There are few things from my childhood that have stayed with me my entire life. My love for my family is an easy one. My appreciation for the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers is another. My language acquisition in American English, sure. Though, when it comes down to it, perhaps very little has influenced my life today as much as my passion for Dragon Ball.
It was not the easiest thing to grow up biracial, just outside of a town that is relatively small and extremely Caucasian. I stuck out in more ways than one. We lived too far out of town to spend much time socializing. Sure, I was in youth basketball, swimming, and all of the typical extracurricular activities typical of far-out suburbia to keep me busy. But we just moved to town, my family had no roots there. I had friends, don’t get me wrong; I also had two older sisters (though they were more interested in being teenage girls than hanging with their lame younger brother), and two younger siblings (both I adore). But to pass the time of those long, dreary winter afternoons, we had satellite television to keep us company.
First it was watching Friends with my mom. But I did not really understand the hilarity of that show until I was much, much older. Then there was Pokémon – there still is Pokémon. But Pokémon left me with few life lessons and guidance. Then, there was Dragon Ball.
Dragon Ball, created by Akira Toriyama, is a futuristic fantasy epic with a cyberpunk ambiance about an outsider, an alien, woven together via strong socio-economic commentary with a heavy dash of Buddhist lore. Based on a manga (meaning, “comic book” in Japanese), first serialized in Weekly Shōnen Jump, Dragon Ball is wrought with conflict over the course of four series (by my count: 513 episodes and still trekking), nineteen theatrical releases (plus two unofficial live-action films in Korea and Taiwan, and a pretty awful Hollywood live-action spin-off), and four television specials. I am rather certain that over the course of my life, I have seen most all of it: at least twice. I clung to it. I relate to it.
Now that is a lot of content to summarize, but the franchise follows the story of Son Goku, as he studies martial arts, struggles with his identity, and discovers that he is actually one of the last Saiyans – a warrior race from a distant part of the universe. Early in the series, he meets an Earth girl, Bulma, who is on a quest to gather the seven Dragon Balls, which, when brought together, summon Shenron, a wish-granting dragon. Bad guys come and go. New friends show up. Some die. Some are resurrected. Planets are destroyed. The cosmos are explored. The gods drop in and out. And of course – there is a LOT of fighting.
The Dragon Ball franchise has become an international phenomenon with countless amounts of trademarked and black market merchandise, an onslaught of Internet memes, an enormous presence at conventions (comparable to that of Star Trek fandom), a trading card game, magazines, and something like eighty (I lost count, twice) mobile, arcade, and console video games. Dragon Ball has been referenced in Fight Club, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Saturday Night Live; characters even appeared in the background of the music video of Christina Aguilera’s 1999 banger, “What A Girl Wants.” (Remember how big MTV was in those days?) It has influenced everyone from undefeated UFC Bantamweight Champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, to an entire generation of the Japanimation industry, to hundreds of off-beat fanfiction writers, and perhaps even Shia LaBeouf’s performance arts career.
And of course – Dragon Ball has an enormous presence in hip-hop. Outside of the obvious Internet rap tracks by the likes of Josip On Deck, Lil B, and Soulja Boy, and even not considering Waka Flocka Flame’s lewd Dragon Ball reference on “Wild Boy,” Dragon Ball is almost as prevalent as Street Fighter is in the rap game. On “Awesome,” XV spits the line, “who you playin’, I done went Super Saiyan.” On “My Shine,” Childish Gambino flows, “Honestly, I’m rapping about everything I go through / Everything I’m sayin / I’m super Saiyan like Goku.” Lupe Fiasco once freestyled, “I push ki like Dragon Ball Z / you see what I’m Saiyan.” Chicago Drill artist, Montana of 300, who’s rap persona is a bit more notorious, jumps in on the Dragon Ball reference game on “Try Me (Remix),” “There’s a level to this monster / I feel like Frieza,” comparing himself to one of Dragon Ball’s most fearsome villains. The Grammy Award winning Frank Ocean even talks about Majin Buu (a villain turned frenemy in later Dragon Ball) on “Pink Matter.” RZA, the founder and leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, published a philosophical expose, The Tao of Wu on October 15, 2009. In it, he offers an extended metaphor on perhaps why and how Dragon Ball resonates so strongly among African-Americans and the hip-hop community:
“Take even a cartoon like Dragon Ball Z. I mean, it’s a cartoon, but it’s one of the deepest cartoons in history. Its hero, Son Goku, starts out as a kid, begins martial arts training like San Te, and goes off on a quest for seven balls that unleash dragons that can grant wishes. Now, that’s a fantasy, obviously, a children’s story. But it’s also based on a sixteenth-century Chinese folk novel, about a Buddhist monk who travels to India to find the Buddhist sutras. That voyage represents a journey to enlightenment. But to me, Dragon Ball Z also represents the journey of the black man in America.
You see it more clearly as the story goes. You learn that Son Goku is part of an ancient race called the Saiyans, who come from a distant planet and were known as the fiercest warriors in the galaxy. So Son Goku has superpowers but doesn’t realize it – a head injury destroyed his memory, robbed his knowledge of self. Then one day, he gets stressed beyond his limits and hulks out into his alter ego, Super Saiyan – a n**** with dreadlocks. (Get it?)
This kind of story comes up in world literature, even in the Bible: Abraham is told his seed will be lost for four hundred years, in a land not their own, not knowing who they are or where they’re from. That’s the story of the Jewish people, but it’s also the story of the black man in America.
So I say we are the Saiyans; I even use the name Goku as a tag when I write. And when my hair is in an Afro? Word up: I’m Super Saiyan.” (pg. 54-55)
I guess my point with all of this, is Dragon Ball is more than some nerdy cartoon from Japan that kids on the Internet obsess over (though it very much is that); Dragon Ball is influential, Dragon Ball is inspirational, Dragon Ball is cool.
When I got off the bus from school, I would literally – not figuratively - run home to make sure I did not miss a second of the week’s newest episode. For me, Dragon Ball was a cast of my best friends; characters I could relate to as I struggled trying to fit in to a social climate that was not necessarily the most accommodating. Dragon Ball taught me it was okay to be myself, to stand up to my bullies, to work hard and follow my goals, and to love my friends and family. Some of my life-long best friends to this day are a few dorks I spent middle and high school with at the arcade and local concerts talking about Dragon Ball (and similar nerd-doms). Today, I have the 7-star Dragon Ball tattooed on my foot, one of those other friends has the 4-star on his calf. More recently, Dragon Ball has reminded me to take care of both my mind and my body, and to keep up with my studies even outside of school. I studied what I did in college, and I work in the field I work in now, largely because Son Goku taught me that at the end of the day, doing work to help protect your friends, our society, and our environment is honorable and a necessity. In all seriousness, every single day, I ask myself, “What would Goku do?”
The original run of Dragon Ball ended with the controversially canon Dragon Ball GT spin-off (which had limited involvement from original creator, Toriyama) in Japan on November 19, 1997 (GT aired in the United States from 2003-2005). More recently, from April 5, 2009 through June 28, 2015, Toei Animation aired Dragon Ball Kai in Japan (beginning May 24, 2010 in the United States and still airing). Dragon Ball Kai is a revised, compressed, and remastered run of the Dragon Ball Z series that my generation grew up with; Kai has bred a younger class of Dragon Ball fans, and reinvigorated the interest of my generation. It now becomes apparent that this move was meant to be the beginning of a new era of Dragon Ball with new films, a new series, and an entirely new fan base.
On March 30, 2013, Toei Animation released the 18th Dragon Ball theatrical, Battle of Gods in Japan – the first since 1996. I happened to be living in Tokyo at the time, and saw it in theaters a few days after opening night. The film set out to reintroduce the characters of Dragon Ball and find out what they have been up to since saving the world against Evil Buu; it was not unlike a reunion episode of The Bachelor – albeit with more fantastic fighting. The film saw a limited theatrical release dubbed to English via FUNimation in North America on August 5, 2014, earning US$2.8 million in eight days.
This year, Toei Animation released the sequel, DBZ: Resurrection ‘F’, marking the return of the fan-favorite villain, Frieza, in Japan on April 18, 2015. In Japan, it sold 27.4% more tickets on opening weekend than its predecessor. From August 4 through August 12, 2015, FUNimation released the dubbed film to limited theaters in North America, grossing, as of August 11, 2015, US$7.5 million in the United States and Canada. Resurrection ‘F’ stepped into the top ten of highest-grossing anime titles domestically, becoming the first indie-distributed title able to break into these ranks. This is made more impressive considering FUNinmation’s limited marketing budget for the film: it was advertised largely via grassroots Internet campaigns and through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block.
My local cinema happened to be screening Resurrection ‘F’. This past Sunday morning, I attended the only showing that day at 11:30 AM. I am not going to get into a detailed review of the film, there are far more qualified individuals online who have already done so – and a detailed summary is available via Kanzenshuu.
A few things, though. Even though the film had been showing for five days, the theater was packed – and I live in a relatively rural area. Resurrection ‘F’ attendees were a very strong mix of the population; young and old, black and white, male and female, sexy and non-sexy. There were, of course, otaku and weeaboo. There were a few groups of ‘cool’ high school age teenagers on group-dates. There were a few older couples on a Sunday morning outing – and at least one young adult couple doing the same. There were those like me, solemn twenty-somethings donning punk rock Dragon Ball shirts filling in the lone empty seats between groups. There were little kids (I think one was a youth group). There were parents with their young children. The one thing everyone had in common was that they were all indeed fans of Dragon Ball. The experience itself was not unlike going to a cinema for a live WWE pay-per-view, or a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – an optimistic groupthink overcame the audience; everyone cheered and jeered and laughed and (yes, actually) cried at the same queues. It was magical. I teared up twice. The first, at the brief cut of the updated Dragon Ball theme song, “CHA-LA HEAD-CHA-LA.” The second, following the after credits scene– sad it was over.
FUNinmation handled the showing well. In addition to the film itself, there was a fifteen minute pre-show with behind-the-scenes footage of the English voice actors working on the series. The pre-show included an emotional rollercoaster, emphasizing how much the series means to those who have worked on it (some with two decades dedicated to the series at this point), as well as a fun Dragon Ball trivia session which encouraged theater-goers to play along via the Twitter hashtag, #DBZRF.
Overall, I would rate the film a solid 8.5/10: it was enjoyable, action-packed, paced well, silly at times, and nostalgia-ridden. The animation was gorgeous, the sound composition on a very high caliber, and the voice-acting superb (Dragon Ball is the one Japanese show I can watch dubbed over). Resurrection ‘F’s only detriments were the absence of a few key characters (Trunks and Goten anyone??) and a very blatant issue with gender discrimination towards a couple of female characters (who I really would have loved to see get in the fight). Old viewers who have not caught up in the canon of the past few years may be lost at the presence of a particular new character*, but I feel like that would have hardly hindered the experience aside from brief confusion towards the beginning. The theatrical release ended yesterday, but it is set to be out on home video in Japan October 7, 2015, and DVD in the United States sometime in the first part of 2016.
In Japan, the series is off to a new start. The last two films were critical and box-office hits. Dragon Ball Kai had a positive reception. Now, Dragon Ball Super, the first series featuring a new storyline in 18 years, is currently broadcasting Sunday mornings on Fuji TV (with no announced international release). Toei is handling the animation, and the original creator, Toriyama, is along for the ride. The first saga of Super episodes is set to be a retelling of the last two cinematic releases (with far more detail). It has so far been met with both boisterous glee and jaded criticism from Japanese viewers; many, like myself, are just happy to get more original content that expands on a universe that means so much to us – others have critiqued the animation itself as lazy and the narrative as being ridden with poor pacing. Mostly, however, the show in general is perceived as a good thing. There is a dedicated community of Dragon Ball fans on the official Dragon Ball subreddit currently engaging in vast English discussion as the Sunday morning cartoon airs. I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not I have been watching along.
Dragon Ball is back in a big way in Japan. Here, Stateside, I think we are ready. As a student of Son Goku, a pop-culture carnivore, and an avid hip-hop fan – I could not be happier.
*In the 2013 #33-44 issues of Weekly Shōnen Jump, Akira Toriyama, original creator of Dragon Ball, published a manga serial called “Jaco the Galactic Patrolman,” a prequel to Dragon Ball; it was published as a single volume in North America in 2015. Jaco has a large part to play in the new Dragon Ball canon.
by Morgan Luther (@morgzyoloha)