My first experience with anime came several years before I even knew anime was a thing, a wholly different style of animation hailing from its own country with a unique cultural identity at its core. The show was, by chance, Dragon Ball Z, airing on some random block of late morning cartoon programming picked up by the rusty over-the-air antenna at my family’s lake house. This was before Dragon Ball Z had made its mark on Cartoon Network and become the blockbuster leading man of Toonami’s anime lineup — in fact, I suspect it was before Funimation had begun dubbing the show on its own.
I couldn’t have watched more than 10 minutes of the show. I didn’t know what was going on or who the characters were, but somehow it made a lasting impression–more than a decade later I can still remember that the episode took place on Namek, placing it somewhere in the Freeza saga. But that knowledge springs wholly from an image I have in my mind: I didn’t know what the hell a Namek was then, and certainly didn’t retain an ounce of exposition at 8 or 10 years old. I just remember the trees, the rocks, the sky: that blue-green color pallet that distinguishes Namek from Earth. And I’ve realized, lately, how absolutely incredible that is.
A couple months ago I began watching the anime adaptation of Dragon Ball. I’d watched plenty of it on Cartoon Network as a teenager, but was looking for something relaxing and entertaining with a Japanese flavor that would last me awhile. I needed some shonen, basically, and got it into my head to revisit Dragon Ball. Unlike Dragon Ball Z, I remembered it being a light-hearted adventure with no episode-long incidents of beefy dudes powering up. I’ve long seen Dragon Ball Z as cheesy, overwrought, poorly paced and generally a shining beacon of the worst form of cliche Japanese storytelling.
But what I’ve come to appreciate is how incredibly iconic, warm-hearted and influential Akira Toriyama’s creation truly is. Dragon Ball Kai, a condensed re-telling that closely follows the pace of Toriyama’s manga, cuts out most of the junk that made DBZ awful. It’s the original Dragon Ball, though, that highlights the magic of Toriyama’s art and storytelling. In Dragon Ball he crafted a world that mirrors the wide-eyed innocence of his protagonist, a version of Earth bursting with wonder. At times it reflects the rustic nature of rural Japan, but with dinosaurs and anthropomorphic animals commonplace. At times it veers off into wild science fiction with the inventive capsule technology and charmingly goofy vehicle designs. Most of all, it fosters a peerless sense of adventure; that the world is vast and never-ending, with a new pastiche of cultures waiting just beyond the next mountain range. On Dragon Ball’s Earth, everything imaginary is real and anything is possible.
Perhaps we’re not meant to think of Dragon Ball as if it’s envisioned through Goku’s innocent eyes — that kind of storytelling concept may have been beyond Toriyama’s intentions when he began a quirky adaptation of the Chinese fable Journey to the West. Panty jokes are everywhere, the villain is a jester, and all Bulma wants from the wish-granting Dragon Balls is a boyfriend. But Toriyama’s relentless creativity turned his young adventurer and the world he explores into two sides of the same coin. Goku resonates because of his innocence, his kind-hearted hope and determination and skill. But the world resonates as much for its art style as it does the wide swath of cultures and imaginary creations it invokes. Can any cartoonist of the past 30 years claim to have influenced an entire genre — an entire industry and generation of artists and readers — in the way Toriyama has? Some, perhaps. But few.
The theme of adventure so strongly reflected in the early fantasy-heavy portion of Dragon Ball takes seemingly clashing ideas and makes them work together effortlessly. The quest for the Dragon Balls spans the globe, so naturally the characters have to get around quickly. Bulma showcases the advanced science of Toriyama’s fiction, materializing high-speed jet planes or motorcycles out of capsules with a characteristic “Bomb!” But even with these devices commonplace, the world is vast and untamed, full of regions unreached by technology or outside influence. We’d expect science to have mapped out the whole of Earth, yet fantastic new locales constantly wow Dragon Ball’s characters.
Goku is the perfect mechanism for this sort of exploration, of course — he knows nothing of the world, so every new locale is filtered through Goku’s innocent acceptance. By the time the other characters express their incredulity, we’re already indoctrinated. Why wouldn’t he fly around on a magic cloud? No damn reason at all!
Penguin Village may be the best example of this — by charging headlong into a high-speed pursuit, Goku finds himself in Penguin Village, which takes the anthropomorphism to an extreme (even the sun has a face in Penguin village) and introduces a baby who can repair anything with telekinesis and a random girl who effortlessly beats up an opponent even Goku struggles to defeat. The characters and environment here are a touch more exaggerated and cartoony than usual. Similarly, the land of Korin has its own identity with the Native American touchstone of the totem pole greatly fantasized into Korin’s tower. Toriyama deftly wields this skill time and time again, creating character expressions and landscapes so iconic that we can recognize them years or decades later. Toriyama didn’t invent the large eyes that have defined anime for decades, but he did help solidify them as an indelible style- – you’re not likely to mistake Toriyama eyes, hair or eyebrows for the work of any other artist.
His art style holds more power in the fantasy adventures of Dragon Ball than it does in the more serious sci-fi heavy DBZ, but the power of his influence endures. For me, it was the trees of Namek. For Japanese pop culture, it was the blonde fury of the Super Saiyans and the themes of hope and redemption that rippled through the minds of prospective young artists and manifested in Dragon Ball Z heirs like Yu Yu Hakusho. Perhaps the animation industry would be better off without an endless string of anime and manga working from the Dragon Ball formula. Toriyama changed a generation of art, and it’s only fitting that his early work — the work that doesn’t get Dragon Ball Z’s level of attention — captures one of the most enchanting and cohesive worlds ever put to paper or cel.