Like many anime fans of my generation, I grew up watching Dragon Ball Z. At the time, I didn’t think of it as anime, or even as Japanese. It might have had a lot of funny names, but a lot of cartoons had characters with funny names. While I could vaguely sense that something about Dragon Ball Z was different from the other shows I was watching, I had a very limited conception of foreign cultures back then.
To date, I still haven’t watched Dragon Ball Z since my childhood. But my perception of the series has changed enormously as I’ve gotten older. Not only did I realize that Dragon Ball Z originated from Japan, I also realized that the series drew from a wide range of cultural influences, and that not all the things that struck me as “different” or “unique” about the series as a child were due to it being Japanese. The fighting styles and moves are loosely based off Chinese martial arts, and many characters have Chinese-sounding names or are named after Chinese foods and drinks.
Like Oolong and Yamcha, for instance
It’s only now, after reading the original Dragon Ball manga, that I can grasp what exactly is so brilliant about the Dragon Ball franchise. Akira Toriyama playfully mixed popular Japanese, Chinese, and American images to create a setting that genuinely feels unique. Looking back, I probably liked those endless fight scenes as a kid because they were so influenced by cheesy Chinese martial arts flicks in particular. People could shoot beams at each other through their chi and perform acrobatic feats no human being should be capable of. It was cartoon violence made “cool” instead of a vehicle for slapstick. Dragon Ball scratched an itch that I didn’t even know I had.
Now that Dragon Ball Super is finally streaming on Crunchyroll, it’s the perfect time to revisit the charms of this series. If the Dragon Ball franchise is really just a sequence of increasingly over-the-top battle scenes as so many detractors claim, why has its popularity been so enduring worldwide? If you ask me, it has a lot to do with all those playful Chinese influences and how they breathe life into the world of Dragon Ball. For now, let’s start where it all began—with Son Goku’s Journey to the West.
While most western anime fans would be more familiar with the storyline of Dragon Ball Z, the series began with a manga in 1984, telling the story of Goku as a child. The manga, known simply as Dragon Ball, started off as a very loose retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. There are a million and one adaptations of Journey to the West in popular Japanese culture, and so in order to stand out to Japanese audiences, Akira Toriyama had to reinterpret the classic in clever and original ways.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Journey to the West, it follows a monk named Xuanzang, who journeys to India to retrieve a set of Buddhist scriptures. On his journey, he is accompanied by three protectors who agree to help him in order to atone for their sins, as well as a white horse which is actually a dragon prince. (Please don’t ask too many questions.)
The most famous of Xuanzang’s protectors is the mischievous Monkey King known as Sun Wukong—or, in Japanese, Son Goku. The Monkey King is so important in the original that the entire first part of the novel is dedicated to his exploits, and he spends most of the story proper rescuing Xuanzang whenever he unwittingly falls into trouble.
Sun Wukong from the popular Chinese TV drama adaptation of Journey to the West (1986)
On a superficial level, Goku and the Monkey King are similar. Goku has a monkey tail, flies around on a magic cloud, and carries a staff that can extend its length. Also, they’re both insanely overpowered. Given that he possesses immortality and managed to survive being pinned under a mountain for 500 years, the Monkey King may actually be more overpowered than Goku, if that can be imagined.
Yet unlike his Journey to the West counterpart, Goku has a pure heart and is unambiguously the good guy for the entire story. This is an important distinction, because Dragon Ball is a simple story at heart about good versus evil. In fact, Goku eventually distances himself from his berserk monkey side by removing his tail. This was a necessary move, in my opinion, because for all of the Monkey King’s charisma, he’s not the kind of character you can root for wholeheartedly.
Although the plot of Dragon Ball itself has barely anything in common with Journey to the West, some similarities exist when it comes to the overall structure and themes. Journey to the West is a long, rambling story which functions as both a comic adventure and an allegory about journeying toward enlightenment. Dragon Ball is also a story about attaining enlightenment—albeit in the form of Goku’s eventual quest to become the strongest fighter under the heavens. The series constantly introduces more powerful fighters while bringing back old foes to reinforce just how much progress Goku has made. When Goku finally becomes the strongest man on earth, the alien invasion in the Z series is a logical next step in the journey. As strong as Goku is, there is always a mightier foe waiting. It’s that classic story of an epic journey toward enlightenment, but with a battle shonen twist.
In other ways, Dragon Ball plays the Journey to the West allusions for kicks and giggles. For example, Oolong is introduced as a shape-shifting pig who abducts pretty girls, which is identical to Zhu Bajie (AKA “Pigsy”). Goku even draws out Oolong by dressing up as a girl, mirroring the original tale. The twist is that Oolong is a total weakling, and all the girls he kidnapped are living lives of luxury at his expense.
The character of Bulma is also a tongue-in-cheek parody of the monk Xuanzang. Xuanzang is good-natured to a fault, and initially set out on his journey in order to spread the word of Buddhism. Meanwhile, Bulma is a lustful girl who sets out on her journey to find the Dragon Balls because she wants a hot boyfriend. There’s an extra layer of humor to the jokes in Dragon Ball once you realize that it’s all a big spoof of a classic story.
Also, Yamcha is just as useless as Sha Wujing. It all fits!
There’s a lot more to say about the Chinese influences in Dragon Ball—I haven’t even gotten started on the martial arts and clothing choices—but suffice it to say that when you add a healthy dose of Kung Fu magic to this mix, you end up with a goofy world where anything can happen. Given more time, I’d love to write more about these aspects of Dragon Ball, and also delve into Dragon Ball Super. That’s a column for another week, perhaps.
Before I finish this week’s edition of Found in Translation, I will say this. The purpose behind all these Chinese references isn’t to locate the story specifically in China but rather to create a distinct aesthetic for Dragon Ball. According to Toriyama’s notes for volume 1 of the manga: “The setting of Dragon Ball has a sort of Chinese feel to it, but it’s not necessarily China. Exactly where it takes place is uncertain.” There are dinosaurs, androids, and talking animals in the world of Dragon Ball too; it’s not just the Chinese stuff that makes this series stand out amongst the crowd. Even if the specific cultural references go over your head, it stands out as unique.
No wonder this series became a worldwide hit! Personally, I loved it as a kid, and I still like it now. What about you?