Watson Watches: Dragon Ball

dragon ball
Welcome to the fifth article of Watson Watches (the Retro Edition). If you’ve only just joined us and have no clue what’s going on, this is the follow-up to a series of interview-style articles published in 2014. The idea was to introduce Watson – who at that point was totally new to anime – to some specific titles and then ask him some fun and interesting questions about them. It’s the same deal this time around but with one key difference: all the anime I’ll be getting Watson to watch were released before 2000.

Just for shits and giggles, we’re also doing this in reverse-chronological order. Previously we tackled 1989’s Ranma ½ and this week we’re going further back in time with Dragon Ball, first released in anime form in 1986. As always, Watson watched everything on his own first with zero prior research, and the following questions were given to him afterwards.

As with our previous article, care to take a guess as to around what year Dragon Ball first aired? What makes you think that?

If I had to guess, I’d say the early 1980s sometime; the mid-80s at the latest. Admittedly, this isn’t based on a rigorous analysis – it’s more based on what I remember the cartoons I watched as a kid being like. The colours and art style are simple, character movement is fairly straightforward, and the sound has a quality that I can only describe as “basic”.

There are some aspects which break those general rules – the attention lavished to drawing and animating streams of urine, for example, stands out from everything else (and I really wish I was joking about that). But I’m going to put that down to Japanese animators having the resources, the expertise, or both to render it accurately. Exactly why they should desire to do so, of course, is a mystery which I have no particular urge to solve.

dragon ball goku peeing
The Dragon Ball manga is reported to be the third best-selling manga series of all time, and the anime was likewise incredibly popular. Why do you think this is?

Oh, I can think of a few reasons. Some of the main characters are… well, let’s call them “uncomplicated”. They are quite open about what they want and don’t have any patience for social niceties. I can understand that this is refreshing in its openness and directness. When behaviours that go against that ideal but that we nonetheless take for granted are called out, the characters doing so are also doing us a service by pointing out some of the absurdities of civilisation. They’re “just saying what we’re all thinking”, and from that point of view the show takes on a similar role to that of jesters in medieval courts. Someone has to be able to speak the truth and speak unpalatable truths. And while this is frequently, well, unpalatable, the need for it is nonetheless real. In this sense the popularity of the show reflects society’s deep understanding and acceptance of the role being taken on, and serves to underline the immense value of the service the show is providing to viewers. A noble cause, served nobly!

Or, on the other hand, it might be because of the toilet humour. To many people bodily functions are a mere commonplace, no more worthy of immortalising in video than drinking water would be. But to the creators of Dragon Ball they provided a rich vein of material, which would be tapped unceasingly to form the basis of an entire culture! Pee jokes, poop jokes, fart jokes… their comic inventiveness knew no beginning. Unrestrained by the boundaries of sense, judgment, or indeed good taste, they laboured mightily to create a show for the ages. The ages between about 4 and 8 years old, in point of fact, and I am forced to presume that this audience maintained a loyalty to the show which can only be described as staggering.

Oh no, wait, I think it might actually have been the crass sexual abuse! The show sets its desired tone in the first episode, along with low expectations which it still somehow manages to consistently fail to meet. The creators never met an innuendo they didn’t want to see more of. If they had stopped there it just might, might, have been quite a clever show with something for adults and kids alike. You can do a lot with good double entendre, if you know what I mean (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more)!

But they did not stop there. They had precisely one main female character in the show to be the recipient of every form of sexual harassment and misfortune that their over-active minds could conceive of. Bulma is plainly no stranger to this and seems willing to use it to her own ends at times, but this does not in any way make the situation better (or indeed tolerable). I only watched six episodes, and in that time I saw far more than I wanted to. The nadir was reached when a plan for drugging and raping a travelling companion was treated as an amusing character quirk for one of the “heroes” to display, and while it was not successfully implemented in the episodes I saw its very inclusion speaks volumes about how the creators viewed such matters. If the intended audience shared such views and wanted to see them portrayed on a regular basis, I can see how this might have gained it a large and dedicated following.

dragon ball bulma nudity
So there are three reasons it might have been popular. Sure, maybe some viewers liked the idea of a band of mismatched characters going on a journey through a fantastic land, having adventures and getting into scrapes with strange creatures and mysterious forces. But that just doesn’t seem at all plausible really, does it? Those poor deluded souls would have quickly realised the magnitude of their error.

The show is actually very loosely based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West (widely known as Monkey in English-speaking countries). The creator of Dragon Ball has also said that the fighting in his show was influenced by Jackie Chan movies. Does this come as a surprise to you, or do you think the show already made it pretty obvious?

This may surprise you, but my knowledge of 16th century Chinese novels is not actually as all-encompassing as it is sometimes supposed to be. And one of the two Jackie Chan movies I even dimly remember involved him beating up a hovercraft, so I’m hesitant to say that actually happened (and wasn’t a fevered dream resulting from too much absinthe or something).

That being said, now that you’ve brought the influences up I can see how they are incorporated. Monkeys and pigs have a long-standing role in Chinese stories, and the other Jackie Chan movie I remember did have him calling out the name of the move he was using to pummel his opponent mercilessly.

I think this is one of those things that is pretty obvious if you already know the cultural context it’s meant to inhabit. If like me you don’t then it wouldn’t naturally come to mind, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually surprising.

dragon ball martial arts
Though its anime successor, Dragon Ball Z, is a lot more about the action (complete with rippling muscles and highly drawn-out fight scenes), Dragon Ball is generally much heavier in the adventure and comedy departments. How do you feel about that?

Having not seen Dragon Ball Z I have absolutely no opinion on its new direction. It may either fit into or be responsible for one of the enduring stereotypes about anime (“fights” in which the combatants do nothing but scream at each other for half an hour), but I don’t suppose that has anything to do with how it relates to its predecessor.

In more general terms, I get sick of pure action shows fairly fast so I doubt it would appeal to me. Normally I’d be much keener on something that was heavy on the adventure and comedy elements, and regret their loss in later incarnations. But honestly, have you seen what passes for comedy in Dragon Ball? I don’t feel like I need that in my life.

You mentioned in our previous article that despite technically fitting into the martial arts genre, Ranma 1/2 seemed to use these themes more as exotic window-dressing than anything else. Do you feel the same way about Dragon Ball?

Oddly enough I don’t. At least a couple of the recurring characters have martial arts as major characteristics, and these talents end up being relevant to the plot fairly often. Admittedly this is mostly because Goku’s immediate response to problems is to beat them up, but there is at least a clear link between what the characters are meant to be like and how they approach the situations they end up in. I still wouldn’t say this was a specifically martial arts show, mind you – being charitable, I think it fits into the “fantastic adventure” category more than anything else – but there’s enough of a martial arts component for me to not think that description was obviously crazy.

Speaking of Ranma 1/2, there’s likewise a lot of casual nudity being bandied about in Dragon Ball. Did you have a similar reaction to that this time around?

You know, sometimes I get the feeling that this entire series of articles is actually some sort of perverse exercise in seeing how much abuse I can take. I can’t say I’m nostalgic for the days when careless use of anachronistic technology was the biggest thorn in my side, but it was at least a higher grade of irritation. Now we’ve descended to spending several minutes on a single fart joke, and planning to drug and rape someone is considered refined humour. I can only assume that this is punishment for sins which I don’t actually remember committing – but, given the suffering involved, they must have been some fairly crimson ones.

dragon ball goku nudity
Anyway, let’s get one thing straight right now: cartoon characters don’t do anything casually. Everything they do is because someone drew them doing it, which means in turn that everything they do is the result of several conscious acts of will. First the artist draws it, then someone looks it over and says “yep, that does what we want”, and then someone else edits it and prepares the show for screening. So if something shows up on the screen it is because that is what several people wanted to display.

The point is that there’s nothing casual about the nudity being bandied about in this misbegotten excuse for a half-assed show. I firmly believe that it is there for deliberate effect, and although the precise nature of that desired effect may change from time to time – is it scatological? Titillating? Both? – it is being included in order to provoke a reaction from the audience.

Someone out there is probably thinking it, so let’s get it out in the open now: “But Watson, different cultures have different attitudes towards these things! Nudity is viewed very differently in Japan, so this is actually a case of Dragon Ball adhering faithfully to reality!”

Bull. Shit.

Yes, nudity is viewed somewhat differently in Japan. But let me just point out that we’re talking about a show in which a 14-year-old boy with a monkey tail and incredible abilities is riding on a golden cloud in search of some mystical ornaments. One of his companions is a talking pig who wears a Chinese Communist outfit and can transform itself into literally anything, while their transport, accommodation and supplies are provided by tiny “hoi-poi” capsules which contain more or less whatever they might want. I don’t think sticking to reality was high on the creators’ list of priorities, y’know?

So no, I didn’t have the same reaction to the nudity this time around: I’m much more hosed off by it. There is even less “excuse” for it than there was in Ranma ½ (which at least pretends to be set in modern Japan), and it is even more obviously pandering to the lowest of common denominators. Grow the fuck up.

Do you have a favourite and least favourite character?

Nope.

I tried, I really did. I looked at all the characters that had appeared so far, and tried to summon even the merest shred of feeling. Surely, I thought, there must be one who aggravated me slightly less than the others!

But it turns out that actually I do not give a pluperfect shit about any of them. I dislike all of them more or less equally, which is rather surprising. But I am not inclined to carry on with the show to see if I made a mistake.

dragon ball goku car
So… safe to assume you won’t be watching more of this at any point then?

I can imagine no plausible reason for me to do so.

Question of the post: Got any other questions for Watson, or just general thoughts about the anime/this article? Sound off in the comments! As usual, anything aimed specifically at Watson will be replied to by the man himself.

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24 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Dragon Ball

  1. I’m dying because HE IS NOT WRONG. Even when I was in middle school and pretty heavy into DBZ, I really couldn’t stand that first season of DB. The later arcs level out a bit in terms of how gross they are versus the adventure/action content, but even that’s not something one would recommend to an adult viewer. Really timeframe based, this one.

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    • It’s been a really long time since I watched this show and I admit, I had actually forgotten how very skeevy it could sometimes be. But yes, I do recall enjoying some of the later story arcs – I much prefer DB over DBZ for its adventure elements, whereas the latter seemed all about grunting and flexing muscles a lot.

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      • I’ll always have a soft spot for DBZ purely because I like Vegeta so much, but DB at its best had a lost more flexibility and vitality than its sibling show’s “must drag time while waiting for the manga/constantly escalate until nothing means anything” (though some of the designs etc were neat).

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  2. Having only ever watched Dragonball Z (and being a huge fan of it) – I have considered watching Dragonball multiple times purely for the completion aspect of having watched it all.

    However the major draw for me in Dragonball Z is the action, with the worst parts (for me) being the small chunks of ‘humour’ and ‘comedy’ – which from all sources I have heard are the remnants of the old Dragonball.

    Which is probably why I haven’t watched it yet. My tolerance for low-brow ‘humour’ is much less than it was when I was a teenager. From the sounds of your article it is likely something I will never enjoy if it is so chock-full of that stuff right from the get-go.

    Maybe I’ll watch some of the fighting ‘highlights’ instead.

    As for your comment about Dragonball Z being ‘responsible for one of the enduring stereotypes about anime’ – you’re absolutely right about that. There was a notorious season (late Frieza Saga) in which there was a lot of power-up sequences and tense staring which I suspect may have to do with animation budget and possibly the show catching up to it’s source manga (thus stalling the show). It’s something Dragonball Z is now infamous for.

    Most modern action shounen shows (Naruto, One Piece, Bleach) were inspired by the likes of DB/DBZ – so if it’s not your thing then Dragonball Z is definitely not for you.

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    • I can’t speak for Watson but on a personal level, I liked DB far more than DBZ for almost exactly the same reasons – I don’t usually like just plain action (and even if I did, yes, many of the ‘action’ scenes in DBZ seem more about the tense staring and wind blowing, etc. than anything actually resembling action). Earlier DB material may have been more about the humour – and I certainly can’t argue that it’s low-brow – but I seem to remember a pretty strong adventure element being involved as well, which in my early 20s at least I could appreciate. No idea what I’d think if I tried to rewatch the show now, of course.

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      • Totally understandable. I know that I don’t enjoy watching DBZ as much as I used to.

        Dragon Ball Kai did a decent job culling a lot of the filler, however last year I read the manga and was shocked at how fast-paced the action was in comparison. It made me realise just how bloated the anime was to fill up as much time as possible.

        Have you seen Dragon Ball GT? The start of it was an attempt to make it more like Dragon Ball (in a galactic scope) – however it turned back to the DBZ style after the second season I think. I don’t have any strong feelings for it, but since I haven’t seen DB I don’t know whether it was a decent call back or not.

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    • I honestly think the amount of good action in Dragon Ball is rather understated. Style-wise, there’s much more variance amongst the fighters and it’s more reliant on actual fight choreography as opposed to the quick flailing and beam spam everyone and their mother in Z can do.

      The first arc regarding the collection of the dragon balls is more comedic than anything else, but it does start taking martial arts more seriously with the Goku’s first Budokai tournament onward and it’s good fun from there on.

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      • Agreed, at least in comparison to DBZ. It’s been a while since I’ve watched either show, but personally I preferred DB for its adventure elements and action that… well, actually did stuff. The martial arts was pretty much lacking completely in DBZ, to say nothing of ‘major’ fight scenes often taking weeks to get through.

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      • That is one of the draws I have to see Dragonball – there’s wasn’t so much rapid escalation of power, and it has much better choreography to it. I’m pretty keen to see that aspect of it.

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  3. I have no need to comment on DB, or DBZ, having watched neither nor likely to any time soon (including at least another 3 reincarnations if indeed I’m cursed to get them), but I do want to once again express what an absolute *delight* it is to read more of Mr Watson’s breathless prose. Thank you, good sir, thank you! Always a pleasure.

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  4. Nice to hear you’re returned to NZ safe and sound, Artemis! Don’t let the culture shock wear you down.
    I never really got into Dragonball myself simply because the fights were so drawn out over so many episodes (When will they end?!), but it was THE anime of my primary school peers. They religiously bought the manga, followed the series every weekend, and had intense discussions during school breaks on who the most powerful character was.
    It also helped that the Kamehameha move and spiky (Saiyan) hair were very iconic to remember.

    Watson and yourself may want to watch episode 119 of the Gintama comedy anime, which specifically spoofs Dragon Ball Z. What starts out as a character’s quest for a cigarette break turns into a DBZ parody featuring the tobacco-farming Hamekians, the Zuru-zuru/Slippery Balls, and (likely) unlicensed usage of the original DBZ theme music.

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    • Cheers! It’s been about a month and I think I’m finally getting the hang of everything again. Of course, now I’ve only got just over a month left in NZ before leaving again to try my hand at living in yet another different country, so…

      I honestly don’t recall the major fight scenes in DB lasting all that long, though it’s been ages since I watched any myself so I could be misremembering a bit. DBZ, on the other hand, had fight scenes lasting weeks, which I do distinctly remember. DB always seemed more adventure than action to me, which I guess is the main reason I liked watching every now and again if I caught it on TV.

      Thanks for the Gintama rec! I’ve never watched any of that show despite its rampant popularity, mostly because with a couple of exceptions, I’m allergic to anime that go over about 50 episodes. I happen to be totally okay with watching single episodes of stuff at random if it sounds fun enough though.

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  5. Pingback: Watson Watches: Rose of Versailles | OTAKU LOUNGE

  6. Pingback: Watson Watches: retro wrap-up party | OTAKU LOUNGE

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