Precursor to a Legacy: My Thoughts on Dragon Ball

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Thought I might spice up the title of this post because this series is a special watch for me. It is, as the title implies, a precursor to the anime that got me into anime as a child, a lifelong passion that spanned between the anime, its movies, and countless video game adaptations. At one point in my life, I could perfectly describe every arc of every saga in vivid detail of Dragon Ball Z‘s course. Though I never christened it my favorite anime all this time, there would be no other title suited more to challenge the enthusiasm I had for the imagination present within a single series. Until a few years ago, when I got back into anime after a ten year hiatus or so, but that’s old news by now.

Notice, however, that I only mention Dragon Ball Z. I didn’t have the same experience with its previous entry, Dragon Ball, as I did with its successor—in fact, I hardly remember anything of it at all. It never seemed to air as much as Z, which may have been intentional seeing as the original seems to be a lot more, ahem, “risque.” It didn’t have that same serious or captivating mystique that Z had, and I think American networks realized this. I did catch a few episodes of the original Dragon Ball early on in my life, but never in any subsequent chains. It was always random episodes that made no sense to me. Because of this, I recalled a few moments from my recent trek of watching the series as scenes I’d seen way back when, but the moments were very limited. All I knew of the series going into it was what was described to me through the (limited) re-tellings in video game adaptations. I knew major plot points and various characters, but there was a lot of fluff I had to wade through to get to that familiarity.

I will also state now that this series took me nearly twenty-two months to finish. This timeline only included having me drop it soon after the twentieth episode or so, bringing it back about four months later, then putting it on-hold for the 2016 Summer of Anime. Adding that altogether, it still took roughly sixteen months to get through 153 episodes. Through that span of time, not only had the series grown from beginning to end, but I, myself, had seen a few self-transformations. This reflection of changing gave me a deeper appreciation for how long the series had gone while still trying to change the core of its essence or strategy for entertainment. In the beginning, it was fun and not-too-serious. By the end, the world was at stake about five times and hundreds of people died in battle. It was an encouraging strategy that felt like the story was moving at its own pace while simultaneously growing beyond its expectations. I suppose that change intimidated me to some degree. Though, more likely, the series was just weighed down by too many problems.

Believe me, this series has an avalanche of problems. Problems it never seemed to care to fix.

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I was taken off guard by how bad this series really is. The humor is so unbelievably juvenile that the age range for the comedy is somewhere between two and six, with a quick jump to thirteen or so with the “boobie puns.” There are two major comedy topics within the first arc or two of Dragon Ball: fan service and pissing. Lots and lots of pissing. Someone once described to me that Akira Toriyama had a pissing fetish. It seems they have some proper evidence to back it up based on how many times Goku had to take a piss before he set off for his journey. As for fan service, hello Bulma. Meet Master Roshi. Hope you like the shenanigans between these two because they never stop. The humor alone completely drains any serious tone the series could’ve had with its atrocious attempts at stirring laughter. Straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. For babies. With fan service. A lot of this is also properly instigated by what is by far, BY FAR, the worst character in this entire series: Pilaf.

Pilaf is not a good villain. Pilaf is not a good character. Pilaf is not a good leader. Pilaf is not entertaining, funny, charming, good, or any other adjective pertaining to any semblance of positivity whatsoever. He is a scourge to this series and makes it more than a chore, but a pain to watch. I hate his voice. I hate his personality. I hate his stupid face. I hate how his henchmen obey his every order without giving into their common senses and dumping the little shit to fend for himself. And I hate that he keeps. Showing. Up. Why does Toriyama feel he needs to resort to having such a horrible, annoying, one-dimensional ball of abomination as a serious threat to Goku when it was apparent from the very beginning that Goku could destroy him by barely lifting a finger in his general direction while asleep at .000000001% of his power. It’s repetitive, annoying, a waste of time, and could be cut out completely for the sake of retaining my, and likely other’s, good graces.

Excuse me. I really had to let that out before it killed me.

In essence, my extreme disregard for Pilaf’s threat as a villain is a running theme within the show. Many times as the arcs play out, Goku shows that he can easily defeat just about everyone so long as they aren’t shooting lasers out of their eyes or grabbing onto his tail. It makes the action sequences listless and dull, with a simple punch or rushing combination to take out the bad guys. And when it comes to those who do pose a challenge, there is a lot of talking. Very few times I can recall where fights are just fights. Someone always has to stop to make a snarky comment such as “Hehehehe. You’re better than I thought. Hehehehehehehe. This should be fun. Hehehehehehehehehe.” (There is a lot of chuckling in this anime.) If not that, they make a bold proclamation then start screaming for three minutes as they charge up an ominous-looking attack, only to have it either not work and look surprised, or have it work and start chuckling again. I would much rather take the latter flaw than the former, as going through the adventures of Goku vs. normal humans was so boring that I always found myself counting down the episodes until a real threat showed up. Even so, the latter flaw still drags out the episodes far longer than they need to be, as well as any enjoyment one had with the fight at hand.

Excluding the first tournament arc, where Goku, Krillin, Yamcha, and Master Roshi participate in the world tournament, there are fifty-seven episodes that feature Goku going up against weak or relatively weak human villains. If I didn’t promise myself to finish this series before moving onto Z, I would’ve dropped it a second time prior to reaching “the good part.” There is no torture quite like subjecting oneself to nearly twenty hours’ worth of Goku fucking around with people who aren’t even capable of harming him for the sake of showing his “adventurous spirit.” It’s really, really not worth it, aside from showing his experiences outside of his humble beginnings. I’d almost recommend skipping all the way up to the Baba saga after the first world tournament arc, because all the time in-between could essentially be filler. Very few characters from that time reappear later on and Goku doesn’t seem to grow much from the experiences—his strength most debatably so. It just goes to show how long this series is and how much of it could’ve been cut to give it more of a focus; I suggested cutting nearly 40% of its mass.

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Even after the series gets to “the good part,” there are still problems. Along with the aforementioned “elongated battles via chatting,” there are many times where Goku is tasked with doing something imperative for the world’s safety, only to have him go to a random place guarded by a random evil monster to obtain a random powerful trinket to make him stronger or whatever else. Once again, random filler to further draw out the drama of the series that gives very little impact upon the viewer other than the fact that Goku is wasting his time treasure-hunting. There are occasionally times when he has someone with him that doesn’t make me want to kill myself (Yajirobe), while a majority of the time he does (Bulma). However, I can understand the point of these things, but also question why there are so many “dangerous quests and items” available for him to embark on/obtain when he could’ve been doing all of this from the beginning, instead of when the timing is most convenient. It feels like cheap writing to me.

If you’ve gotten to this point and are thinking to yourself, “Man, this guy is tearing this series to shreds! Is there anything about this series worth praising?” I have a confession to make: there isn’t much at all. Perhaps it’s because the series is outdated. Perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps my disdain for shounen runs deep within anime’s lore and Dragon Ball is yet another example of everything I dislike of the genre. Whatever it is, my score is one I consider generous for its overall quality. But it’s not all subjective, there are a few things about the series that really impressed me.

First and foremost, its creativity. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of the characters are incredibly one-dimensional and uselessly bland, and the writing needs far more variety. What spurns my enthusiasm for the series is the world that Toriyama creates. The dragon balls, the eternal dragon, the number of creatures present within human society, the number of places to be explored and the denizens within them. Despite the relative unimportance of these places and people, to see that they exist and the care given to make them feel alive is commendable, even if most characters look similar to one another (especially girls/women). It at least attempts to create an atmosphere that employs the adventurous spirit of the series, and I applaud that.

While most characters are hopeless, there are a few who aren’t. Roshi, despite his perverted antics, displays a wide range of knowledge that suits his status. He’s a gross old man, but he’s also an accomplished fighter who always knows what’s at stake and when to be serious. Then there’s Tien, who has slowly become my favorite character of the entire series. I would have never guessed that Tien used to be such an apathetic asshole. I always assumed he was a no-nonsense, wise type of guy, but he’s a lot more of a snarky bastard than I anticipated. His arc was probably the most immersive one, both because I had little knowledge of it and I felt the series actually did something it never tried to do before that point: character development. Tien was pretty properly developed, along with giving some insight on Roshi and his past. Because of this, and the personality Tien embodied afterwards, there’s no doubt that he became the star of the series in terms of roundness of character.

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Dragon Ball has some okay art design, as well as some pretty-colored canvases. While I don’t much care for Toriyama’s design of women, I think his characters earn high praise for uniqueness… on a part of the major characters. A lot of the background characters have similar body structures and faces, humans in particular. Even so, they’re easily distinguishable and bring a little flair to an already flashy series. Despite the pointless adventures of Goku overpowering every obstacle, the characters stand out for their design alone. Animation-wise, there are many points throughout where they re-use animation to draw out fight scenes and scurries. It makes all the more time-consuming and easy to pick out from the batch. Sure, it was the mid to late ’80s and anime wasn’t as big a presence as it is now, but sometimes it was so jarring that it was repeated over and over like it was no one’s business. Some fight scenes were good, while others depended a lot on those repeated motions to simulate a lot going on. It was better later on when, y’know, people were actually fighting instead of Goku kicking someone once and that was it. Still, one will likely leave disappointed by the moderately low emphasis on action in earlier segments. Have to save time for the piss jokes.

It’s bad, putting it bluntly. Dragon Ball is not a series that has aged well, but has spawned a legacy that has surpassed three decades. It’d be hard to find anyone under the age of fifty who doesn’t know who Goku or the Kamehameha wave is. Though the popularity and fan attention has focused primarily on Z, the original still gets tremendous fan support for setting the foundation for future adventures—ones that span greater lengths than Toriyama could’ve imagined when writing his fledgling series. While I find the series a tremendous hassle to watch and ultimately not worth watching at all, I can acknowledge the impact it had on anime and the hearts of millions throughout time and place. Perhaps if not for it, we wouldn’t have as big a selection of anime as we do now, as well as the accessibility we westerners cherish when indulging in our eastern cartoon desires. Thank you, Dragon Ball. You horrible, amazing thing.

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

11 thoughts on “Precursor to a Legacy: My Thoughts on Dragon Ball

  1. I was just reading an article today from the original editor about how he thought it should have ended after the Frieza arc. I wonder how much Dragon Ball and Z would be loved if it did.

    • As a kid, my favorite saga was always the Cell saga, so I would’ve been disappointed. I’ll have to re-watch it to see if that opinion holds firm.

  2. Found your article through the Fujinsei carnival. Honestly, there’s a bit more comedy than the raunchy sex jokes and pissing (it is annoying to be honest). For instance, the training by tying Goku and Krillin to a tree to dodge was pretty amusing. It could be that Toriyama was aware of some of the problems and that’s what made Z the show that it is as well. I mean, if you’re going to have a nearly invincible character, you need to give them internal conflict at least. (Vash from Trigun comes to mind as an example. All in all, this was a good read!

  3. Dragon Ball and I have never really seen eye to eye (nore any of the follow ons from the original). That said, I’ve never sat and watched the whole thing (nor do I intend to) because there really isn’t anything that really screams must watch to me.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I gotta say, this earned a few laughs from me between the Pilaf section and that great concluding line. I’ve never watched more than a few episodes of the original show but I have to imagine I would come to much the same conclusion. It’s childishness I think proceeds it’s reputation and it’s hard to reconcile this crude image with the over-the-top, testosterone-fueled, romp that DBZ presents. A lot of what you say sounds right on point in regards to where the show’s weaknesses lie and I think, unless your viewing it purely through the lens of a classic, genre-influencing anime, it probably doesn’t have a whole lot of individual value to it. It seems to be the case with a lot of classic shows in my experience.

    Despite your many qualms you had with the show, I’m glad you gave this review the length it had. I got a great sense of why the show would be so irritating and problematic in how you explained each of it’s shortcomings. Well written as always and thanks for sharing your insight.

  5. Oh my gosh. This post made me laugh. As much as DB makes me nostalgic, I prefer Z over it like you. I think that “Makafushigi” theme song is the only thing that I like about it. And Pilaf…oh my gosh Pilaf. Why Pilaf? Oh well. But this is the me as an adult viewer. As a kid, I didn’t really care much about how horrible it was. For the me as a little girl, I genuinely enjoyed watching DB but I must say that I was ecstatic when Z finally started and I got to watch all those awesome fights and those bulging muscles. Anyway, I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for submitting it to my blog carnival. Keep on writing. Cheers!

  6. Loved this post. I never could get into DB or DBZ because of everything you said in here and the way you wrote it was just so hilarious. I feel like if you want an anime like this that is far more fleshed out and easier to take, you should watch Yu Yu Hakusho. But I never finished that one either, really enjoyed the episodes I saw, though.

    Great read! Thanks for writing this 🙂

    • Appreciate you reading! I’ve heard a lot of good about Yu Yu Hakusho, but it’s not on my radar right now. Will likely get around to it eventually, fortunately.

      • Definitely worth the watch. I think YYH fine tunes like all of the problems DBZ has but I haven’t watched it in years. I need to get on that too.

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