Watson Watches: Dragon Ball

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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 for Artemis to introduce myself – who at that point was totally new to anime – to some specific titles and then ask me some fun and interesting questions about them. It’s the same deal this time around but with one key difference: all the anime she’ll be getting me 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, I watched everything on my own first with zero prior research, and the following questions were given to me 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.

 

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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 mediaeval 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, judgement, 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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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 Artemis and I, or just general thoughts about the anime/this article? Sound off in the comments! As usual, anything aimed specifically at Artemis will be replied to by the lady herself.

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About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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1 Response to Watson Watches: Dragon Ball

  1. Pingback: Sunshine Blogger Award | Speculative OP

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