This year is Dragon Ball Z’s thirtieth anniversary. Do you feel old yet? Well, that sentiment is a little unfair, seeing as it actually only started airing in Australia in the early 2000s. Yet, three whole decades is a huge amount of staying power. And it continues to be referenced everywhere – music videos, YouTube comedy, in rap lyrics, net-culture clothing, and amongst friends and peers. I’m a fairly new fan, and I have a hell of a long way to go. Which is why I’ve enlisted the help of two other Pelican contributors, Josh and Kyle, to help me get there in describing the massive cultural impact and longevity of this adored franchise.
The Dragon Ball Z series first aired on Japanese television from 1989 to 1996. But the story of Son Goku and the Dragon Balls didn’t start there. Dragon Ball Z was conceived as a continuation of the original Dragon Ball anime series that aired from 1986 to 1989. Combined, the series’ adapted all 519 chapters of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball manga, first published by Shueisha in 1984.
Dragon Ball Z marked several changes for the franchise. Goku was now an adult with a family – and he was a member of an alien race, the Saiyans. While it kept some of the light-hearted adventures that made the Dragon Ball series successful, Dragon Ball Z introduced darker themes and more violent fights. These accompanied more powerful (and sadistic) foes, like the Saiyan Prince Vegeta and Galactic Emperor Freiza – now two of the most iconic villains in all of modern-day popular culture.
Between 1989 and 1995, Dragon Ball Z was produced by Toei Animation and broadcast concurrently with the Dragon Ball manga. Consequently, the series’ production often overtook the manga and Toei Animation had to produce ‘filler’ stories for broadcast. Matters were not helped by Toriyama’s unusual style of writing, which was famously spontaneous and often vetoed by his editors. This is why it infamously takes about seven episodes for any interesting developments to happen. In 1996, Funimation Productions licensed Dragon Ball Z and have since been responsible for dubbing and distributing the series in English-speaking countries. In Australia, the dubbed series aired on Network Ten’s Cheez TV in the early 2000s.
The turn of the new millennium is when many Australian Millennials and Gen-Z’s have their fondest memories of Dragon Ball Z. DBZ was on everyone’s minds in the early noughties. It had just started airing on Cheez TV in Australia around 2000 and was introducing a new generation of school kids and teens to its big, brash characters in an early morning timeslot. Just how Ryan and Jade of Cheez fame managed to get a franchise with Z’s level of violence airing is somewhat baffling, but the stars aligned, apparently. We have them to thank for introducing a whole plethora of classics to 90’s and noughties kids – Beyblade, Digimon, One Piece, Pokémon, Sailor Moon, Yu Gi Oh and Zoids, to name a few of the most influential ones.
A ridiculously aesthetic pastel pink shot of Kame House.
I don’t have any strong memories of Z from this era, but my co-authors do. It seems that Dragon Ball Z was constructed in such a way that it was simply designed for kids to go out and play it in the playground, charging up, jumping around and shooting ‘Kamehamehas!’ to their heart’s content. This feeling of nostalgia is something highly evident upon re-watching. There’s a feeling of comfort, of coming home. There’s the classic soundtrack composed by Shunsuke Kikuchi (or Bruce Faulconer, depending on the version you’re watching). Sean Schemmel and Chris Sabat are the sounds of our childhood, voicing Goku and Vegeta respectively in the English language dub. It’s uncanny how much nostalgia power hearing their voice talents alone can produce. Characters, sometimes ridiculous, but with charisma to burn – something that a kid would get attached to straightaway. There’s pretty light effects and tropical palm trees – not seeming out of place in a lo-fi anime edit of today (in fact, I’d argue animation like Dragon Ball Z partially inspired this trend). The frames are a bit wonky here and there, there’s a slight judder between them – linework wobbles in the shot. Yet it’s all these small nuances that contribute to the series’ charm.
In discussing this piece, we realised the way that Dragon Ball Z operated was quite different to the way we consume media today. In the earlier days of serial television, prior to our current swathe of streaming giants, episodes would be appearing on a one-week cycle, and you’d have to wait – that’s right – the whole week for closure on that cliffhanger. I bet there’ll be a time in the future when that’ll sound totally absurd. Now, with Netflix, Stan and…whatever that other one is, everyone can binge their favourite series in the space of a night or two. Of course, this may be partially convenient, but any tension that’s ratcheted up at the end of one episode is pretty quickly removed. Dragon Ball Z sat somewhere between these two timescales: an episode on every morning of the five-day school week. Not only was the tension left hanging in the air by the voiceover announcing, ‘find out next time on Dragon Ball Z,’ but it suited the show’s format quite well. 20 minutes was enough to satisfy in one day, but across five days it also managed to conquer one of DBZ’s most infamous problems – taking at least three episodes for anything to happen.
The recoloured blue Mr. Popo.
Dragon Ball enjoyed a somewhat rose-tinted period of popularity for people growing up in this 2000s era. However, these days, in an era of outrage/cancel culture, it may not have flown so lightly. No doubt that Toriyama is an excellent character designer (as is also evidenced by his work in Dragon Quest) but some characters are little more than caricatures. Take Mr. Popo, who is basically an amalgam of every vaguely ethnic stereotype you could imagine: with ink-black skin and bright red lips, he also sports a turban atop his head, and a saucer-eyed stare. His appearance recalls the hugely racist American Minstrels depiction of African Americans, or ‘Gollywogs,’ representing Aboriginal Australians. His dialogues are seriously underdeveloped. One release of Dragon Ball Z in fact attempted to recolour him blue in post-production to very little to no effect. Popo figures into an ongoing recurrence of poor racial depiction in anime, which is not only a problem in animation but in broader Japanese society, one of the most ethnically homogenous in the world. Master Roshi is the pervy, inappropriate uncle that everyone has, but he’s been covered so many times that I won’t go into detail here.
Z sometimes tries to pull the wool over our eyes elsewhere. Bulma, the cyan-haired inventor, is a brilliant scientist who can solve any problem and build fantastic gadgets. And yet, this academic determination is juxtaposed against nervous breakdowns and a proneness to tantrums in nearly every second episode – her character ramping up the ‘hysterical woman’ stereotype to eleven. She is seen taking baths, painting nails, swooning over handsome male characters, frequently worried about her weight and appearance – ‘you can’t treat a lady like this, you’re ruining my outfit’ and ‘not to mention, I’m not wearing waterproof mascara’.
Chi Chi (Left) and Bulma (Right).
Similarly, Goku’s partner, Chi-Chi, is relegated to a highly domesticated role: reduced to constantly slaving in the kitchen and worrying about her son, Gohan. Hence, both of these characters are problematic, as they are both brilliant women, but they are not allowed to be brilliant without being tethered to traditional female roles. You could say, ‘well, it was 1989,’ but that’s also odd, because the 80’s was, quite famously, a decade of female empowerment. Arguably, this was partially solved throughout Z’s run with characters such as Android 18, however Toriyama has said characterising her like this was not a deliberate choice.
Dragon Ball Z has, itself, deliberated. It is still present everywhere you look – especially in the social media space – amongst net-culture clothing, and famously adored by the hip-hop community. Some people have suggested that this is because it parallels the story of black society in America, but make your own interpretation as you will. Either way, many have dropped references – Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino, Vince Staples, Soulja Boy and Jaden (formerly Jaden Smith), have all rapped about Dragon Ball. It’s part of an odd continuing fascination towards anime by hip-hop figures.
Of course, the cosplaying has also basically never stopped since its inception, and the recent blow-up of nerd-core and net culture clothing displays Z references proudly. This links into elsewhere in online, where everyone’s favourite e-boys and girls talk about Dragon Ball all the time, plus Youtube comedy skits still reference it to this day, such as in work by the hilarious King Vader. It’s still getting drawn by many fan artists, just search Instagram. Oh, and that unending proliferation of memes.
Something that did end was Z. The final episode of Dragon Ball Z originally aired on January 31st, 1996. With Toriyama moving on from the manga, it seemed that Dragon Ball Z was over. But the Dragon Ball franchise was as popular as ever and Toei Animation was quick to act on this. Dragon Ball GT debuted only a week later. A (non-canon) continuation of Dragon Ball Z, it ended in November of 1997. A string of direct-to-video films and video games would keep fans hoping for a return to Dragon Ball Z. There was even a live-action film adaptation of the series…but the less said about that, the better. Nearly two decades later, Dragon Ball Z returned to prominence with the theatrical film, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods in 2013. With Toriyama writing the story and screenplay, the film continues the story of Dragon Ball Z and introduces Beerus, the God of Destruction.
Toriyama would return to write the film’s sequel, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’, which released in 2015 and detailed the return of the villain Freiza. The successes of these films were a clear sign that Dragon Ball Z – and the Dragon Ball franchise – was not ready to die. A brand-new series, Dragon Ball Super, currently airs on ABC ME in Australia. Toriyama continues to write for the series. The latest film, Dragon Ball Super: Broly, inspired explosive reactions from moviegoers in cinemas; on par with those of spectators at wrestling matches. The film was a critical success and has become one of the highest-grossing anime films of all time.
That staying power and long-lasting love from its fans is the legacy of Dragon Ball Z and its related family of franchises. While it has not always been an ongoing success, it has held fast through the rocky periods and eventually come out on top. Dragon Ball Z is thirty years young and has aged pretty well – it may not be as relevant as ever, but it is certainly as fun as it’s ever been.
Words by Sam Worley, Joshua Wong and Kyle Pauletto