Gosh, the scramble for the Dragon Balls feels like an absurdist version of the war for the One Ring, now. Or maybe the Infinity Gems. Whatever analogous treasure hunt suits you.
It’s fun to guess at Toriyama’s thought process when he was plotting these early adventures, because it’s only barely hidden beneath the surface. You can just picture him getting to the middle of the Tournament Arc and thinking, “Well, hey… what if a real villain actually tried to collect the Dragon Balls?” It’s not that he intended Emperor Pilaf to be a mini-boss to prep Goku for this. He just looked back on the strip he’d already created, and he saw the question he didn’t even realized he’d raised.
Those are two points I want to harp on as I finally get around to experiencing the “Red Ribbon Army” saga for myself - - the danger level, and the amount of planning Toriyama actually did with this series.
Regarding the former, I find no shortage of amusement in how inappropriate this show continues to be. No wonder FUNimation had such a hard time importing this part. If we aren’t seeing Bulma’s panties, or Roshi sniffing his panties, then we’re seeing the Red Ribbon army firing actual guns at innocent monkeys, or outright murdering bystanders, or Goku absolutely kicking the shit out of these footsoldiers in retaliation.
Regarding the latter, for the longest time, my sense of this series on the whole was shaped by older fans acting like it was this grand epic where Toriyama planned to tell Goku’s entire coming-of-age, or gradually “matured” its tone to fit each year Goku aged. In actuality, the transition is a little more… spastic?
For one, every time Chi-Chi has shown up since her very introduction, it’s been harped on that she’ll eventually marry Goku, so Toriyama clearly had that idea from the start. So it’s more like he had a rough idea of what Goku would look like as an adult, then got impatient and just hit the time-skip button to get there quicker without having to detail the intervening years. Also, it’s not like the “mature” elements weren’t there from the beginning. It’s just that, by the time DBZ came around, Toriyama probably realized there was more money to be made if he actually took power-levels seriously the way the self-serious shonen shows did.