This coming weekend, millions of fans worldwide will tune in to watch the conclusion of the latest series in the wildly successful Dragon Ball franchise, Dragon Ball Super. Though many fans of the previous shows, particularly those of Dragon Ball Z, have maligned the sometimes uneven quality of Super‘s animation, the recent episodes have raised the bar for what’s possible on television. The show will bow out on an artistic high point that has fans hyped and provides a great bridge to the license’s twentieth film, set for a December release in Japan.
The many Dragon Ball shows and films are based on the source manga created, written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama, which he serialized in the pages of Weekly Shōnen Jump, beginning in 1984. The Dragon Ball Super anime follows a plot outline written by Toriyama himself, though he has set a subtly different course for the manga series he still writes, with illustrations now provided by the acclaimed Toyotarou. The Dragon Ball manga is a cultural sensation, with collected volumes of the original 42 volumes exceeding 240 million copies sold worldwide.
Initially known for its great, sometimes bawdy, humor, memorable characters and engaging storylines, the manga has evolved over the years to feature higher stakes and more sinister villains. The changes in the storyline reflect those in its main protagonist, Son Goku, a powerful, though simple-minded, alien warrior living on earth. A member of a bloodthirsty, warrior race, Goku was originally sent to earth in order to conquer it for his people. However, a blow to the infant would-be overlord’s head erased his programming. Upon being adopted by a kindly human, Goku was raised to be benevolent, eventually becoming the planet’s protector, rather than its subjugator.
Basically, he’s like Superman…with a tail.
Unlike the famous Kryptonian, he just keeps getting stronger, constantly refining his martial arts techniques and taking on new forms as he increases his power levels. He also has a habit of reforming his enemies, even the most vile, and turning them into allies if not outright friends in most cases. Before DC fans complain about any similarities to Superman, they should know that the original Dragon Ball was actually inspired by the classic 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, and Goku was Toriyama’s homage to the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.
As popular as the manga has been globally, the anime adaptation, which first began airing in Japan in late February of 1986, has had a crossover appeal few if any properties can match. Dragon Ball, particularly the second series Dragon Ball Z, has served as the entry point for millions of westerners to the greater world of Japanese popular culture.
When I discuss my passion for anime with my peers, they’re often amazed that I grew up watching it—until I clarify for them that they did as well, they simply didn’t know they had. As a child, I raced home to devour episodes of Speed Racer, Astro Boy, Battle of the Planets, Space Cruiser Yamato and Captain Harlock. When I mention these shows, or Heidi, Girl of the Alps, and a show most of my friends recall as Marco (3000 Leagues in Search of Mother), they’re shocked to learn they too grew up loving the animated creations of the land of the rising sun. However, if these titles flew under the radar as being Japanese imports for those in my generation, that was far from the case with Dragon Ball Z, a show that was unabashedly, quintessentially marketed as an anime.
Whereas the original Dragon Ball, with all its oddball quirkiness, appeals to a generally broad audience, its sequel, Dragon Ball Z, is one of those unique creations that you either love or hate immediately upon first viewing. You don’t become a DBZ fan, and it doesn’t grow on you over time—you either get it or you don’t. Millions of fans did get it; from the moment it premiered in the west, DBZ has been a phenomenon.
Dragon Ball Z opened the doors for countless others like it on western shores. In addition, it had a tremendous cultural impact; remaking Cartoon Network, influencing American competitors, and constantly popping up in and having its characters name-dropped in popular music. Inspiring everything from little local restaurants, to big budget theme park attractions, as well as dozens upon dozens of video games, hundreds of action figures and other merchandise, and even multiple best-selling soundtrack albums—the franchise is a cash cow, both in Japan and abroad. Dragon Ball is the tide that’s lifted all other ships, as well as a tidal wave in itself.
Simply discussing Dragon Ball is now an industry as well. A quick search on YouTube will yield hundreds of results, from reactions and critiques of individual episodes, to fan-created homages, or analyses of the show’s hidden messages and themes.
And this weekend, fans will gather all over the world to say farewell to the most recent series. Throughout Latin America, there will be watch parties sponsored and sanctioned by local governments that will draw audiences in the tens of thousands, with a cross-section of fans representing multiple generations.
That’s proof of a passionate multicultural following—of a love that shows no signs of diminishing. We’ll just have to wait anxiously for what comes next.
December seems awfully far away…