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The Real Secret of DRAGON BALL's Success?

It's been in front of your face this whole time...

Where do you turn to when you’ve finally caught up with your current shows? Well, if you’re like me (and why aren’t you?), you know that DRAGON BALL’s an inexhaustible well of entertainment - - one you can just keep coming back to. As it happened, when I resumed my effort to write-up DBZ’s first big arc, I discovered that Hulu’s actually started streaming episodes from its predecessor... and that was all the motivation for this little ‘impulse buy.’

I did a proper review of the first DRAGON BALL manga volume a while back, so this is actually one of the rare cases where I’ve gotten to read an anime’s source material fist. The plot is the same, for the most part, but they’ve apparently done a bit of a shell game with the chronology and interspersed a few choice scenes with villains from latter volumes into this intro. Again, the whole experience is vastly more amusing with FUNimation’s dub. You can tell the translation team and voice actors were just having a whole cracker barrel of fun with all the creative license they were free to take.

This whole franchise amuses me down to the atomic level, pretty much. I think I’ve made that point enough times already. I’m sure you’ve all got it, by now, so I'll take a more serious track...

I think I have a little more clarity about this show’s more… peculiar qualities now and how they’ve actually contributed to its success. Obviously, the biggest trick from the beginning was that DRAGON BALL took the “have your cake and eat it, too” approach to wish fulfillment. It offered power fantasies, taken to their utmost extreme, and got away with it because it was doing so with a wink.

There are so many rules in adventure fiction and drama in general, you know? Your hero can't be invincible, right? Even if you really want him to be on that most primal level, right? Well, there's something thrilling to seeing a show just flagrantly break that rule of dramatic propriety

What about the other trick, though?

Just like when I reviewed the manga, I was initially struck by how delightfully inappropriate this toon is as children’s entertainment. Within 20 short minutes, we’ve got panty shots, children getting fired at, plenty of innuendos about Goku angling to hook up with Bulma, and then a nasty, violent solution to a particularly nasty dinosaur. All the great stuff that wouldn’t get past any parent’s group, of course.

While before I just kind-of raised my eyebrow, perversely appreciating how none of this would fly on TV today, I now see that this naughtiness probably wasn't any more 'appropriate' then, either. Most likely, that's exactly what made this such a hit with boys in the first place. Believe me, the surest way to kill a kid’s interest in anything is for it to be something his parents approve of. Give him something he’ll get in trouble at school over, though, and he'll be hooked for life.

MAN OF STEEL's being doing boffo business this week, and I'd say that's largely because the flick put the character back in touch with his dangerous pulp roots. Don't forget, superhero comics were considered ten times more 'dangerous' than video games in the era Superman debuted. Think about all the concerned conversations you might have had with your folks about these 'awful Japanese cartoons you've been watching.' Such lectures are all part of this same puzzle.

Considering how consistently Supes and Goku have been likened, I think it's clear now to see that both characters' overwhelming, multi-media success stories were result of this specific dichotomy. Or do you think it's something completely different? Go on and offer your own theories in the talk back below.

Watch this episode, “Secret of the Dragon Ball" here and decide for yourself.

About the Author

Tom Pinchuk’s a writer and personality with a large number of comics, videos and features like this to his credit. Visit his website - - tompinchuk.com - - and follow his Twitter: @tompinchuk
Hashbrownson June 22, 2013 at 12:29 a.m.

The sexual innuendo and uncomfortably explicit sexualization of very young characters in Dragonball and DBZ was virtually scrubbed from the FUNimation versions that ran on FOX and later Cartoon Network's Toonami, and yet the show was a juggernaut of popularity with boys.

I think the real appeal to DBZ is its portrayal of fundamental masculine virtues. Work hard to better yourself, protect others by fighting evil, and always do so with honor and respect, even toward your enemies. It pushes very primal buttons, and it resonates for those reasons, not the cans of beer seen in a few episodes, and not the creepy panty-shots of a presumably adolescent Bulma.

And for girls, Sailor Moon exemplified feminine virtues, the strength and supportive nature of relationships as just one example.

Superman is a role-model in a very similar way, showing strength and power tempered by strong moral convictions that he places above himself. In an ever-more effeminate society, that kind of role model is incredibly rare and likewise potent to audiences.

Tom, I've been missing my Vice Pit fix this week! You and Sam make a great hosting duo.

zaldaron June 24, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.

I agree with the above comment...the parents disapproval has caused me more heartache than gee I want to watch this. I mean if I was 12 maybe...but I wasn't when I got into anime. I wouldn't say our society is getting more effimenate but we are placing more emphasis on a murky (and thus more realistic) world view than a black and white you are evil so I kill you viewpoint. Superman (like starwars) was always very black and white so I think love of that aspect is coming back around again. Though I have to say that bulma panti shot...UMMMM!

And if you believe that have I told you about my sale on the London bridge?

takashichea moderator on June 25, 2013 at 2:43 p.m.

Dragon Ball is a simple series that has that charm to it. Besides nostalgia, Dragon Ball just captivates its audience with a fun story and adventure with Goku and Bulma hunting for Dragon Balls. The sense of exploration and the delightful music just reels in children and pretty much everyone. It's hard to explain for me.

No_name_here staff on June 28, 2013 at 12:45 a.m.

@Hashbrowns said:

The sexual innuendo and uncomfortably explicit sexualization of very young characters in Dragonball and DBZ was virtually scrubbed from the FUNimation versions that ran on FOX and later Cartoon Network's Toonami, and yet the show was a juggernaut of popularity with boys.

I think the real appeal to DBZ is its portrayal of fundamental masculine virtues. Work hard to better yourself, protect others by fighting evil, and always do so with honor and respect, even toward your enemies. It pushes very primal buttons, and it resonates for those reasons, not the cans of beer seen in a few episodes, and not the creepy panty-shots of a presumably adolescent Bulma.

And for girls, Sailor Moon exemplified feminine virtues, the strength and supportive nature of relationships as just one example.

Superman is a role-model in a very similar way, showing strength and power tempered by strong moral convictions that he places above himself. In an ever-more effeminate society, that kind of role model is incredibly rare and likewise potent to audiences.

Tom, I've been missing my Vice Pit fix this week! You and Sam make a great hosting duo.

All great points. I think that's all absolutely right on the base, but I do think it's the other "naughty" qualities (not necessarily the cheeky humor, but the hyper-masculine violence) which parents wouldn't approve of is what kicked it over the cliff in terms of mega-popularity.

And thanks for the king words about the Pit! I hope you dig Sam's triumphant return this week.

Dig Deeper into Dragon Ball

Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball franchise is about the adventures of Goku and his friends from his early childhood to his death and beyond. It begins with a young Saiyan boy named Goku after falling of a cliff and losing his memory, and leads on to an adventure of a lifetime!

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