The saga of Akira Toriyama’s megahit Dragon Ball, from its origins in manga, to TV, to Z, to GT.
By P. Duffield
■ Dragon Ball in Japan
In December of 1984, the first issue of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball ran in the weekly comic anthology, SHÔNEN JUMP. Little did anyone expect that this charming comedy-adventure would eventually become one of the most famous anime series in the world. Following Toriyama’s first smash hit, the phenomenally successful Dr. Slump, Dragon Ball was initially written to be a short series. Based loosely on Saiyûki (commonly known in English as The Journey to the West), the classic chinese collection of tales about the original hero Son Goku, the story of Dragon Ball was meant to be only a single adventure to collect the dragon balls. But, hoping for another hit, Toriyama was encouraged to change the original premise of the story. After sending Goku to training, introducing Kuririn (Krillin), and creating the concept of the great martial-arts competition, the Tenka’ichi Budôkai, the popularity of the comic grew until it became one of SHÔNEN JUMP’s top-selling titles. By then, the TV series was already in production.
The first episode of Dragon Ball aired on 26 February 1986 and quickly became one of the top-rated animated shows in Japan. Over the course of this 153-episode series, viewers saw Goku fight in three Tenka’ichi Budôkai, battle numerous villains, and eventually marry Chi-Chi. During this time, Dragon Ball established itself as a household name and a merchandising success. The departure from Dragon Ball‘s original comedy-oriented story to the more serious, battle-oriented series it had become was highlighted with the beginning of the second series, Dragon Ball Z. Viewers didn’t have to wait between the two; Dragon Ball Z started on 26 April 1989, exactly one week after the end of Dragon Ball. This second series lasted for 291 action-packed episodes, ending 1 February 1996. Dragon Ball Z was immediately followed by a series independent of the comic, Dragon Ball GT, which ran for 64 episodes, until 19 November 1997. By then, the comic series had long since finished. The last issue ran in May 1995, bringing the adventures of Goku and his friends to an end after 515 chapters.
■ Dragon Ball in the U.S.
Anyone reading this probably already knows that Viz Comics is publishing the Dragon Ball comics in English. Other than being divided into Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, the comic part of Dragon Ball in the U.S. is pretty straightforward: Fans can experience all of Dragon Ball if they read the comics. There’s a lot more to the TV show, however, than what’s come to North America via FUNimation and the Cartoon Network.
This may come as news to many fans, but Dragon Ball has been broadcast numerous times in the U.S. Various independent international stations, such as the premium cable channels Nippon Golden Network and the International Channel, have aired both subtitled and straight Japanese versions of the TV series since the early 1990s. Fans who’ve been lucky enough to have access to such stations have had the chance to see all of Dragon Ball and most of Dragon Ball Z. The subtitled version, produced and distributed by FCI (Fuji Communications), ran through all of Dragon Ball and over 100 episodes of Dragon Ball Z. (Sadly, the subtitled episodes had to be cut short due to new copyrights for the show.) Also available to fans in many parts of the country, Dragon Ball Z is being broadcast in Spanish by Telemundo, a network of U.S. stations that cater to Hispanic viewers.
So we have Japanese, Japanese with subtitles, and Spanish. What about English? It seems that Harmony Gold owned the distribution rights to Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump for a number of years in the 1980s, and although no official source will say so, at least five episodes were dubbed by Harmony Gold as pilots for the series. The first and third movies were also dubbed and edited together to form a single, longer film which aired on several small stations around the country. The pilot episodes were apparently test-marketed on various independent networks. The response was so lackluster, however, that nothing more ever came of it, and Harmony Gold seems to have forgotten it ever happened. What was it like? Most of the names were changed: Goku was named Zero, Bulma was Lena, Oolong was Mao-Mao, Yamcha was Zedkai, etc. An opening theme that followed the original tune was produced, and among the voice-cast was Reba West, probably best known to fans as Lynn Minmei from Robotech. Despite heavy editing, it was still an amusing, action-packed show. Perhaps with more receptive stations managers or better PR, the U.S. could have experienced Dragon Ball six to eight years earlier than it eventually did!
Dragon Ball in English returned to the U.S. in 1995 in a new version produced by FUNimation and distributed by Saban. After the first, 13-episode season of Dragon Ball, FUNimation leapt 140 episodes to start its second season with Dragon Ball Z, in the hopes that Dragon Ball Z‘s battle-oriented story would be more successful with U.S. audiences. Doubling up the episodes, FUNimation treated fans to an awesome hour of Dragon Ball Z a week for the 13 weeks during which new episodes ran. After two seasons and 53 episodes of Dragon Ball Z, FUNimation left Saban for the Cartoon Network. There, the series has become one of the kingpins of Toonami, the most popular set of shows the Cartoon Network airs. Coinciding with this move to cable, FUNimation changed voice-studios and cut back on editing. FUNimation has also brought out the first two Dragon Ball and the first three Dragon Ball Z movies. Although no promise has been made to release all of the Dragon Ball series and movies, new episodes are due out this fall on the Cartoon Network, and FUNimation affirms that if the Dragon Ball Z TV show continues to be a success in the U.S., more of the original series and movies will become available in English.
■ Dragon Ball around the World
Dragon Ball is not a phenomenon limited to Japan and the U.S., a simple fact to which any of our readers who are from other countries or who speak other languages can likely attest. Mexico has published most of the comics and is currently up to Dragon Ball GT on TV. Fans living in areas that broadcast Telemundo have been able to watch Dragon Ball Z virtually uncut in Spanish. Canadian fans who know French have been able to buy the imported French versions of the comic since 1994 (English-language printing of the Dragon Ball manga began only in 1998). The Cartoon Network has brought Dragon Ball Z to Portuguese speaking countries of Latin America and many others. Dragon Ball is everywhere.
Naturally, the New World is not the only part of the globe hooked on Dragon Ball. Since the series was originally based on a classic Asian tale, it’s not too surprising to discover that Dragon Ball has a great deal of success all over Asia. Dragon Ball has been published and/or aired in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Dragon Ball has also had plenty of success in Europe, with French, Spanish, Italian, German and, more recently, English versions of the comic available for fans. Plus, Dragon Ball has now aired in at least half a dozen European countries. In some ways, other countries have been much kinder to the series than the U.S., for many have published the comic sooner and aired more of the shows with less editing. France, for example, has already published the first 40 comics, aired all of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, released all the movies, and will soon be finished with Dragon Ball GT. Portugal, Thailand and the Philippines have also seen all of the first two TV series. So many countries have seen more of Dragon Ball than we have. If you have any doubt that Dragon Ball is a global phenomenon, just surf the web to see how many great sites are dedicated to this series, so many of which are NOT in English or Japanese!
■ The Story of Dragon Ball
In the beginning, there was laughter. Dragon Ball started out as a comedy-adventure. With many allusions to the tales of the original Son Goku of Asian legend, our young hero–a naive boy with a tail and a magic staff–joins the search for the seven mystic dragon balls. When all the dragon balls are brought together, the Eternal Dragon, Shenlong (Shenron), can be summoned to grant one wish. Goku, our hero, is inherently content so long as he has a full stomach. It is his clever and determined teenaged companion, Bulma, who wants to use the Dragon’s wish to get a good-looking boyfriend. During their adventures, they meet more quirky characters who add spice and humor to the story. There is the lecherous old hermit Kame Sen’nin (The Turtle Hermit); the girl-shy warrior Yamcha; the shape-changers Pu’ar (Puar) and Oolong; and the diminutive blue megalomaniac Pilaf, who wants to use the Dragon’s wish to rule the world. After the first adventure, the story turns its focus to fighting, as Goku goes into training with Kame Sen’nin and gets a rival on the form of a sly, noseless boy named Kuririn. Together, they train for the ultimate martial-arts competition, the Tenka’ichi Budôkai. During their training, Goku’s guileless, forgiving nature changes his cynical, opportunistic companion, transforming Kuririn into a loyal, lifelong friend. Goku unwittingly does this again and again over the course of the whole series. It is one of Goku’s most amazing powers, and one of the things that makes Dragon Ball so good. Once the Budôkai is over, Goku sets off to train on his own, fighting bad guys wherever he goes. Despite martial arts becoming the main focus of the story, Dragon Ball never forgets to make its audience laugh. This isn’t even half the story, though. There’s still plenty to look forward to, including two more Tenka’ichi Budôkai and one of the best villains over, Piccolo Daimaô.
■ The Story of Dragon Ball Z
Dragon Ball Z starts with a bang. After introducing the surprise new character of Gohan, Goku’s son, the tone of the show turns fairly serious, as exemplified by the death of the main character in the fifth episode! From there, things go from bad to worse, with little, bookwormish Gohan left in the case of the ominous green warrior, Piccolo, and all the heroes of Earth training hopes of defeating an approaching menace. This threat to the world comes in the form of two powerful aliens–Saiyans named Nappa and Vegeta, who seek Earth’s dragon balls to achieve immortality. This is another of the many surprises in this series. Our favorite hero and villain discover that they are not from this world! Though both Goku and Piccolo insist that Earth is their home, Goku, it turns out, is one of the last of his race, the Saiyans, and was sent as a child to conquer Earth. Piccolo (and Kami-sama–just “Kami” in the FUNimation version) is from the planet Namek, which also has a set of dragon balls. This is a good thing, too, for in the battle with the Saiyans, Piccolo dies. Because of Piccolo’s symbiotic relationship with him, Kami-sama also dies, taking the power of Earth’s dragon balls with him. Without the use of Earth’s dragon balls, the only hope for bringing back those who died fighting the Saiyans is to use Namek’s dragon balls. So Kuririn, Gohan and Bulma head to Namek only to discover that a new villains, Frieza, is also after Namek’s dragon balls. Naturally, our heroes face plenty of dangers in their adventures on this distant world. Once the battles on Namek are over, there’s plenty more to come. In the next saga, something from Goku’s past comes back to haunt him and threatens the future of the world. There’s even one more big story after that, filled with strange new baddies and awesome new powers.
■ The Story of Dragon Ball GT
The original TV series Dragon Ball GT has not had an easy go of things. Many Dragon Ball Z fans object to it because it continues beyond the scope of the comics, and Akira Toriyama had no significant input for the series. Others object because the show seems to break many of the “rules” created by the first 444 episodes. Still more have problems because the quest-like beginning, which harkens back to the original Dragon Ball, is abandoned about a third of the way through, and the series turns its focus to the familiar territory of fierce battles and power escalation. It is in Dragon Ball GT where Goku achieves the perhaps ridiculous but seriously cool-looking power level of Super Saiyan 4.
Despite all the apparent faults, the show is a pretty good one. Shrunk to kiddie size by the intentional wish of a geriatric Pilaf, Goku must set off across the galaxy to fetch back the dragon balls. There are no ordinary dragon balls, but ultimate dragon balls, created before Kami-sama and Piccolo Daimaô split into two separate beings. These powerful dragon balls exact a high price for their use; if they are not returned in one year’s time, the Earth will be destroyed! Naturally Goku and his companions are the right people for the job. In the end, the story’s conclusion is far more profound than that of the comic and Dragon Ball Z TV series–those who actually sit through all 64 episodes of Dragon Ball GT are treated to an ending that has a feeling of finality, as opposed to the open ending offered by its TV predecessors.
■ The Dragon Ball Movies
Watching any of the many Dragon Ball movies–only a few of which have aired and/or been released in English–you may notice that there are a few things that just don’t seem to fit. There’s a reason for that. It’s because they don’t. You could consider the movies to be alternate realities or stories about other dimensions–it makes sense, once you think about it. The first time Goku, Bulma and the gang meet, eventually the dragon Shenlong is summoned by power-hungry Pilaf, and his wish is foiled by Oolong. In the first Dragon Ball movie, Shenlong no Densetsu (Curse of the Blood Rubies), our heroes meet again for the first time. In the end, the food-obsessed King Gurumesu’s wish is foiled by a girl named Panzy. The other two Dragon Ball movies are equally different from the TV show and comic. Although it seems the Dragon Ball Z movies try a little harder, they also don’t fit too well. In Kono Yo de Ichiban Tsuyoi Yatsu (The World’s Strongest), Goku has trained with Kaiô-sama and Gohan has trained with Piccolo. Together with Piccolo, they fight the villain du jour. Problem is, in the comic and TV show, Piccolo died with Goku was en route from Kaiô-sama’s world. There is no pre-Super Saiyan period of time in which both Goku and Piccolo are alive together on Earth after Gohan has been trained. The movies are riddled with these inconsistencies, but that’s to be expected, considering what they are.
These movies were made in Japan for holiday film festivals. Families take their kids to the theater during spring, summer or winter break to watch collections of films based on popular TV shows. This is why they’re all about one hour long. These films are made for holiday fun, not to intrude upon the story in the show or comic. Since the movies do not open at the same time all over Japan, it would be almost impossible to coordinate the plots of the films and the show to coincide with each other. So don’t worry about trying to make the movies fit into the TV show. Just enjoy them for what they are: fun extra stories about your favorite characters!
You saw him in action figures and T-shirts before he ever appeared in the English TV episodes now available on video and soon to debut on Cartoon Network this fall. He’s one of the most popular characters in all of Dragon Ball. He’s cool. He’s powerful. He’s very polite, and he uses a sword. Once he comes into the story, all of Dragon Ball changes. When you do find out who he is and where he’s from, you won’t believe it!
As might be expected from a series that ran for ten years, Dragon Ball has always been something of a merchandising cash cow. There’s a lot more than the 42 collected comics and 17 movies many fans are familiar with. Thousands of trading cards, dozens of books and posters, and more than 50 music CDs have been made in Japan alone. The 27 Dragon Ball video games surpassed sales of 10,000,000 copies in 1996, and the merchandise doesn’t end there. Dragon Ball products range from bubble gum to baseball caps, erasers to eye drops. Anything a kid might want or need, Goku’s face has probably been plastered on it. Were we to list just the merchandise from Japan, it would probably fill this whole article and then some. Besides the scads of toys, games, and snacks, some of the more interesting items out there include trampolines, desks, cameras, globes, inner tubes, and talking alarm clocks.
This mania for merchandise is not limited to Japan. As more countries encounter this universally popular series, more products will be made. While searching for the action figure of a favorite character, some of you have probably come across toys from Canada or Taiwan. Note pads from the Philippines and stickers from Indonesia are among the many imported items you can sometimes find in little shops across the country. Classically American, Dragon Ball T-shirts can now be found in nearly every department store in the U.S. We even have stuff people in Japan never had a chance to buy: videos of the TV shows. As the market in Japan shrinks (Dragon Ball GT ended nearly three years ago) and the global appetite for Dragon Ball merchandise grows, more products from more countries will become available. This may be maddening for collectors, but to the casual buyer it means a better, more diverse selection of products to choose from. So show your support for Dragon Ball and go buy something; the world is waiting!