I’ve seen a lot of the Dragon Ball Z cartoon on Cartoon Network, on Toonami back when that aired every evening. I was in… oh, early high school? But I never got to see the entire show. For one thing, I don’t think they aired the episodes completely in order. I remember seeing Goku train with King Kai in the Saiyan saga, most of the Cell saga, and just about all of the Majin Buu saga to the end of the series, but in bits and pieces. My friend had the end of the series on something like 15 VHS tapes, and I borrowed them to get some closure to it all.
I’m far from an expert on the series. I’ve seen less than half the episodes, by my estimation, but I can say with confidence:
Dragon Ball Z is a terrible manga and anime. And I love it.
I feel so stupid, so like a little kid when… well, let me start over.
My wife is a librarian. Her library is supported by a non-profit organization, The South Central Kansas Library System, which aids all of the libraries in the area with various things: Tech Support, inter-library loans, rotating book stock amongst libraries, budget counseling–quite a lot, actually. They’re a very helpful organization.
So there are three big shelves in my wife’s library that are dedicated to the rotating stock that SCKLS provides. Every, I dunno, three months, a SCKLS person comes in and puts new books up on those shelves, replacing what they put up a few months before.
Well, this time around, they gave her the first ten Dragon Ball Z manga volumes. So I got three of them and read them in like… two hours. It starts with Goku introducing Gohan to Muten Roshi and company, then Raditz shows up and all that.
It’s terrible, but I love it. When Goku comes back from the underworld to face Nappa and Vegeta, and Nappa is all like, “GRAAAA I KILL YOU!” Goku is like, “no.”
Nappa has just killed a bunch of dudes, he’s itching to keep killing, and Goku just sidesteps and checks on people.
Then Nappa tries to kill Gohan and Goku is like, “no.” And breaks Nappa’s back.
Interesting note: Goku’s power level, a completely ridiculous quantification of physical and spiritual chi power, is over 8000 in the comic, yet over 9000 in the TV series. That’s like… more than eight Raditzes!
But damn did I grin like an idiot when Goku waltzed in there and wiped the floor with Nappa.
And it’s so terrible. It’s basically a retelling of Christ. Goku dies, he’s resurrected, he becomes stronger than the evil around him. He’s not human. And his son is half-human half…god, really–so that makes it a Christ tale WITHIN a Christ tale. Goku is an unyielding force for good. He has the power to destroy or save the earth.
What sets it apart from other, more idiotic fare, is that Goku isn’t very smart. He has bad grammar, he’s relatively lazy about everything but martial arts, he has bad manners, he is generally ignorant of everything but his gut feelings… He powers through everything for the entire series, and when he fails, someone else does what he couldn’t. They power through something while he’s getting his ass kicked. Cell beats everyone up, so Gohan powers up and through Cell. Majin Buu starts to kick everyone’s collective ass, so Goku and Vegeta fuse together to become stronger and power through Majin Buu again.
There is no intelligence ever. Never do the heroes outsmart the villains. Never do they do something unconventional and unexpected. It’s the same formula.
1. Get ass kicked
2. Pull out all the stops
Occasionally, we get:
1. Get ass kicked
2. Pull out all the stops
3. Get ass kicked again
4. Use secret move that Toriyama just made up
6. Explain to audience what just happened.
That’s just bad storytelling. “Oh yeah, by the way, while you guys weren’t looking, I developed a secret technique just in case it would be useful against some inconceivable evil that cannot be beaten any other way. GLAD I THOUGHT OF THAT.”
And to make it worse, the secret techniques are almost always rendered useless by the next approaching villain. Only two things seem to stand the test of time: The Kamehameha, and the Spirit Bomb.
People, I haven’t even started in on the subtler things that make the series terrible.
Machismo. Holy testosterone! This story just drips with homoerotic bulging muscles and ideal male body images. I spent a long time as a kid fantasizing about having pecs with a lateral crease at the sternum. Hell, I would love muscles that are so defined that they can be represented by a single pencil line. The one redeeming feature of this subtext is that the final final bad guy, Kid Buu, is like, a scrawny wimp-like creature. Yet he contains so much power that he can destroy entire planets. He’s like two hundred nuclear bombs inside a pair of dangly fists. He’s superior to the other muscular men in the series, yet has no muscular definition. Kinda throws the male beauty standard out the window… in a way that I had to stretch to achieve, conceptually.
The other thing: Poor portrayal of women. The only women that seem to have any use is Videl and Android #18. Videl is a crime fighter. Android #18 is a chick who was forcibly turned into an Android and tries to kill people, then has a change of heart blah blah blah. Like, they are so useless and depend on men to save them. The only strong people capable of saving earth are men. Chi-Chi, Goku’s wife, used to be a martial artist but settles down to nag Goku and prevent Gohan from learning to fight. All she does is nag and scream, it seems.
So, yeah, the series appeals to my immature sense of masculinity, but I really would rather see a series that portrays men and women equally and at least has one or two major arcs that involve outsmarting an enemy instead of overpowering them.