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Over 9,000 Fights: The Enduring Cartoon Violence of 'Dragon Ball Z'

How has a franchise about cartoon dudes punching each other lasted nearly 30 years?

av Jeremy Gordon
2015 08 06, 6:00am

Image via Flickr user BagoGames

This summer, the classic anime Dragon Ball Z returns to us through the release of Resurrection F, a movie that opens up in the US this week. The return of Dragon Ball Z is not the same as the return of Wet Hot American Summer, The X-Files, even Entourage. Unlike those franchises, which are, to a degree, governed by the fact that their stars' appearance changes with age, characters in the cartoon world of DBZ remain out of time: deathlessly taut and undeveloped, or superficially aged according to the convenience of the story the show wants to tell. There's never a new context to their reappearance, no cracks about how Turtle got skinny, no visible lines on Paul Rudd's face to remind you that a 46-year-old man is playing a 16-year-old, and that's the joke. A new Dragon Ball Z cartoon is only that: A new Dragon Ball Z cartoon. And though the film hasn't gotten the same kind of mainstream media attention as, say, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, it's worth looking at how the series has endured for nearly 30 years.

Dragon Ball Z, which began as a manga in 1988, debuted on Japanese television in 1989, and finally made its way to America in 1996, was a fairly straightforward show. It followed the exploits of Goku, who was loosely based off the Monkey King of Chinese mythology, an alien raised on Earth who was trained to be a great fighter. The titular dragon balls were a set of magical totems that, when collected, would grant the bearer one wish as fulfilled by a giant dragon; their existence was mostly a MacGuffin that let the action get started. (They were usually used to bring someone back to life, rather than, say, cure cancer or make Baja Blast purchasable outside Taco Bell.)

Dragon Ball Z takes place after its companion show Dragon Ball, which chronicled Goku's childhood—by the time DBZ begins, he is an adult, married with a child, and seemingly settled into the good life. Goku's domestic bliss at the onset of the show is interrupted by an alien named Raditz, who turns out to be his brother, informing him that Goku is a member of the Saiyans, a conquering race of warriors whose home planet was destroyed, forcing them to survive throughout the cosmos. His brother wants to conquer Earth, but Goku, because he's grown to love his terrestrial friends, is spurred to defend his adopted planet. They fight, leading to Goku's eventual victory, and the opening of a can of worms that wouldn't close until dozens of enemies and hundreds of DBZ episodes later later.

That's the short of it. The long of it is that Dragon Ball Z was a show about fighting. Diplomacy solved nothing on this show. The villains, categorically evil (except for when they occasionally fell in love and magically turned good), were always there to conquer. The heroes, noble and self-sacrificing, were always there to fight back. The formula was simple: A villain would show up, and he'd win—that is, until, after much training, the heroes finally overcame. Then, once the dust had settled, an even stronger enemy would arise. At first, the villains were only strong enough to blow up a city. Later, they could wipe out all of existence. As the threats escalated, you'd wonder: How are the heroes going to get strong enough to deal with this?

The strength of these characters was measured through power levels, the equivalent of Star Wars' Midi-chlorians—an ambiguous unit of value that roughly told you how many planets someone was capable of blowing up. First, it was a big deal when someone's power level was over 9,000. Later, over 1 million. Later, even higher. Over time, that meant the characters were reduced to math. They became sports. The who-would-win hypotheticals of any basic fandom—hey there, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice—were reduced to cold-hearted arithmetic, pushing lesser characters like Krillen and Yamcha out of the way as the power levels of Goku, his son Gohan, and his frenemy Vegeta skyrocketed and the stakes got higher and higher. Leads became background players, content to clap in support and watch the Saiyans grow bigger muscles and even bigger hair. (At its wildest, Goku's hair resembled an overgrown bushel of bananas.) Dragon Ball Z didn't make character decisions based on who was more interesting, but on who was better at punching.

DBZ cosplayers. Image via Wiki Commons

There's something very childish about this logic—storytelling by way of slamming action figures into each other to see which one breaks first. Dragon Ball Z was hardly the only anime or children's show to work this way: Power Rangers, Pokemon, Jackie Chan Adventures—take your pick. Escalating threats are an easy way to keep a story going, and to make for a series of tidy emotional climaxes—good defeated by evil, which is then defeated by good.

What made Dragon Ball Z so exciting was the widescreen action, in which cities were decimated and planets blown up, the nihilistic death drive of the villains, and the rigorous physicality of the conflict. The fighting wasn't delegated to monsters and robots, or done with guns and swords—it was brutal, hand-to-hand combat with each punch, kick, and ki-focused fireball creating a trail of blood and bruises. The American version edited out the blood and explicit death of the Japanese original—instead of dying, characters were "sent to another dimension"—but nobody, not even kids, was fooled. The characters knew right away when someone's power level had increased, because it always meant someone was about to get their ass kicked. (Blessedly, there was no Michael Bay in the studio to wonder what would happen if a rail gun was used on one of the Saiyans; guns held no power here, and governments were never motivated to intervene on behalf of the planet.)

Regardless of the show's actual demographics—nine- to14-year-old boys were its core audience—DBZ was an aggressively masculine program. The characters didn't just get stronger by working out, but by getting angrier. The faces and sounds the characters made while leveling up—it was akin to working out, and to, well, fucking. The series really opened up when we were introduced to the Super Saiyan—a heightened state of power that Goku and the other Saiyans achieved by becoming so angry their veins practically exploded. If I remember my younger self as a knot of emotions prone to tantrums, then I see how watching a show in which screaming = stronger might have been appealing.

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"I don't like violence," novelist Don DeLillo wrote in Underworld. "It scares the hell out of me. But I think I see it as an expanding force in a personality. And I think a man's ability to act in opposition to his tendencies in this direction can be a source of virtue, a statement of his character and forbearance." Dragon Ball Z took this idea as a literal expansion—check out how their muscles bulged with even one round of training—by blessing normally good men with amazing abilities to see if they could hold true to their hearts rather than become a conquering brute. What's important to remember, then, is that if the characters got angrier in order to get stronger, they did so because they needed to.

The simplicity of this "might makes right, and the rightest might is the mightiest" ideology was resonant because it's nice to imagine that good wins, and that winning can be achieved by trying harder. Look at someone like MMA star Ronda Rousey, who proudly wears Dragon Ball Z shirts, or Chicago bop crew Sicko Mobb, who named two tapes of dizzingly energetic hip-hop after going Super Saiyan. Dragon Ball Z was a show about how to never stop going in, no ifs, ands, or buts. If it did not carry the same thematic eloquence of an Evangelion or Spirited Away or Akira or Fist of the North Star—well, that was kind of the point. Even death couldn't stop the characters from going in, as they were only a dragon ball–facilitated wish away from coming back to life. The deceased would simply hang out in heaven, waiting to rejoin the eternal fight.

The new Dragon Ball Z movie, which opens in America this week, promises more of the same. First, we see that Frieza—perhaps the most notorious of the show's villains—has been resurrected following his untimely death, and sent in the direction of Goku and his friends. As the trailer shows, it looks like he's stronger than ever. Will Goku find a way to overcome? Yes, unless everything we have been taught about Dragon Ball Z has been a lie. If this is somewhat predictable, it's at least a satisfying predictability, brought to life by characters recognized by fans and narrative structures that still ring out as righteous. There's always another fight to be won, another enemy to be defeated, another new haircut to gain by screaming yourself hoarse.

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