Over the last two years I’ve been trying to collect the Viz media English version of Dragon Ball. Specifically Dragon Ball not Dragon Ball Z. Finally last week I managed to get my hands on the last three volumes. With Dragon Ball Super set to air next month I figured now would be a good time and go through and read the original. Like a lot of my friends I skipped Dragon Ball and jumped right into Z, so this was my first time reading the original.
I was also interested to read the series to see how it changed shonen. Shonen in the 70’s and 80’s looked WAAAAAAY different than it does now. 70’s and 80’s shonen series were dominated by series like Fist of the North Star, JoJo’s Bizarre adventure, Saint Seiya, Muscleman, Doberman Cop and Tomorrow Joe. These series focused on physically powerful characters in stories that were particularly dark and grim. That is not to say they are bad (The current JoJo anime is one of my favourites) they’re just vastly different than today’s shonen scene with manga like One Piece, Fairy Tail Hunter X Hunter, Bleach and Naruto taking centre stage.
Shonen before Dragon Ball Shonen after Dragon ball.
The biggest difference between Dragon ball and other shonen at the time were the characters. Goku was a small 12 year old when the series started. Most of the main cast was 12-16 years of age. The characters are all young specifically they’re the age of the average Dragon Ball reader. From an economic standpoint this makes sense since if your character are the same age as your readers they’ll relate more and thus sell more. Most shonen series before Dragon Ball featured young adult or adult characters similar to American comic book characters like Batman, Superman and Iron man. After Dragon ball many shonen series started to feature main characters in their young to late teens.
The big difference is the atmosphere the series has to other manga. Dragon ball originally started of as a comedy manga. Before Dragon Ball author Akira Toriyama had achieved fame and fortune with his comedy series Dr. Slump. Dragon Ball Starts off as a comedic retelling of the Chinese fairy tail “Journey to the west“. For those who don’t know Journey to the west is considered to be one of the greatest stories in Chinese history. The story follows the travels of Monk Xuanzang as he travels from China to India to find the ancient Buddhist texts. On his Journey he is accompanied by a shape shifting pig Zhu Bajie, The dessert bandit Sha Wujing and the powerful but playful Monkey King Sun Wukong. These characters translate over to Bulma, Ooloong, Yamcha and Goku and the ancient texts become the Dragon Balls. It’s interesting how much these characters reflect their counterparts. Oolong is perverted just like Zhu. Sha receives the least amount of development and is the weakest of the trio similar to how Yamcha is considered useless by many fans (including myself). Goku similar to Sun is the strongest and receives Buddhahood at the end of the series. Goku is the character that ultimately wins the strongest under the heavens tournament and like Sun is offered the position to be the Earth’s next God. This creates a unique setting for the series. Many of the locations in the series are influenced by a China which is something not many anime’s or manga tend to have. Despite being neighbours almost no anime or manga seems to be inspired by China (with the exception of Hero’s tale but we don’t speak of that).
When I first started reading the series I was really surprised by the lack of fighting going on. Considering that Z has a fight going on every minute Dragon Ball doesn’t really start the fighting until the second volume. In the Second volume Krillin arrives and Goku begins training with Master Roshi for the strongest under the heavens tournament. There is a big emphasis on training in Dragon Ball. Toryiama spends several chapters showing the method of growing stronger by doing menial task under Roshi’s supervision. Similar to the 1980’s movie The Karate Kid who became stronger by doing menial Job Roshi trains Goku and Krillin through sending them out to do chores like delivering milk, ploughing a field helping out in construction etc. All the while carrying a 20-kilo (then a 40 kilo) turtle shell on their back. The concept of training with weights is very common throughout the series. Goku trains with Kami while wearing 200 pounds of clothing, on King kai’s planet he trains under 10 times earth’s gravity, on his trip to Namek he trains 100 times Earth’s gravity. Finally while in the after life he trains with 2-ton weights on his arms and legs. It’s a small touch but it really shows Goku’s appreciation to his master that he would continue to train in this way. It’s a kind of dedication and respect not normally found in manga.
I was really surprised about was how funny the series was. While I love shonen one I complaint I do have is that they aren’t really funny, or at least they aren’t funny for very long. One thing I noticed in shonen manga is that when something funny happens the characters will explain why it’s funny thereby killing the joke. Dragon ball doesn’t do this which helps make it funnier. I was really surprised by just how funny it was. By contrast Z had hardly any humour in it, it took itself very seriously with more of an emphasis on fights.
Sorry for the poor quality. The pictures above are from the volume 1. Roshi summons the “Immortal phoenix” to help Goku and Bulma, only to remember that the “Immortal phoenix” died. That’s actually really funny.
Another big difference between the two series is its use of characters. One complaint I have with Z is that most of the time all of the series conflicts are resolved by four characters. Despite the huge cast a lot of the characters are just in the background not doing anything. Goku, Vegeta, Picollo or Gohan settles most of the conflicts. In Dragon Ball the characters all have bigger roles and have at least one moment to shine in the story. Oolong saves the world from emperor Pilaf, Krillin beats Chaozu in the martial arts tournament, Yajirobe defeats one of Piccolo’s henchman etc. It’s simply but it really adds to a big theme of Dragon ball, that theme being friendship.
While were on that topic I thought I’d go more in depth with how Dragon Ball handles the theme of friendship compared to other shonen series. After reading Dragon ball and watching Battle of Gods last year I think I realized what separates Dragon Ball from the other shonen series and what made it into the influential series and how it is still remains relevant. Obviously the series places a high importance on the value of friendship, but not to the extinct that a series like Fairy Tail does. In Battle of Gods when Goku is facing the God of Destruction Lord Beerus he doesn’t win, Goku fights to his full strength but still loses. The big moment in the movie is when Beerus launches an attack capable of destroying the Earth. Goku despite the overwhelming power of the attack is able to stop it. He stops it by summing the last of his power together with the added power he gets protecting his friends. In classic friendship is power style he is able to stop the attack and save the earth but that’s it. Unlike modern shoenen there is no speech about the importance of friendship or Goku defeating Beerus with his new Friendship power. He is able to save his friends but nothing more. If this were a modern shonen Goku would defeat Beerus giving us the perfect ending we’d all hope for. However Toryiama has other plans, after the fight Beerus is impressed by Goku’s determination and promises not to destroy the planet. Also Beerus reveals he was only using 70% of his power and that his attendant Whis is even more powerful than he is and then on top of that there are 12 universes each one with their own God of destruction stronger than he is. Basically Toryiama from how I viewed the movie was saying that there is always someone stronger. This theme is also present in Dragon Ball. To Quote Master Roshi” Suppose one of my students wins the strongest under the heavens tournament. He’ll take on the I’m the best in the world attitude and stop working to improve. It’s a dangerous trap for youngsters. Mr. Popo restates this when he first meets Goku ” You forget that there is always someone stronger”. However Toriyama still shows the importance of friendship. Without his friends Goku would never have been able to obtain the power or strength he now has. Bulma found him and brought him into the world. Krillin trained with him forming a friendship. Tien served as a true rival inspiring Goku to become stronger and Roshi taught Goku his trademark Kamehameha.
Shonen Jump the magazine that Dragon Ball runs in has three philosophies that most of their publications follow. Those philosophies are perseverance, friendship and winning. Dragon Ball matches these philosophies to a T. Goku has friends who help him, however that is not enough. Goku and the other characters must vigorously train to become stronger. Even then though as we’ve seen in the Freiza fight all the training is not enough for one fighter alone. Despite all his training Goku could not defeat Freiza. He was only able to do so with the help of his friends who were willing to risk and (in poor Krillin’s case) lose their lives in order to defeat the space dictator. You cannot rely solely on your friends to fight your battles for you and yet one person alone cannot take on the world for their is always someone stronger. It is when the two are combined, when one finds the perfect balance of self-perseverance and friendship that the third philosophy, victory is obtained.
The English version of the Dragon Ball manga is available from Viz media; Funimation licenses the anime. Dragon Ball Z resurrection of F the sequel to Battle of Gods comes out for a limited theatrical run.