, and thanks to its popularity Toei has started a new series called Dragon Ball GT (Grand Tour). There is a whole new generation among the cast of characters, so as Gokû points out [sic] the young Uub (the reincarnation of Buu), the world is out there and gives you a message of hope in all the wonderful wide world of Dragon Ball.
Dragon Ball has captured the hearts of many people. The manga is a best seller in Japan and the TV series was one of the best-rated anime shows in that country, routinely bringing in 20+ shares of audience. Twice a year, Toei releases a Dragon Ball movie as part of their anime/manga film festival. The films reflect what is currently happening in the series but tend to keep a separate continuity, so those that haven’t seen the series can understand what is going on. The very first Dragon Ball movie, for example, is a retelling of the first TV storyline with an all-new villain. Movies have explored the Saiyaman plot lines, Freezer’s meaner older brother Cooler, and the fusion of Gokû and Vegeta.
As one might expect, there’s a plethora of merchandise available, including trading cards, books, plastic action figures, plush toys, video games and even car shades.
The Dragon Ball TV series has maintained a successful worldwide interest, and now thanks to Funimation, the first 26 episodes of Dragon Ball can be seen on American TV.2 Most of the character names remain intact, and the voices are well matched for each character. Here’s wishing Toriyama’s masterpiece all the success in the new world.