If you're an American boy, perhaps you grew up watching Toonami's popular import of Japan's formative shonen anime megahit, Dragon Ball Z. With its seven-year run of 291 episodes, DBZ's crossover appeal helped launch anime's earliest boom in the U.S. market through the 1990s and beyond. Like Pokémon and Michael Bay's Transformers series, Dragon Ball Z is a huge, influential franchise that really isn't very good.
Anime is a wonderland of brilliant colors, unique concepts, ambitious direction, awesome energy, rich characterizations, and perplexing vulgarity. (And also, garbage.) It is strange, then, that the most reliably popular anime franchise among kids in the U.S. is an ugly show about action genre archtypes grunting and shouting each other into orbit. I don't get it. Why do boys love Dragon Ball Z? How is it one of the most beloved anime series ever despite its flat characterizations, simp writing, and tedious fight choreography?
While Dragon Ball Z wrapped its original Japanese television run in 1996, the series has been distributed, syndicated, and rebooted into infinity. Just last week, Toei Animation announced the July 2015 debut of Dragon Ball Super, a DBZ continuation that will restore Dragon Ball manga creator Akira Toriyama's involvement with the television series. All is now right with the world, I suppose.
Given Dragon Ball Z's massive and sustaining popularity, I'm eager to be disabused of my grudge against the series, which is, in my estimation, the most overrated anime of all time. My fellow Complex staff writer Gregory Babcock, a lifelong Dragon Ball fan, will persuade me otherwise, once and for all.
CHARITY: What’s your relationship with Dragon Ball Z?
GREGORY: I watched Toonami after school when I was a kid. I’ve seen just about every episode of the original Dragon Ball series and Dragon Ball Z, but I haven’t watched them in a few years.
What is Dragon Ball all about?
Dragon Ball Z, specifically, is a monster-of-the-week children’s program. Bad guy comes to town. Good guys fight bad guy. Bad guy counterattacks. Good guys counterattack and win. Rinse, repeat.
Dragon Ball Z (which debuted in Japan in 1989) essentially founded and popularized this sort of series.
Dragon Ball Z set a precedent for martial arts-centric boys’ anime. While it’s easy to pick on how the fight scenes are dragged out in DBZ, combat anime in general are following its template: stare down your opponent, power up, attack, good guy wins.
What’s the most stunning thing about Dragon Ball Z?
(Manga artist) Akira Toriyama is the creative force behind Dragon Ball. I like his style, I like the colors, I like the planets, I like that it’s a world that seems somewhat familiar but where aliens and dog people exist.
In Dragon Ball Z, a lot of what the characters are doing is stylized martial arts. You’d see it in any kung-fu movie from the '70s through the late '80s, and those films are obviously a huge inspiration of the franchise as a whole.
For a show that’s so driven by action, Dragon Ball Z’s fight choreography isn't very good. It’s a lot of characters dodging flurries of punches that only inflict damage when the screenwriter needs them to. None of the fight choreography is clever. You can compare Dragon Ball Z to a show like Trigun, in which a lot of the fight choreography is precise because the characters’ movements have value, stakes, and wit assigned to them in the service of winning a battle. Whereas Dragon Ball Z is just an onslaught of beams and volume.
Dragon Ball Z builds its characters through its fighting. Instead of having a scene where people are bonding, walking, traveling, sharing a meal, a lot of the character development in Dragon Ball Z is drawn out through combat: character development through beating each other up and training, character development through staring down your enemy and monologging. We watch Goku train in the hyperbolic time chamber with Gohan, and we watch Vegeta do the same thing with Trunks. In lieu of emotional scenes where characters develop in more true-to-life settings, every episode features some form of combat.
Teenage boys want fighting and girls. Girls aren’t really a part of this (in the romantic sense). Dragon Ball Z is about grown, brollic men getting more brollic, getting more powered up, and revealing the struggle to become stronger.
But when you were a kid watching this, did the action resonate with you as spectacular violence, or did the action resonate as strong character drama?
When you’re a teenager, it’s all about the action as action. You want to do a kameyameha to unleash a large, ungodly energy beam at someone’s face and fling them halfway across the planet.
I understand why the action is fun to watch. But do the characters resonate with you?
Goku and Vegeta as archetypes are as powerful as any character in literature that’s over 100 years old. The character structure is very simplified, but Vegeta is trying to constantly surpass his rival. He’s constantly chasing Goku, the hero, and Vegeta is never really stronger than him. He’s only ever slightly equivalent until Goku appears and is better than Vegeta. That’s a tale as old as time. You can play Pokemon and have that problem, or you can read Shakespeare and have that problem. I can’t think of a character from my childhood that embodies the anti-hero as well as Vegeta does.
Vegeta’s foil, Goku, is a little one-dimensional, which I think we can both agree is a flaw in the Dragon Ball Z character paradigm. Goku likes to eat, and he likes to fight and save the world.
That’s Goku’s Tinder profile: eating, saving the world.
The more interesting characters in Dragon Ball Z are the villains and background characters. The story is simple. What we’re getting at, really, is the power of Toonami and the power of accessibility. If you jump into DBZ in the middle of a fight, the characters will still be monologging three episodes later, and then two episodes after that the fight will have concluded. "Next time, on Dragon Ball Z!" It’s very easy to pick up and play.
A show like Gundam is a little more political. I find that people maybe start by watching Dragon Ball Z and then transition into watching something like Gundam Wing, which has political drama and a deeper character development cycle beneath its big-robots-blow-things-up-in-space premise.
Since 1997, Toonami has aired Dragon Ball, DBZ, GT, and Kai in semi-consistent alternation through last year. Why, even in 2015, is there such a viable mainstream market for this Japanese franchise in the U.S.?
It’s like eating McDonalds or watching Michael Bay films. Sometimes you just want to root for the hero, and you want to watch him beat up the bad guy. Dragon Ball Z may have these long, drawn-out fight sequences, but it’s gratifying to watch someone train, get stronger, beat the foe, and go home.
You watch a character who starts out fairly weak, and then every 50 episodes or so they grow as a fighter, and they handle the next problem. Goku is impossible not to love. He rides Kinto'un, a flying cloud, and you can’t ride Kinto'un unless you’re pure of heart. He’s just the guy you want to root for. Even when the chips are down and he’s not the strongest guy, then he’s an underdog who learns a new way to defeat his opponent through brute force or with the help of friends.
As a fantasy of raw power, DBZ made some sense to me and my teenage self. But if we’re talking about underdogs and incremental transcendence, the first two seasons of Digimon have all of that as well, yet Digimon doesn’t resonate at nearly the same level as DBZ. What’s the difference?
It’s far more feasible for one of us to go the gym, work our ass off, and then emerge as a muscled strongman who can handle the world. That’s something boys aspire to do. Something like Pokémon or Digimon maybe has those qualities, but there’s levels of isolation and fantasy: those creatures aren’t real, and they exist outside of yourself.
The ego dynamics are different.
You get so strong that your hair changes color vs. I watched my animal fight another animal, and then my animal learned a new move.
I'm not the biggest fan of the original Fullmetal Alchemist, but that show (for instance) casts big fight scenes and loud drama in the service of a careful, ambitious story. There’s strong writing, there’s excellent direction. There's monsters-of-the-week, but those monsters have distinct motives and impressive expression. Whereas the secondary parts and players of Dragon Ball Z all seem vaguely interchangeable. Characters emit energy; Goku defeats bad guys.
That lack of depth is what makes Dragon Ball Z so accessible. You can go to soccer practice on Tuesday and miss Dragon Ball Z, and you can come home Wednesday night, before you do your homework, and watch it, and you really didn’t miss that much. You can still enjoy what’s going on. If we’re using Fullmetal Alchemist as a counterexample: that show features so much plot and character development that if you miss an episode, you might have missed a giant reveal or a giant explanation of what’s going on and the various character motivations. There’s a much deeper story element. That show is about two children whose mother has died, whose father is missing, they’re exposing a government plot—these are heavier issues.
It’s easier to keep DBZ on Toonami because it doesn't have a lot of dramatic depth. Dragon Ball Z is not high drama. Even on Toonami, shows like Fullmetal Alchemist don’t get run until later at night because they have what some believe to be mature themes. Dragon Ball Z has blood and excessive violence, but the DBZ that kids in the U.S. have grown up on is a significantly edited version of all that.
Dragon Ball isn’t a franchise that’s interested in evolving with its audience in the way that, say, Digimon attempted to do in Season 3, when they brought in a new lead writer, Chiaki J. Konaka from the Serial Experiments Lain braintrust, to reimagine the show and cast it in a much darker direction.
Let’s also look at Pokemon, which has been doing the same thing for almost 20 years. And it’s still enjoyable. Likewise, you go to Dragon Ball Z because you know what it provides, and the show provides it well. Does that make the show overrated? Well, by today’s standards, Dragon Ball Z doesn’t provide anything new or groundbreaking after what it’s already cemented.
Dragon Ball Z was very quickly eclipsed by its own legacy.
Its gist is so clear and impact is so obvious, and it inspired so many successors that are a bit more mature and, I’d argue, better than their forefather.
Much as kids romanticize Street Fighter 2, a lot of Dragon Ball Z’s appeal is like that. As a video game, Street Fighter 2 is, fundamentally, go in the ring and hit a bunch of buttons. Obviously there are people who take that quite seriously. People still play the original Mario games, not just because of their nostalgia, but because they want to run and jump and go to the next level and do it again.
In U.S. culture, cartoons are for kids. No matter how many Pixar or Studio Ghibli films there are, a televised cartoon series can only go so far.
Well, I think Dragon Ball has only ever tried to go so far. Anime is otherwise filled with ambitious directors and strange, mature concepts. That’s word to Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena (which, granted, aren't shonen), and you can even say that about less abstract shows, like Fullmetal Alchemist. With those shows, which are megahits in their own right, you have anime directors that are interested in big themes. Dragon Ball Z just isn’t.
But what makes you think that Dragon Ball Z is overrated? Is it just the level of hype attached to it?
I've just never fully regarded DBZ's characters as characters. They’re all big, flat archetypes. I don’t think the show has vivid characters, and it certainly doesn’t have good writing, and the direction is tedious. As a kid, I got more out of the first three seasons of Digimon than I ever got from Dragon Ball Z.
There were really two routes that anime could take in the '90s and 2000s that American kids could latch on to: collect-a-thons like Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh!, and strongman franchises like Batman, Superman, X-Men, and Dragon Ball Z. "Who’s stronger: Batman or Superman?" "Who’s stronger: Goku or Vegeta?" Dragon Ball Z has those conversations built into its programming.
I remember those conversations, for sure.
Every boy has those conversations. I imagine boys were having those conversations about U.S. comic book characters in the 1950s, too. When I was a kid in the ‘90s, wrestling was huge. "Who’s stronger: Undertaker or Steve Austin?" Those arguments are fun. Dragon Ball Z is the same way.
By “overrated,” I just mean: never have I seen a television show accomplish so much with so little. The enthusiasm that Dragon Ball Z inspires is just way disproportionate to what it's working with.
To entertain someone and leave a lasting impression can just be a matter of doing the simple things correctly.