As I was introduced to Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball series through the televised Dragon Ball Z, I knew very little about the original manga until relatively recently. After reading the first three volumes of the manga, however, I’ve fallen in love with the Dragon Ball universe all over again. And since I’ve yet to write much about manga, I thought a post on my favourite anime series would be a terrific way to start.
It’s been extremely satisfying to return to the very beginning of what subsequently blossomed into an epic, all-encompassing narrative (featuring more characters than I can count, and thirteen films, with a fourteenth to follow this year), and learn about the origins of the characters. This is particularly interesting with characters like Yamcha, who become overshadowed by more powerful characters in the later series.
There are two aspects of the Dragon Ball manga that I’d like to discuss, because I find both absolutely fascinating. The first is the strong comedic tone present in Dragon Ball. This marks a significant difference from the sequel, as Dragon Ball Z has a greater sense of threat throughout and places less emphasis on humour as a result. Dragon Ball reads more like a folktale or a work of fantasy than its sequel, which features many elements of science-fiction, e.g. space travel and cyborgs, and I think this difference enables the original to adopt a more whimsical tone. The somewhat adult nature of the humour was a surprise, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. This is best illustrated by Goku’s method of differentiating between the genders:
Goku: Wow! You can tell if it’s a man or woman just by looking?!! That’s awesome!
Kuririn: You’re kidding me! You really can’t tell?!
Goku: Sure I can tell…if I pat ’em to see what’s under their pants.
Kuirin: …Let me just tell you up front…I’m male.
The humour contributes to the sense that this is a very knowing piece of writing; Toriyama seems aware that his fictional world follows a singularly odd sort of internal logic. Returning to the original series has clarified many of the stranger aspects of Dragon Ball Z, as the anime never explains the co-existence of dinosaurs and hover-cars, or the fact that several characters who walk, talk and dress like humans are, in fact, actually animals.
The second aspect of the manga that I’ve enjoyed discovering is the extent to which it draws upon the classic Chinese legend, Journey to the West. Goku is named after the Monkey King himself, and the quest for the dragonballs parallels Tripitaka’s quest for the Buddhist scriptures. Drawing on such an epic source lends a great deal of depth to the story, and perhaps goes some way towards accounting for its enduring popularity.
Sean Schemmel, the voice actor for Goku, expressed a similar view in an interview with Red Carpet News TV (which can be viewed in full here: http://bit.ly/YvBqsF). Sean suggested that Journey to the West is tantamount to the Greek tragedies in terms of its cultural significance, and that these classic stories ‘stand the test of time because they are the stories about man’s survival…whether it’s man versus man, man versus society, or man versus the elements.’
Akira Toriyama drew upon this epic myth and adorned it with elements of fantasy, science fiction, and a dash of ribald humour, to create a truly engrossing tale.