Contains spoilers of the Dragon Ball manga!
As an English teenager who didn’t have a great high school experience in the early 2000s, I found some form of escapism by watching Dragon Ball Z when it aired on Cartoon Network. During that period, DBZ quickly became my favorite show; it essentially featured super-powered martial artists fighting off against aliens, androids and whatever other magical beings would threaten not only the planet Earth, but the entire universe.
For whatever reason, I started losing interest in the show around the same time I was finishing high school, while my fascination towards anime turned to other titles (some of which I have written about on this site).
Although Akira Toriyama’s creation continued to be a global phenomenon, I had stopped paying much attention. I did watch the two movies Battle of Gods and Resurrection F, however, and they both were part of the moment I realized that Dragon Ball wasn’t for me anymore. It also doesn’t help that I watched the first season of One-Punch Man, which metaphorically gave the middle finger to DBZ from its initial episode. However, when I watched the most recent cinematic installment Dragon Ball Super: Broly on Netflix, I felt a huge sense of nostalgia that reminded me why I was a fan of this particular property. My fandom had become reignited.
From June of this year, wanting to read a long comic book series, I started collecting the 3-in-1 editions of Akira Toriyama’s original manga. Starting off as an episodic fantasy adventure, it centers on the monkey-tailed boy Son Goku, who befriends Bulma, the first girl he has ever met, and together they travel around the world searching for the seven Dragon Balls that will grant one wish. Although shōnen manga – aimed at a young teen male target-demographic – has been around for decades, Dragon Ball paved the way for the type of modern shōnen storytelling that you see now in One Piece and My Hero Academia.
Though Toriyama was making it up as he went along, which has led to some inconsistency in his writing, he laid touchstones that would influence the genre, from the spiky-haired male protagonist, to the David-versus-Goliath action that would come to define battle manga. One important aspect that showcased the genius of Dragon Ball is that it is a coming-of-age tale that reinforces the positive message of “try your best at everything you do and never stop learning”, which is personified as we see Goku age throughout the series.
Personally, I prefer Goku as a kid rather than an adult, because his innocent naivety is funnier at an early age, yet he is able to be pure of heart, proving to be the Earth’s savior. Although Goku will always be the face of Dragon Ball, there is one character I felt was the unsung hero: Son Gohan. When I first watched DBZ on Cartoon Network, knowing well that Goku was the main hero who often achieves the impossible, I always found myself rooting for his son, who throughout the series displayed flashes of his hidden power.
Although there are a handful of Z fighters that I root for, such as Piccolo and Vegeta, I always wanted the youngster of the group to have his grand moment. I got my wish when we reached the Cell Saga — after deciding to give up fighting the evil bio-android, Goku chooses his son to be his successor in defeating Cell. Starting off as a frightened child at the beginning of the fight, through some unexpected turn of events such as a number of character deaths, Gohan reaches a Super Saiyan level greater than his predecessors. With some encouragement from his dead father, that hidden power is unleashed and obliterates Cell. At the end, despite his injuries and exhaustion, Gohan is able to smile, knowing he’s won and made his father proud.
The Cell Saga could’ve been the perfect end for Dragon Ball, but due to the strong sales and pressure from his editor, Toriyama continued the story by jumping years later as we see a teenaged Gohan, balancing his high school life with his new life as a costumed hero. Although Toriyama continues that coming-of-age angle through the lens of Gohan, the character somewhat loses its spark, especially when Goku comes back and the Majin Buu Saga begins.
There has always been the suggestion of Toriyama establishing the next generation of Z fighters, such as Goku’s second son Goten and Vegeta’s son Trunks, both of whom get their moment to shine. But because Goku is the face of Dragon Ball, he ultimately has to save the day. We even see this at the very end of the manga, where Goku offers to train the young Uub – the human reincarnation of Majin Buu – to reach his full potential. However, based on later installments such as GT and Super, Goku will always be the hero.
This doesn’t negate my overall experience of reading the Dragon Ball manga for the first time. It’s far from perfect, but from the spot-on characterization, to Toriyama’s incredible art style that evolves throughout, Dragon Ball has reminded me why I fell in love with this property in the first place.