How the West Was Won
When Akira Toriyama set out to write the now-legendary Dragon Ball manga series for the Weekly Shonen Jump anthology, he envisioned a story that mixed the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West, about a great pilgrimage to obtain sacred texts from India, with a little two-chapter manga tale he wrote called Dragon Boy, all while working on his award-winning Dr. Slump series.
You may not have heard of Dragon Boy, but it’s the prototype, down to a little boy and friends going on a journey to a mythical land, of the Dragon Ball series you would come to know and love. The first Dragon Ball saga, “Emperor Pilaf Saga,” pretty much re-uses and re-establishes the story and characters of Dragon Boy, only this time, it’s all about the mythical, wish-granting Dragon Balls.
And Dr. Slump, among many other things (it’s a great anime series in its own right), gave us the perverted inventor, his little robot girl (who would later appear in Dragon Ball), and the toilet humor that has made my rewatch of the series, now as a grown man, a bit shocking. Because there is something pretty disturbing about Master Roshi’s advances on the teenage Bulma, who must trade flashes of her panties in exchange for favors a bit too many times in the anime, the various scenes of little Goku peeing on things, and Goku’s obsession with female parts — like a very overzealous kindergartener. Not to mention the scene where shape-shifting pig Oolong attempts to turn into Bulma’s underwear…
But unlike the previous two works, Toriyama took a bit more of an action-oriented approach with Dragon Ball, paying homage to classic martial arts films, while also keeping the humor he was largely known for. What began as a light adventure manga in 1984, soon spearheaded the Golden Age of Weekly Shonen Jump, whose circulation reached a high of 65.3 million copies in 1995, thanks to, among other series, Dragon Ball.
From 1984-1995, Toriyama wrote and drew 519 chapters of Dragon Ball, which were collected in 42 volumes. Those 11 years of manga brilliance influenced two of the greatest anime shows to come to the U.S. The very first Dragon Ball episode, produced by Toei Animation, premiered in Japan in 1986 and arrived in the U.S. in 1995.
Previously on Dragon Ball…
Okay, here’s a very brief summary of “The Emperor Pilaf Saga,” Dragon Ball‘s first arc of episodes. Made up of 13 episodes, we follow a little boy with a tail named Goku, as he’s thrust into a quest to find the legendary Dragon Balls. After meeting a fiesty teenager named Bulma, who wants to collect the balls and wish for the perfect boyfriend, the two set off on the journey, running into monsters, talking animals, a pervy martial arts master, a giant, a shape-shifting pig named Oolong, a shy bandit named Yamcha, and two dim-witted henchmen along the way.
While the duo make their way to each Dragon Ball, using a special radar designed by Bulma, the evil Emperor Pilaf is also on the trail for the artifacts. The little blue tyrant plans to wish for supreme power over the world. Of course, his two minions, Shu and Mai, make a mess of things on their mission to retrieve the balls. Pilar tortures them on several occasions. Eventually, Goku and friends (Bulma, Oolong, Yamcha, and a talking cat named Puar) make their way to the Emperor’s Palace, since he holds the final Dragon Ball.
Pilaf springs a trap and steals the other six Dragon Balls from the heroes. The Emperor summons a mythical dragon named Shenron, who will grant him one wish. Luckily, Oolong is able to stop Pilaf in time, wishing for the softest pair of underwear in the world.
After Pilaf is defeated, the story takes a bit of a left turn and we finally learn why Goku has a tail. Unbeknownst to Goku, every time it’s a full moon out, he is transformed into the Great Ape (the reason he has a tail), King Kong-like monster that destroys everything in its path. Goku’s friends must stop the Ape before it tramples them. Eventually, they chop its tail off, turning Goku back into a little boy.
Our heroes then walk off into the sunset, bound by friendship and in search of their next adventure.
Journey to the East
The setup for Goku’s very first adventure is quite literally cut from a mold of epic quests to strange lands to recover mythical artifacts that promise to make the characters’ lives better. It’s one of the oldest stories in the book. I wouldn’t be surprised if Toriyama, like George Lucas, read a little Joseph Campbell while developing his saga.
Goku is the farm boy in this story, an abnormal kid with a tail, who can perform wild feats of gravity-defying kong fu. He lives in a forest full of strange creatures, including giant birds and talking turtles, away from civilization. Goku’s never even seen a girl before he runs into blue-haired Bulma, which is actually what sets the quest in motion. A chance meeting sends the pair across the world for the legendary Dragon Balls. Why? Well, when all seven balls are combined, they summon Shenron who will grant you one wish. Pretty standard fairy tale stuff.
That’s where the setting and philosophies of Dragon Ball step in to make Dragon Ball so uniquely its own. Goku, Bulma, and friends live in a world that’s hyper-advanced scientifically (cars and houses come in little pill-sized capsules), but also in an equilibrium with nature and magic.
While there are robots, time travel, aliens (later), and spaceships (way later) in Dragon Ball, all of these sci-fi elements exist in a very natural world. Shenron is an ancient, mystical force of nature, and so is the Flying Nimbus, a little cloud that carries Goku around in the sky. And I haven’t even mentioned the Kamehameha, an attack that Goku performs by channeling his own natural energy. Toriyama really sought to embed Eastern philosophies as well as Chinese sceneray and traditions in Dragon Ball. The hut where Goku lives, Oolong’s Maoist uniform, the food they eat, Pilaf’s palace, the Emperor’s minions (Shu and Mai), the advanced, sphere-shaped technology that Bulma keeps in her pack, it’s all meant to resemble something uniquely Eastern. Toriyama even used pictures of China to design much of the world around the characters. And it absolutely works.
Bulma Needs a Boyfriend
If you were to completely deconstruct the plot of the first saga, it would all really come down to “Bulma needs a boyfriend.” That’s not to say she’s not a badass chick who can get what she wants with her fists, but the teenage-girl sensibilities are still all there. Bulma is actually quite the walking paradox. Whether it’s of Toriyama’s own design or not is anyone’s guess, but I do wonder how conflicting the messages built into Bulma’s character were to young girls watching the show.
Bulma is an independent woman who goes on a lone quest (at first) to obtain her end goal, and she’s not afraid to use her fists or gun when in danger. She’s also beautiful, attractive to all of the adult male characters, able to use her looks (panties) to her benefit, and dressed in the typical revealing anime outfits afforded to female anime characters. At one point, the story even forced into a “sexy” bunny suit. And, like I said above, it’s not unusual for the male characters around her to ask her for sexual favors along the quest.
Depending on which character she’s dealing with, Bulma is tough as nails or an object of sexual desire, and able to switch it on and off at will. Is it her playing all the boys or is she slave to a boys game? Bulma (at least) speaks out against the pervs on several occasions, but also blushes at the attention from guys like Yamcha and wraps the characters around her finger. You have to wonder about her goal to acquire the perfect boyfriend (that’s her wish for Shenron). Is it so she won’t be lonely and have a man to protect her from all the other men or so that she can push the guy around with her temper and good looks? On top of everything else, this exotic-haired teenager is very complex.
“Emperor Pilaf Saga,” in my opinion, is much more about Bulma fighting these two opposing images of her character than Goku’s quest. The little boy, as he’s presented to us throughout the saga, is Bulma’s tool for success.
Goku’s Quest for Purpose
Like the famous farm boy of yonder galaxy, Goku is much more a hero of circumstance, an accidental savior, who feels his way through a new world he doesn’t understand. Of course, we’ll learn that Goku is not even human by the end of the saga (even if it’s not stated until later in the series), but at first glance, he is just a boy (with a tail) living in the far reaches of the world.
From the start, you get the impression that Goku is a well-kept secret. The cabin in the middle of the woods, his disconnect with other people (especially female), his training with the disappeared Grandpa Gohan, and his Dragon Ball — all signs that he’s been raised to be someone special.
His superhuman abilities come along with his pure heart, which has not been tainted by the world outside his forest. His purity, of course, gets him into a lot of trouble and introduces much of the toilet humor in the series. Goku can’t tell boys and girls apart unless he smacks their private parts with his palm. And when he finally sees what Bulma is working with under her underwear in a scene that is bound to make anyone uncomfortable, he responds by running for his life. Ultimately, though, these sorts of scenes pass for humorous because Goku’s motive is of discovery, not perversion.
But Toriyama wisely counters Goku’s innocence with his secret identity. Let’s quickly consider Goku’s tail. Although punches can hurt this stronger-than-average boy, his main weakness is his little furry tail, which if pulled can quickly disable him. But it’s also the source of his secret power: the Great Ape that he is transformed into during the full moon. It is suggested that his Ape form is what killed his grandpa. Like an evil Mr. Hyde, the Great Ape is the other side of the coin. The absolute wild animal that, while ultimately also innocent beyond its basic instincts, could destroy the world. (In fact, we’ll later learn that was Goku’s original mission when he was sent to Earth.)
Goku spends a lot of his time unknowingly trying to discover his purpose in the larger world. It’s fitting that such great power is hidden in this clueless boy. By the end of the season, after he’s turned into the Great Ape and back, we don’t know much more about him, except that he might turn out to be the planet’s greatest protector or its imminent doom.