Had Akira Toriyama not created Dragon Ball in 1984, the world of anime and manga as we know it would be completely different.
Cited as one of the most influential manga series ever made, countless anime fans owe at least some small thanks to Dragon Ball. The creators of Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Fairy Tail have all referenced the martial arts saga as a major influence, and the Dragon Ball Z anime series played a massive role in popularizing anime on the global scale. As we briefly discussed in our article explaining how anime has changed in the past 25 years, TV shows such as Speed Racer and Astro Boy date as far back as the 60s and were novelties referred to as “Japanimation.” It wasn’t until the international debut of Dragon Ball Z during the 90s that anime would garner worldwide appeal which fostered the otaku culture that exists today. To put it more succinctly, if Dragon Ball Z hadn’t proven how successful anime could be, we could have lived in a world without Toonami, English releases of Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away, and even Pokemon. Some may argue that’s a stretch, but either way, it’s impossible to deny that Dragon Ball Z paved the way for some of our most beloved franchises today.
So what was it about Dragon Ball that made us all so crazy about it to begin with? It may be hard to believe considering how many tropes Toriyama’s work wound up spawning, but for its time there was nothing quite like it.
For those who don’t know, Dragon Ball is based loosely on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, known as Saiyuki in Japan and Monkey in select English adaptations. Many video games and dramatic TV shows in Japan draw from Journey to the West nowadays, but before Toriyama penned Dragon Ball, he was primarily known as a comedy writer. Indeed, Dragon Ball’s roots were fairly lighthearted, and its plot revolving around the collection of wish-granting Dragon Balls was designed to give the series a game-like feel that would end when all the items were collected. This allowed the story to divert in different directions without following a singular plotline, and Toriyama himself explained that he drew the story piece by piece instead of adhering to a set overarching plotline. Dragon Ball quickly set itself apart from other hyper-manly stories of the time such as Fist of the North Star with its lighter tone, as it had no problem portraying smaller characters as being powerful fighters. During the 80s, the usual trope was to portray the strength of a character based on their size relative to the other cast members, so Dragon Ball was in fact breaking a lot of boundaries through this simple change to the formula.
As the story progressed, Dragon Ball gradually changed from a Journey to the West adaptation with kung-fu to a combat-centric story. Moving into the plot arc that would begin in Dragon Ball Z, Toriyama began to up the stakes of the fight scenes while retaining the same core cast of characters. While Goku started as a child in Dragon Ball, his shift to adulthood in Dragon Ball Z was an organic plot device that allowed Goku to be capable of more fighting prowess without the need to create a new main character. In fact, changing the image of the main character was considered a major risk for its time, though this too is nowadays a commonly seen trope in shows such as Gurren Lagann. Over the course of the story’s many plot arcs, the main cast learns to change into “super saiyan” forms and even fuse together while combating increasingly stronger and even alien lifeforms. For longtime fans, watching the cast become increasingly powerful feels rewarding, as the main characters take their newfound strength with them as the story continues. This sense of progression adds a pleasing continuity to the plot, though it also prevents the series from being too obtuse for newbies to pick up and enjoy at any point.
Make no mistake – though the series would shift from its comedy roots, Dragon Ball was never designed to be taken 100% seriously. The action sequences are totally hyperbolic by design, and the fan community often pays homage to the show by poking fun at its sillier aspects. In 2006, a short video by youtuber Kajetokun made the rounds on the internet by focusing on a hyper-intense reading of the line “It’s over 9000!” in the English dub of the anime, highlighting the ridiculousness of an already nonsensical conversation about devices that can read the power levels of fighters. Toriyama himself actually made fun of Dragon Ball with a sporadically produced manga series called Neko Majin, which routinely riffed on many defining characteristics of Dragon Ball despite replacing the cast of characters with cats. Even the Kamehameha, a powerful beam attack in the Dragon Ball universe, is often a source of parody in other manga and anime. All of this adds to the appeal of the Dragon Ball series, as the story invites the audience to enjoy its absurdity rather than avoid it.
With Dragon Ball Super continuing the story of Dragon Ball 18 years after the last original story in the series, it’s clear that the fans are still as excited now for the saga as they’ve ever been. However, even if Dragon Ball Super was never made, we’d still be left with a legendary anime and manga that has prospered through all it brought about and inspired in its wake. Though Toriyama himself has said he doesn’t know why Dragon Ball became so popular, he answers the question himself by clarifying his confusion: “The role of my manga is to be a work of entertainment through and through.” Perhaps not everyone in the world is necessarily a fan of Dragon Ball, but for the entertainment it provided so many of us for over 30 years, we owe it at least a bit of gratitude.
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