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'Dragon Ball Z' Superfans Tell Us Why the Franchise Is Still So Popular

"Dragon Ball is the Iron Maiden of anime."

by Tom Usher; photos by Cleo Samoles-Little
31 January 2019, 9:15am

'Dragon Ball Z' tattoos at a fan screening of 'Dragon Ball Super: Broly'. 

Dragon Ball Z was a revelation to 14-year-old me. Gone was the slapstick silliness of most children's cartoons, in were sprawling sagas full of drama, character development and overblown fight scenes in which planets were destroyed by colourful heroes and villains as dedicated to hurting each other as they were to excruciatingly long pre-fight dialogue.

Although the original Dragon Ball was broadcast in Japan back in 1989, before making its way to western audiences via Cartoon Network and its spin-off channel Toonami in the late-1990s and early-2000s, its popularity has never faded. If anything, the fandom has grown, despite there being a 12-year absence of new episodes between the end of Dragon Ball GT in 1997 and the start of Dragon Ball Z 'Kai' in 2009.

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'Dragon Ball Z' fan Morgan

With the release of new film Dragon Ball Super: Broly this month, the franchise looks set to attract an ever wider audience. What's strange is that – as we literally just established – a huge fanbase has existed for years, and while there have been 20 animated DBZ movies released since 1986, this is only the second to get a UK showing. So why did the powers-that-be decide to treat British audiences to a cinema release of Broly?

"Because a shit-load of fans demanded it," explains Jerome Mazandarani, COO of anime production giants Manga UK. "We discovered with the previous release, Resurrection F [2015], that the DBZ fanbase in the UK transcends normal anime fandom and is a multigenerational phenomenon. Outside of Studio Ghibli and Your Name, DBZ is the biggest anime movie franchise in the UK."

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'Dragon Ball Z' fans Abigail and Chris

At a special screening for fans in Leicester Square, that multigenerational audience is clear to see. The fans lining up outside are more diverse in terms of age and ethnicity than I've seen among any other major cult following. Noticeably, though, that diversity doesn't stretch to gender: the fans are very much mostly men.

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Winston

"I've been a Dragon Ball Z fan since I was 15, and I'm 33 now, so it's been the most influential thing in my life," says one fan, Winston. "Dragon Ball Z isn't my favourite anime – it's beyond that. It's my life story. It's beyond TV shows, beyond anime – it is what I do with my life. I got my pay rise just so I can buy more Dragon Ball Z stuff. Whenever there's a convention or [a chance to meet the voiceover actors], I just study really hard, put in the work and make sure I can get there. My next plan is to buy a house so I can fill it with Dragon Ball Z memorabilia."

I'd already been exposed to some manga and anime before being turned on to Dragon Ball Z, but for many of the fans here, it seems their dedication stems from the fact that DBZ was their gateway into this world.

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Shakeel and Kameel

"We were watching it from young, [on] Cartoon Network, before Toonami was even about," says Shakeel, from London. "We were, like, five, six when we first saw it, and the fight scenes just blew our minds. We'd watch Dragon Ball Z from, like, 12AM all the way through to 12PM, all day."

"It was the first anime we ever watched – it was the OG anime," adds his brother Kameel, whose arm is covered in anime tattoos. "If it wasn’t for Dragon Ball Z, I don't think anyone in the western world would even be into anime, at least the way they are now."

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The author (left) kamehameha-ing

This is a sentiment repeated regularly over the course of the night: "I got into anime after watching Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network, and it changed my life." But for the majority of fans, that initial exposure happened a decade ago. Why is the franchise's fandom still as enthusiastic as ever?

"I think illegal streaming, [anime streaming site] Crunchyroll and Netflix have taken anime mainstream, which in turn has turned local television broadcasters back onto the medium in a bid to attract tweens, teens and millennials to their channels," says Jerome Mazandarani. "Dragon Ball is the Iron Maiden of anime, because its fans are multi-generational. You'd have an old grey metal dude in a denim jacket covered in heavy metal badges attending the gig with another, younger middle-aged metal dude in the same attire, and beside them would be a tween metal dude in matching paraphernalia. Dragon Ball is the same to me: we see dads and sons at Comic Cons all the time; it's been passed on organically over time through family and friends."

@tom_usher_