The Mike Toole Show

by Mike Toole,

Last week I strolled the streets of Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, taking in the hipster ambiance-- the charmingly refitted former factories, the flea markets, the dive bars, and of course, the anime convention. But the event I was at, Waku Waku NYC, wasn't a mere anime con-- along with screenings, panels (I was on hand to present Anime that Time Forgot), cosplay, and a small dealer's expo, this event also had NHK dragging in Domo-kun and live demos from their Cooking with the Chef TV series, a meet-and-greet with Sho-Pro's new super robot Shinkansen mascot character Shinkalion, and a merry, noisy riot of Japanese food vendors in the expo's outdoor pavilion. It was really something different and a pretty cool experience, but let's face it, I was still there to meet the people who make anime.

This particular show's anime creator guests included Mr. Takao Koyama, a screenwriter who'd built his career writing scripts at Tatsunoko for much of the Time Bokan franchise, before moving on to Toei, ultimately scripting all thirteen of the original Dragonball Z movies. During his most productive period as an anime writer, Mr Koyama also co-founded an anime writing school-- a company that would eventually be dubbed the Brother Noppo Company. One of the school's graduates was also on hand to talk about writing for anime: Mr Makoto Koyama, Takao's son! You often hear about children following their parents into the family business, but how often is the family business Dragon Ball Z?!

I didn't get to see the Koyama clan during their panel talks, but I did see them briefly at the con's VIP reception, and overhear them talking about the new TV series that Makoto is working on, Dragon Ball Super. On this side of the planet, we're still waiting impatiently for a TV or streaming deal to happen with this new installment of Dragon Ball, which, based on the screenshots floating around social media, is more of a goofy comedy than the original hit show's grand festival of power-up sequences. But how did we get from Dragon Ball Z, which wrapped up in 1996, to Dragon Ball Super? The answer is movies.

About four weeks back, I headed to the theater to see Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F, the latest theatrical chapter in the saga of Goku, Vegeta, Krillin, and of course, Beerus. (I was there mostly for Beerus; I'll talk about that in a sec.) I'd planned to see the last screening of the one-week engagement, because I knew it'd be the least crowded. I didn't buy an advance ticket, because I had an old pass burning a hole in my wallet. At the gigantic suburban theater, on a Tuesday night, an hour before the screening, I was turned away. Resurrection F was sold out.

I wasn't upset by any means (though it did help that the box office clerk pointed out that they'd added some more screenings for the coming week). Anime selling out at the theater is a great problem to have, and it turns out that Resurrection F had that problem in spades, crushing the daily revenue-per-screening average on several days and raking in a tidy 8 million bucks in the process. It also cleaned up in Japan, making the new TV series something of a foregone conclusion. I returned the following week for the newly-rescheduled last screening of the tour, and I got in-- this time, it was only about 80% full. There, in the dark, the raucous crowd (always watch Dragon Ball Z movies with a raucous crowd!) laughed at the jokes, booed the villainous Frieza, and whooped it up as the characters' high-speed martial arts battles intensified. Watching my seatmates' reaction to Frieza was interesting-- while he was probably Dragon Ball Z's single most memorable villain (I guess Ginyu Force don't count, because there's too many of them), in the end he still struck me as the same preening megalomaniac he was in the TV series. For me, the best parts of the film took a left turn away from the fighting to focus on jokes. Doing this often involved either Jaco, a charming new character Toriyama created for a short manga a couple of years back, or Beerus.

Toei's staff, along with the creator Akira Toriyama, introduced Beerus as a new villain in the previous theatrical film, Battle of Gods. He kind of looks like a humanoid hairless Sphynx cat, and he has the power to destroy entire worlds-- a power that Goku and Vegeta struggle to match in Battle of Gods. But it turns out that Beerus's impressive fighting prowess can still be short-circuited: a frontal attack will only annoy him, but bicker with him, tell him jokes and stories, and keep the comfort food coming, and he'll simply never get around to destroying your world. Luckily for the Z fighters, it just happens to be Bulma's birthday, so food and hijinks are in good supply. This angle, the balance of fighting and comical distraction, helped transform Battle of Gods from a cookie-cutter fighter to a zany family comedy. That balance, that dual aspect of Dragon Ball Z has always fascinated me: that Toriyama, a master of comedy, built his biggest hit around straight-faced cosmic martial arts battles. He's better at comedy.

Toriyama and Toei were wise to keep Beerus around for future installments. Along with his lackey/sparring partner/guardian Whis, he's an amusing reflection of the creator's changing tastes as he's aged. Remember, Toriyama started Dragon Ball off by introducing a cast of characters named after snacks and underpants; now he names them after beer and whiskey. Once Resurrection F gets down to the business of fighting, however, Beerus and Whis are reduced to sitting on the sidelines and cracking wise (since Beerus has been retconned into the series, Frieza recognizes him). I'll give the movie some credit-- it gamely tries to keep the light tone up by introducing the space patrolman Jaco. Weirdly, he takes part in the combat-- in Toriyama's comics, he's capable, but lazy, cowardly, and foolhardy, so it's a bit peculiar seeing him bust out the fighting moves. There's also a welcome return of the original story's original bad guys (Shu, Mai, and Pilaf, who also showed up in Battle of Gods), and the movie's story does try to address the “why didn't you idiots resurrect Frieza decades ago?!” question. But eventually, Goku powers up, then Frieza powers up and turns gold. Despite that spectacle and some pretty primo fight animation, it's simply never as compelling as the sight of Beerus, his face covered in whipped cream, arguing indignantly with Bulma about ice cream.

Despite Resurrection F's story sagging a bit, seeing the film at the theater was still a good experience. To me, Dragon Ball Z's return makes a lot of sense. Both inside and outside Japan, many people who watched the TV series in the 80s and 90s have grown up and are starting families of their own, so I dig the idea of the original creator getting involved and trying to reshape the series into a family comedy. I may have given up on the manga and TV anime when I realized that Yajirobe wasn't going to be a regular anymore (note: Yajirobe is a fat, unsociable man with a katana. Kind of like the guy at the anime con who sells prop swords!), but I hope these new movies are an annual affair. I'm hoping that, in the next film, we get to examine Goku's gradual transformation from cosmic defender to wacky grandpa. And what I've seen about Dragon Ball Super, sketchy animation aside, gives me hope for the future. I am, of course, referring to this sequence:

I'm told that Super also involves frequent appearances by Beerus and Whis, Goku being a dumb dad, and Vegeta, prince of the Saiyans, struggling to cook dinner. That sounds like my kind of show! And with the younger Koyama scripting, it truly makes Dragon Ball Z a family affair. Here's hoping it pops up in North America soon.

I haven't just had Toriyama on the brain because of this new Dragon Ball animation, either. I've also been rereading his Dr. Slump manga, because a) it's back in print, so I was able to track down the last few loose volumes (unlike SOME manga that I can't quite find the out-of-print books for that I won't name, like Eden: It's an Endless World), b) I like his story of a grubby, irresponsible inventor and his mischievous robot “daughter,” Arale, and c) it is the best comic ever made. No, not best Japanese comic, the best comic period. Yes, I contend that Dr. Slump is better than Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, better than Watchmen and V for Vendetta, better than Persepolis and Fun Home, better than Corto Maltese and Tintin and Smile and Maus. It's better than Berserk, better than Pluto, better than Paradise Kiss and Black Jack and even Naruto. Maybe its message isn't as important. Maybe it's not as daring with the graphic art or narrative form. But decades after its debut, it's still incredibly fun to read. The very first book, featuring comics published in 1980, still has laugh-out-loud sequences like this:

Best of all, you can really see Toriyama's progression as an artist and writer through reading Dr. Slump. When he started the series, he was a gag comic artist struggling to establish himself, so the stories are short. His flair for character art was always strong, but the early chapters are also very simple, often omitting background details except where absolutely necessary. As the series grew in popularity, so grew Toriyama's confidence-- stories get longer and more complex, new characters are introduced (a Superman parody here, a talking pile of poop there), jokes get weirder and more clever, and the art improves. In later volumes, Toriyama comes across as a confident funnyman with staff artists to help him churn out complex, great-looking panels. It's worth remembering that when Akira Toriyama started Dragon Ball, he was already one of the top manga artists, and it was because of Dr. Slump.

So here's my final thought: if Toriyama can work Space Patrolman Jaco into the Dragon Ball universe, why not bring back Dr. Slump? After all, Arale showed up to help fight the bad guys in Dragon Ball, so there's precedent. The aforementioned original Dragon Ball Z TV writer, Takao Koyama, even scripted a Dr. Slump manga redux in the mid-1990s, aptly titled Dr. Slump Returns! But Only for a Little While. Some fans may love Dragon Ball Z for its gritty fights, but if you ask me, a Toriyama series is never too gritty or serious to include a talking pile of poop.

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