Since last August, I have been posting reviews of every single episode of the original Dragonball anime. I’ve typically done three to four a week, slowly making my way through the first adventures of young Goku and his pals. It’s been a fun experience: I hadn’t watched this show at all since I was in middle school, but it has weirdly had a big impact on my life. As an adult, I’ve studied more of the cultural influences that went into Dragonball and so it was easier to catch little references here and there. If you want to read more about a specific episode, check out my instagram here.
Dragonball started out as a manga by Akira Toriyama. It was later adapted into an anime, which was, I think, aired each week. I knew two things going into this: that Dragonball takes significant inspiration from the Chinese novel Journey to the West and oftentimes Toriyama would lose track of where the story was supposed to go, so he would just vamp for a few chapters. The result of this is some weirdness in pacing. When the show maintains a careful episodic structure, i.e. when it is the most like Journey to the West, featuring weird creatures and bizarre problems in exotic locales, it absolutely sings. When it runs out of runway, especially in the tournament episodes, it can be kind of a drain to watch.
Maybe before we jump into pacing, we should talk about the premise. Dragonball begins with Bulma, a young tech genius, stumbling upon a little boy in the wilderness. He has a monkey tail and lives all alone, except for his “grandpa,” which is an orange ball with four red stars on it. It turns out this is called a Dragonball, and Bulma is hoping to collect all seven of them in order to make a wish to the Eternal Dragon, Shenron. She is going to wish for a boyfriend. Goku agrees to help, and the two set off together. The first arc of the show, comprising about twelve episodes, introduces most of the major players. Goku and Bulma meet Oolong (a shapeshifting pig), Master Roshi (a horny martial arts master who trained Goku’s actual grandpa, Gohan), Yamcha (a bandit with nice hair who goes from enemy to friend to boyfriend of Bulma), Puar (Yamcha’s shapeshifting, floating, cat), and Emperor Pilaf, the first villain, as well as his henchmen Shu and Mai.
In the first arc, they foil Pilaf’s plan by having Oolong make a frivolous wish. The Dragon grants the wish, and the Dragonballs fly away to be dormant for another year. All Goku wants is his grandpa’s ball back, but he has to wait. In the meantime, he goes to train with Roshi and meets Launch and Krillin. Launch is a kind, blue-haired woman, but when she sneezes, she becomes mean and blond. Krillin is bald and kind of mean all the time, whether he sneezes or not. On yeah, I forgot to mention that Goku turns into a monkey monster during a full moon, and they had to cut off his tail to stop him, and he definitely stomped his grandpa to death. Glad I remembered that detail.
From here the show falls into a pretty basic rhythm: Goku and his friends train for the world martial arts tournament, the tournament happens (and overstays its welcome by like 8 episodes), usually by the time they are done with the tournament, the Dragonballs are reset, so they look for those, fighting some kind of villain along the way. They make a wish, beat the bad guy, and start training for the next tournament. After the first tournament, for example, Goku has to race the Red Ribbon Army for the Dragonballs. He fights the leaders of the RRA one by one, climbing bizarre towers full of traps, and delving into pirate caves. He eventually discovers some folks in the land of Korin, and befriends them. He climbs a tower, he chases a cat, he fights an evil mercenary. Eventually, he brings his friend’s dad back from the dead and destroys the RRA. There’s more training and adventures, then another tournament and new villains. After this one, Piccolo shows up, after he’s defeated, Goku has to fight Piccolo Jr. in yet another tournament. People die and are brought back by the Dragonballs. Cities are wiped out. Yamcha and Bulma fight a lot. Roshi is a pervert. Goku and Krillin grow up. It all happens according to the same rhythm of Adventure, Wish, Training, Tournament.
There are some important threads: In the beginning of the show, Goku meets ChiChi and Ox King and agrees to marry ChiChi. When they meet again at the end of the show, she holds him to it. It’s very sweet. But it all operates according to that rhythm.
The best episodes of the series are adventure episodes, preferrably those that are self-contained. The absolute best episode for me is one of these. Titled “Plague and Terror,” it sees Goku out on his own, training, since Roshi no longer feels he can train Goku. He comes upon a village that is exploited by a pair of bandits named Plague and Terror. They have a magic gourd that sucks in anyone, if they name the person and that person doesn’t say “Here.” Then the person is liquefied and they drink their power. Goku gets stuck in the gourd and pees in it to make them think he’s been turned to liquid. When he pops out, he turns the tables and forces them to work for the village to repay what they stole. There’s fighting, it’s funny, and it seems like it could come right out of Journey to the West. It’s a good distillation of what’s good about the show.
And there’s a lot of good in the show! It’s action packed, some scenes are beautifully animated, it’s often very funny, and it just oozes with charm. The world and the people who fill it are memorable and warm, and you really do get the sense that just about anything could be around the corner. The general world-building pace is good in this case as well, as we slowly see more and more of the world through Goku’s young eyes. By the end, when he’s striking a bargain with a literal goddess, it seems like a natural turn of events.
Despite some weirdness around the depiction of people of different races (more on that later), the world of Dragonball is also extremely diverse. I feel like it’s pretty clear that Goku begins his journey in some version of China. Along the way, we meet people like Suno, who lives in an arctic region; Nam, who lives in a desert and appears to be Indian; Bora and Upa, who guard the tower of Korin and appear to be Native American, as well as dozens of other characters based in real-world cultures. That’s not even mentioning animal people, like Oolong, or the many others who casually appear in the show. The best parts of the tournament episodes are the shots of the diverse crowds.
None of the diversity of the show feels, to me anyway, like it trends into lazy stereotyping. Toriyama wanted to create a world as diverse as the one where he lives. People have their own customs, ideas, architectural styles, and so on, but he seems to zero in on the things that he thinks make us all human (or int he case of certain androids and monsters, at least make us all people). People cherish their loved ones, they strive to be better and do better, and they do their best to make it in a world that can be hostile. It is often through the experience of kindness that people realize that being good is better and more fulfilling than being bad. This is a key part of Toriyama’s moral philosophy in Dragonball: badness may be all around us, but those who are good will always have a better capacity for growth. The good can always, eventually, overcome the bad. There’s not a ton of grey area in this philosophy, but it’s still a nice thought.
This plays out in a few ways. The most obvious being that Goku, who is pure enough to ride the Nimbus Cloud, always grows stronger enough, fast enough, to face any threat, even when his opponent is also training to beat him.
The other is one of Dragonball’s more consistent and heartwarming themes: that you can make a friend out of an enemy. Yamcha, Tien, Chiaotzu, Launch, Krillin, and eventually Piccolo all started as rivals or outright enemies of Goku, and eventually became friends. It was only this friendship that allowed them to reach the levels of power that they do. This is world where connection and kindness lead to power, and not the other way around. Goku is able to call in favors from casual friends, as well as help them out of jams as needed. At it’s most pollyanna-ish, Dragonball is a story about how friendship and just being nice can save the world. But unfortunately, there are missteps.
First, a pretty basic one: the pacing can slow to a crawl. When you’re doing at most an episode a day, watching Tien and Goku vamp for 8 episodes feels like it never ends. Not enough happens in these fights to adequately build tension, and while some parts of the fights are interesting, its not enough to keep me excited for multiple weeks of the same damn fight.
That leads into a second issue, which is that you can often see where the budget on animation has gotten thin. While there are a few truly breathtaking animated sequences (and early of Goku flying on his nimbus through a ravine springs to mind), these come at a cost, including some scenes where nothing happened on screen for so long that I thought my Funimation App has frozen.
But there are a couple of larger issues at play. One, as mentioned above, is the sometimes troubling depiction of people of other races. Black people are often depicted with large, red lips. There’s no other way to put it, characters like Mr. Popo often come across as minstrel show characters. It’s a shame, because Mr. Popo and many other black characters are great characters. They are dynamic and interesting. Popo is a warm but powerful trainer, patiently unlocking Goku’s true potential. Commander Black, an unfortunate name, serves as General Red’s loyal assistant until he sees the writing on the wall and betrays his former leader. These characters are so good, so it’s shame they look so bad.
Cultural attitudes toward race are often different in Japan than the the US, and a lack of personal experience with black people or images of black people created by other black people is mostly to blame here. It’s not malicious, but it’s definitely jarring.
Then there’s the sex jokes. I’m no prude, but especially early on, there are some sex jokes that are pretty grating in 2019, and would actually maybe prevent me from showing early episodes to children. An early bit is that Goku has never seen a person other than himself or his grandpa. He doesn’t know what a woman is. When he lays his head between Bulma’s legs to sleep, he comments that she’s lost her balls. She panics that the Dragonballs are gone, but soon realizes that he has looked under her underwear. Later, Goku touches ChiChi and others between their legs to see what sex they are. Everyone on screen is mortified by this, but Goku, in his innocence, doesn’t know any better.
Then there’s Roshi, who exchanges a Dragonball for a glimpse of Bulma lifting her shirt early on, when Bulma’s age is somewhat ambiguous. Roshi frequently tries to violate the privacy of different women in his house, including Launch and Bulma. While he’s always thwarted, it can still be an uncomfortable watch. It’s a shame, again, because between this and some of the racial depictions, Dragonball is hard to recommend without big caveats, and impossible to recommend for kids without some kind of parental guidance.
Dragonball is good! There are some big issues that are largely a result of the context in which it was created, but with those in mind, it’s a great show and an obvious classic.
The political worldview of the show is a little naive. It’s a world of people who are constantly at risk of dominance by raiders, bandits, and rogue armies, and that’s before we get into Piccolo. It’s a world where only the strong can defend the weak, and institutions are powerless. This is no different from any other superheroic worldview, which tend to be fairly conservative, if not outright fascist, but it’s always worth mulling over. Goku is frequently the only thing between the world and some incredible threat. The question has to be, what would happen if not for Goku? What if Goku is negligent or if he turns evil? It’s a classic issue: when every problem can be solved by punching, the justice is in the hands of the one who punches hardest.
At the same time, Toriyama himself is liberal if not leftwing. Many of his villains dress as fascists. Bulma is the heir to a tech fortune, and she uses her immense privilege to travel the world and hunt for a boyfriend, but later uses it to help her friends face down major threats. In Dragonball, most people are poor, but most people also have their needs met; famine and drought are rare occurrences and usually the result of someone else doing something they shouldn’t. Toriyama imagines that most people are good, but need protection from the few who are bad. The reliance on a few strong fighters may stem from Toriyama’s own distrust of various institutions. It’s common knowledge that later Dragonball Z villains are stand ins for real estate speculators. Other forms of predatory capitalists, unrestrained by the institutions meant to do just that, take shape as Toriyama’s energy-blast throwing baddies. Governments are literally powerless to stop these new threats(Piccolo’s swift destruction of a city brings Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mind), and the cosmic institutions meant to do so simply don’t. It’s no coincidence that Kami won’t kill Piccolo (they are the same person), or that Annin is hesitant to find a way to help save ChiChi’s father in the final episode. Institutions are fallible. The problem is what message we are supposed to glean. Should we hope for a savior? Should we train ourselves to fight back? Is the key to bond with others? Maybe all of these and more. Does our salvation lie in our connections, or in a few strong individuals? Dragonball doesn’t seem sure.
I’ll let you know if Dragonball Z has anything else to say.
I originally hoped to do all of Dragonball, including Z and Super, as instagram posts. This turned out to be exhausting. Collecting images and then trying to write them up often left me without enough time to really have something to say. While I believe I may have created the most thorough archive of images from Dragonball, that was not the original purpose.
As a result, I am changing gears. My plan is to write a review of each arc of Dragonball Z, here on Medium. I am not watching Dragonball Z Kai, mostly because I think with this approach, the filler is fine. Besides, I absolutely want to see Goku learn how to drive. I think Dragonball is worthwhile of thoughtful criticism and discussion. I think this will be a better format for it.
Thank you all for reading!