Matt Kamen on the history of Dragon Ball Z
Launched in 1984 in the pages of Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump, Akira Toriyama’s original Dragon Ball was a very different beast to the one western viewers would eventually meet. introduced the boisterous Son Goku, an adventurous and unusally strong boy with no social graces whatsoever. Raised in seclusion by his adoptive grandfather, he doesn’t even that know what girls are – making for some prime gag moments when he meets treasure hunter Bulma. Soon teaming up, the pair track down seven rare ‘Dragon Balls’ – powerful items that can summon the wish-granting dragon Shenron. These early stories were very loosely based on Chinese fables but Toriyama gave them a fresh twist, his distinctive art style and perfect balance of comedy and action making the series a hit.
After many escapades with young Goku, Toriyama jumped ahead five years in the story’s timeline, and though his manga kept its name throughout its ten year run, the anime adaptation was rebranded to Dragon Ball Z after 153 episodes (compare to the similar shift that gave us Naruto Shippuden). Shifting focus to epic and lengthy battles instead of treasure hunts and martial arts tournaments, this version shot the series to global success. If you grew up watching Cartoon Network in the late 1990s or early 2000s, chances are you came across the show frequently, albeit in its edited form.
The change in tone and setting allowed Toriyama to perform a soft reboot on his ongoing work, re-explaining Goku’s origin as being an alien orphan rocketed to Earth – a riff on his favourite western superhero, Superman. Unlike the last son of Krypton, Goku was revealed to be the child of a race of world conquerors called Saiyans, sent here to take over the planet. Thankfully, a head injury early in life wiped out that mental programming, and he instead grew to be the world’s greatest hero.
For those new to the series, the first season of Dragon Ball Z starts with a reintroduction of the existing cast, showing how they’ve changed in the five-year gap. It’s a brief reunion though, as it’s not long before they’re facing off against an invasion of Goku’s extra-terrestrial relatives. His long-lost brother Raditz appears first – and defeating him costs Goku his life. Even worse, Raditz is a mere herald for the terrifying Vegeta and Nappa who follow in his wake. However, despite introducing the new sci-fi elements, Toriyama’s universe remained one of wonder and imagination, one where death was barely an inconvenience and the gods can teach kung fu. The heroic sacrifice just provides opportunity for some spiritual super training, while those still alive must track down the Dragon Balls to wish their friend back to life.
Can the Earth survive the invasion? Find out in the complete first season of Dragon Ball Z, on UK DVD for the first time ever!