Press Archive

Animerica November 1996 (Volume 4, Number 11)

Animerica Feature

Dragon Ball from A to Z

Now that DRAGON BALL‘s powered-up sequel, DRAGON BALL Z, is finally airing on U.S. TV1, ANIMERICA gives you a look at the DRAGON BALL legend in its entirety, helping you to fill in the blanks and catch up to the story, the charismatic new characters, their history, and more. Compiled by ANIMERICA Editorial Staff, with an introduction by James “Super Saiyan” Teal.

Originally serialized in the zillion million-selling Japanese manga magazine Shônen Jump, creator Akira Toriyama’s martial arts manga story DRAGON BALL is one of the most popular (and most widely known) anime and manga series in the history of the medium. Forty-two tankôbon or compiled manga volumes and literally hundreds of animated TV episodes later (not to mention movies, TV specials, CDs, video games, and mega-merchandising, everything from T-shirts to food products), DRAGON BALL has become a multimillion-dollar phenomenon, with manga issues and anime episodes translated into foreign languages worldwide. Sure, the characters are cute ‘n’ all, and the story premise–a super-powered guy who meets increasingly more powerful enemies–is hard to beat, but what’s the big deal? If you’re not already a martial artist yourself, what’s in it for you?DRAGON BALL began simply, seemingly nothing more than a comedic, updated retelling of the classic “Monkey King” legend seen in other anime and manga series such as MIDNIGHT EYE GOKU, CYBER CITY OEDO, and Osamu “God of Manga” Tezuka’s own ALAKAZAM THE GREAT. [GOKU has yet to be released in English, but see ANIMERICA for reviews of both OEDO and ALAKAZAM, in issues 4.1 and 4.4, respectively.–Ed.] Before he created DRAGON BALL, creator Toriyama had best been known for his cheerfully silly DR. SLUMP (see sidebar). DR. SLUMP was a great hit, with slapstick aplenty, and a healthy dose of “toilet humor” for the kiddies, but Toriyama’s greatest success was yet to come.

Though in its early installments, DRAGON BALL, too, had its share of playfully innocent bathroom humor, it soon became clear to the readers of the manga and the ever-more absorbed viewers of the animation that DRAGON BALL was no simple cartoon comedy. Instead, the story evolved into something quite unique–a blend of action, adventure and humor like nothing else anyone had ever seen. As the intense, innovative, and really rather spectacular combat of the series’ recurring “Tenka-Ichi Budôkai” or “World’s Ultimate Martial Arts Tournaments” drew the attention of action fans, two distinct groups of DRAGON BALL fans began to develop: those mostly interested in the comedic and sweetly charming misadventures of a pure-hearted young boy and his considerably more worldly companions, and those absolutely fascinated by the battles of an evolving superhero meeting, fighting, and triumphing over the others at his own level (adopting a pragmatic “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy, more often that [sic] not, those warriors defeated by Goku would usually then become his allies, even if that alliance was sometimes reluctant and uneasy).

And yet, unlike the endless battles you might expect from a series with such a strong emphasis on combat and martial arts, DRAGON BALL is not the ITCHY & SCRATCHY-like “they fight! and fight! and fight! and fight! and fight!” series it might so easily have become. As the main character Son Goku grows older, certain aspects of the story matures right along with him. Dead or alive (and Goku does spend significant amounts of the series in the afterlife, thus the inclusion of the “People of the Cosmos” in the DRAGON BALL character pantheon on page 22), Goku’s personality never really varies that much, although the situations in which Goku finds himself certainly do. With each subsequent encounter, a gradual escalation in scope, power level, and importance can be detected, and what began as simple adolescent curiosity and adventurous joyriding eventually develops into Götterdämmerung battles between incredible races with nothing less than the fate of the world at stake.

Goku, in other words, grows up. How often does that happen in your standard “they fight ‘n’ fight” series?

When you think about it, there are a number of similarities between the Chinese-inspired Son Goku and that most American of superhero icons, Superman. Both are aliens sent to Earth shortly after birth to escape the destruction of their homeworlds; both possess super-strength, flight, super-speed, heightened senses and the ability to cast energy blasts. But the crucial difference between them lies not only in how they view the world, but in how the world views them.

Superman is, and always has been, a symbol for truth, justice, and upstanding moral fortitude–a role model and leader as much as a fighter. The more down-to-earth Goku has no illusions about being responsible for maintaining social order, or for setting some kind of moral example for the entire world. Goku is simply a martial artist who’s devoted his life toward perfecting his fighting skills and other abilities. Though never shy about risking his life to save either one person or the entire world, he just doesn’t believe that the balance of the world rests in any way on his shoulders, and he has no need to shape any part of it in his image. Goku is an idealist, and believes that there is some good in everyone, but he is unconcerned with the big picture of the world…unless it has to do with some kind of fight. Politics, society, law and order don’t have much bearing on his life, but he’s a man who knows right from wrong.

In DRAGON BALL, Goku isn’t the only one who grows up. Other characters–such as Bulma and Krillin, Goku’s childhood companions–get romantically involved, have children, move on with their lives. American comic book and cartoon stories, on the other hand, are usually forced to maintain some kind of status quo…for decades, in some cases. The SUPERMAN comic has been around since before the second World War, and how much has the character really changed? In DRAGON BALL, the story, characters and readers all grow together. In other words, even the non-human among them are so much more human than your average, frozen-in-time superheroes. (Superman’s recent marriage is an encouraging exception to the contrary.)

Characters in DRAGON BALL also get much more powerful as the story goes on, but it is a gradual escalation of power. Sometimes a single fight will last for hundreds of pages, or week and weeks of episodes, making each individual fight and combatant that much more memorable, and ultimately adding greater weight and importance to each individual character and battle. Contrast this to the trend in American comics toward generalized slugfests which just go on and on, year after year, rematch after rematch, with no particular meaning attached to each new battle.

When all the pieces are added up, is it DRAGON BALL‘s world-shaking martial arts, or the series’ pure-hearted premise that captivates audiences all around the globe? Maybe a little of both, together with a hero that nearly any child wishes he or she could grow up to be like. Isn’t that the kind of show that’s really worth falling in love with?

— James Teal


The following historical notes are included for the benefit of the reader as supplemental information and were not originally published in the book.

1 By this article’s listed publication date in November 1996, the original syndication broadcast of FUNimation’s Dragon Ball Z TV series English dub would have only been airing for two months (likely less considering magazines are traditionally forward-dated).
Transcription & Notes: VegettoEX