Is Dragon Ball Super Super Enough?

by Sam Leach,

It took about a year, but Dragon Ball Super finally has widespread accessibility for the North American public. The subtitled Japanese release was the first wave, proving just how much staying power that the Dragon Ball brand still has in the mainstream popular culture (evident by how quickly it cemented itself at the top of Crunchyroll's popularity list, for one example among many), but now that the series is premiering on Toonami with an English dub, it feels like the floodgates have opened for real.

We're all anime fans here and so we all have an investment in how the medium translates to a wider audience. Americans tend to prefer their entertainment to be home grown, and a niche market like Japanese animation is simply not on most people's radars. But similar to Pokémon, Americans know Dragon Ball, and both franchises have been experiencing renaissances as of late from the crowds who clamor for nostalgia. These properties are not just fond childhood memories among others, they're the standouts that still feel important on a fundamental level.

Dragon Ball Super is a fascinating show to look at from a cultural standpoint because lots of people are watching it, a significantly larger amount than most other anime, but there appears to be zero consensus on whether or not anyone actually likes it. It's the return of Dragon Ball! The author-approved continuation of the story and the return of all those characters that we love! But is it good? That depends heavily on who you ask and what their background with the series is. For a franchise as massively popular as Dragon Ball, very few people are on the same page as to what the series is truly about, and what an authentic Dragon Ball experience is supposed to be. I can't think of another fanbase this intensely fractured.

So what is Dragon Ball Super? In the spirit of what many think of as “true” Dragon Ball, it's a fun cartoon that doesn't take itself very seriously. It's also worth noting that its English dub exists in the modern era, where a company like Funimation isn't looking to change the soundtrack or go in a different tonal direction from the Japanese version. The days where a new Dragon Ball project might have something even resembling the old Bruce Falconer techno/rock score are long, long behind us. There are many people who are going to tune into Super and be disappointed, and there are also a significant number of people who are going to roll their eyes at that distaste, or even worse, derive some kind of holier-than-thou pleasure from it.

It's fairly common knowledge that the very original iteration of the Dragon Ball was much more comedic and adventurous, and that it eventually became more dramatic and story-focused as the characters got older and the anime rebranded as "Dragon Ball Z". However, by the end of the DBZ era, the Buu saga specifically, it felt like the manga's author Akira Toriyama was making a concerted effort to return to his sillier roots and find the balance in a dramatic story and a comedic one, what with all the fusion dancing and pink blob monsters and all. Super, on that topic, seems to take pride in the fact that it's kind of dorky and lame above everything else. There are occasionally serious arcs, but the accepted attitude I see among many of my peers is that “silly” Dragon Ball is honest, while "cool" Dragon Ball is not, and this conversation feels very present in Super's DNA.

I write this because I've spent the last few months trying to pinpoint how I feel about Super. My general opinion on it thus far is that it's just okay. I'm happy to enjoy the goofier aspects of it, and I like the dramatic arcs just fine (the Future Trunks arc was pretty entertaining), but it's nowhere close to capturing the original series and the stuff that it was best at. Super's goal is to capture the “fun” side of Dragon Ball, but it has mostly illuminated to me the original's strengths and how much we take them for granted.

The 42 volumes that make up the original Dragon Ball manga are great. Not "for what they are", but genuinely so. A myth that I'd really like to see dispelled is the idea that there was ever a sudden, significant change in tone or purpose over the course of its run. The two series that we know of as "Dragon Ball" and "Dragon Ball Z" represent the first 16 volumes and the latter 26 volumes of the manga respectively, and the franchise's staggered release in America has complicated this conversation since at first glance one looks more like a comedy and the other looks more like a melodramatic space opera, which in turn has devolved into a lot of side vs. side debating among the variety of fans. I'd personally say the most significant change in focus for the series actually began much earlier with the increased emphasis on martial arts, and then solidified once sensational character deaths and training arcs became important to the story. I think that the Piccolo arcs (end of the original Dragon Ball) and the Saiyan arc (beginning of DBZ) are almost identical, tone-wise.

As a fan of Shonen Jump, and an even bigger fan of individual Jump series like One Piece, Naruto, Bakuman and My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball is an irrefutable point of reference if we want to understand these series and the magazine's purpose as a whole. Shonen Jump is unique as both an artistic and commercial outlet, in that it puts emphasis on long-running stories that run week-to-week and are provided by singular artists/writers who remain responsible for their work until the day it ends. They don't cycle writers or artists like they do in American comics, and the number of cooks in the kitchen is much smaller than on say, a broadcast television show. It's up to these artists and their editors to figure out how to keep the story going in a way that is fun, exciting, and keeps the readers wanting more on as consistent a basis as possible. Bakuman is a great story that I would point to if you want something that sees the art in trying to make something popular, just to hammer home what there is to find fascinating about this process.

The name of the game from here becomes all about sensational hooks, juicy cliffhangers, and whatever means necessary to make the readers care and want to find out what happens next. All things that the original Dragon Ball excelled at, even early on when it was “just” an adventure comedy. We associate many of the tropes of the genre with cliché, but I don't think that does justice to the craft at hand. In my opinion, the thing that was always the most fun about Dragon Ball was rarely the comedy, but rather its approach to drama and its masterful skill at constantly escalating it.

When Dragon Ball was at its best, there were always stakes. The status quo was in constant fluctuation. The common joke is that since the Dragon Balls could bring characters back to life, death meant nothing. But the story itself was never that simple. The heroes were often in competition with the villains for the dragon's wish, or there was some other element at play to complicate things. This was true long before the Z era where those traits only strengthened. (The unrest in the plot between Goku's initial death all the way to the end of the Freeza fight is legendary) There were permanent changes as a result of the characters’ actions, both from heroes and villains. This was true very early in the series and never stopped being the case. The world of Dragon Ball and it's own internal rules were constantly evolving as every new challenge made the universe bigger and added another layer of complexity to the whole picture.

Akira Toriyama is the first person who will tell you that he was making the original story up as he went along, and would often change direction on the whims of the readers and his editors. While I do see evidence of this throughout the manga, I have a hard time believing that this is 100% true. Even Vegeta, a character he claims stuck around out of popularity, goes through a plethora of genuine character arcs that harmonize with and motivate the story's progression. His journey from villain to hero, the conflict between his pride as an individual and his pride as a Saiyan, among many other elements, feature a shocking amount of nuance and complexity. I don't think that Vegeta's death at the hands of Freeza, and his begrudged respect for Goku, could have ever hit as hard as it did if Toriyama didn't take the storytelling seriously.

We're in a revival era for Dragon Ball. I thought Battle of Gods managed to be both a very entertaining movie as well as a work that had something incredibly thoughtful to say about the nature of the series with its “there's always somebody stronger” final message. It felt like a celebration of what many might think of as one of the series’ more artificial elements designed to keep it going forever. I think time has proven there to be many strengths to the long-running storytelling model. Stuff like Naruto and One Piece are long so that it means something when they finally end and we part ways with the characters, while Dragon Ball is long so that it can always be moving and one-upping itself beyond what any other medium would ever allow.

With Battle of Gods giving such a loving send-up to this quality, I thought it was a fantastic way to introduce a new string of Dragon Ball stories. It made it clear that the series knew what it was, where it got its heart from, and that it took pride in it. It wanted to keep telling stories, to keep unraveling and demand that the audience ask for more. However, there's a stagnation that I'm feeling from everything that's come out since. Products like Resurrection F and Dragon Ball Super seem to have set a pretty unambitious ceiling for their stories, and I notice a lot of fans brushing that off with “Oh, you aren't supposed to take it seriously.” Yes, Dragon Ball is a commercial product, but assuming that familiar, predictable work is a necessary part of the genre ignores why it reached its lauded position in the first place, and why this series still has such a devoted fanbase to this day.

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